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The return of our sporting heroes and leaders

When John Terry strode forward to take that penalty in last season’s dramatic Champion’s League final, he wasn’t just staring at two uprights and a crossbar. He was staring at greatness. I remember the thudding of a million heartbeats in the hushed silence. We were in the throes of uncertainty. Would Chelsea be the victors? Or was it Man United that would claim the glory? As he ran to take the shot, he knew he was racing into the threshold of greatness but as we now all know, he slipped at the critical moment and the opportunity to be great, went a-begging.

There is story in there, in that Moscow midnight drizzle, of temperament, skill and experience precariously thrust into the balance by the weight of the occasion, the treachery of a wet pitch and the raucous expectation of millions of Chelsea fans across the globe.

My esteemed colleagues at the pub have since formulated a theory arising from the events of that momentous contest between the Red Devils and Roman Abramovich’s prized assets. Their theory is simply this: you do not ask your celebrity talent to take the crucial penalty in a game of high stakes. They go on to argue that to do so is to tamper with the natural process which transforms a great player into an immortal hero. I concur wholeheartedly. They back up this supposition by saying heroes are not products of luck in a game of Russian roulette, which is what a penalty shoot-out reduces football to. They conclude that great players in the making can do without the imposed pressure of taking “deciders”, because in those nervy moments, when the greatness of a much greater cause puts their own greatness to the test, they suffer from a crisis of expectations and thus, miss. But I digress.

As the cameras panned to show the ostentatious triumph of Man United which was taking place on the podium, it was not the delirious joy of Alex Fergusson’s men which was left imprinted on our minds. The most moving image of the night was the inconsolable treasure hunter, his head buried in the bosom of Avram Grant, mourning the moment of glory which never came. We mourned with him the loss only he can fathom.

The heartbreak aside, Chelsea fans left the stadium ruing the madness of Drogba on the one hand but on the other, with unabashed admiration for John Terry’s legendary pursuit of greatness. Their bionic man had re-emerged from injury time and again to rally his troops to victory. Far into the dead of that night, it was quietly spoken by footballing fans all over the world that he will once again appear on the battlefields of creation’s most beautiful game to fight another day. By all accounts the battle of Moscow would not be the end of the Chelsea captain’s career, but a major milestone in an epic endeavour to go the distance only heroes can.

And so with the footage of that match still fresh in our collective memories, we welcome the return of our sporting heroes at the start of the new football season in the much famed Barclays English Premier League. What makes this showcase all the more fascinating is the growing number of African players making a name for themselves for all the right reasons. Every year we export some really exciting talent to the international football arena. Whilst these young men are not exactly revered, they are nonetheless adored by their faithful fans when they excel and equally vilified when they fall short of the mark. But perhaps the greatest mystique they hold for Africa is their seamless ability to transcend mere sport and step into the realm of our aspirations for pride of place in the global space.

In so much as us Africans lack in good governance from a political perspective and general social advancement, we abound in sporting talent. In this regard there is no human endeavour more compelling than the activity of sport to give us a sense of achievement over our limitations.

It has been suggested by some that politicians and sportsmen share certain key attributes, these being energy, a fiercely competitive spirit and a hunger for fame. These are indeed useful attributes which I contend, if properly harnessed, can propel our sporting heroes into worthy leaders. We therefore should mentor the sporting talent we have been so privileged to export offshore as someday, these young men could well transcend the rigors of footballing and end up in the halls of influence and power. The fact that they already possess instant name recognition puts them in good stead to appeal to the masses on a platform other than sporting prowess.

In October 2005, it was refreshing to see George Weah power forward in the race for presidency in Liberia. As the candidate for the Congress of Democratic Change, he came agonisingly close to clinching the winner “inside regulation time” against former finance minister Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. It took a run off vote (extra time if you like) to dash his hopes, eventually losing to a worthy opponent who went on to become the first ever elected female president in Africa.

Former NBA star Charles Barkley is on record stating that he intends to run for Governor of Alabama in 2014. He has since bought a house in that state expressly for the purpose of fulfilling a residency requirement (one ought to have lived in the state for a minimum period of seven years before running for office). What is to stop Zinedine Zidane or Thierry Henry from conjuring a “leadership hat trick” should they choose a political path in their latter years? Whilst I seriously doubt any reasonable voter would hazard voting for Wayne Rooney or Didier Drogba for that matter (assuming they retained their present tops-turvy temperaments into retirement), I would not be particularly surprised if Tiger Woods turned out to be the next Obama. In that vein, could Ghana’s Stephen Appiah be the next Kofi Annan?

Enjoy the new season. You might just be cheering on your next president!