A LEADING business and sport personality, whose résumé includes heading one of the best-known names in African club football, has offered the continent’s most brutally candid perspective yet over the raging global debate on the gross inequality in world rugby.
Herbert Mensah, one of the most influential voices in the game today by virtue of his deep knowledge of the game and his current position on the executive committee of Rugby Africa, asserts that the continent must be aggressive in its demand for equal opportunities, but should not expect special treatment due to any historical imbalance, because, quite simply according to the tycoon, “nobody really cares.”
Mensah played a single first-class game for Zimbabwean provincial side Mashonaland in 1985 and scored the winning try against a powerful Italy national team in a closely-fought warm-up tie ahead of the Europeans’ two-Test match tour here and, had it not been for rigid eligibility rules that existed back then, the dazzling Old Hararians Sports Club winger from Ghana would have represented Zimbabwe at the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987.
These days, Mensah is a successful entrepreneur primarily based in Accra, the capital city of his native Ghana. The man who made his fortune in telecoms and showbiz is now the president of the Ghanaian rugby federation, managing to transform his West African country, where football rules the roost, into one of the continent’s centerpiece for rugby growth.
Pre-coronavirus crisis, Ghana, who are coached by youthful Zimbabwean Lovemore “Dallas” Kuzorera, were scheduled to make a historic but tough trip to this country in June for their Africa premier division debut against the Sables, one of the continent’s best sides.
With the epidemic having brought world sport to a standstill, rugby’s global ruling body however went ahead with its watershed elections last week, in which the incumbent 68-year-old Englishman Sir Bill Beaumont won with a slim majority against his much younger challenger and vice-chairman Agustin Pichot.
Not only was Pichot the preferred choice of the marginalised world in this sport: Argentina’s legendary former captain also received support from the world rugby’s big guns in the southern hemisphere —his homeland, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia — collectively known as SANZAAR.
Faced with deep polarisation in world rugby, where even the best nations were not united at voting time in large part due to unprecedented financial uncertainty that some of them find themselves in, Mensah views Africa as facing its own incomparable challenges which the continent must tackle differently.
“The world of rugby is quite unique, it has been a private members’ club in many ways, and I know many years ago Africa also decided to establish itself as it was within its rights, and then seek equity within world rugby,” Mensah says, in an inclusive interview with IndependentSport this week.
“But world rugby is a little different from the world of football. I used to run the great Kumasi Asante Kotoko (two-time African Champions League winners) in a previous life, which is one of the greatest teams historically in Africa, and I know what happens with football. Now, for example, that Covid-19 has created confusion, Fifa has allocated money to all countries. I’m not saying equitably, but enough to sustain leagues like Ghana, and I’m sure Zimbabwe, and the rest. In the world of rugby, it doesn’t work like that. They raise money and it goes to the top 19 clubs, and that is it.”
In perhaps his most outspoken take on African rugby’s weak position, the shrewd magnate brought a political viewpoint not so flattering of some of the world’s most powerful leaders.
“The world has changed in many ways. I have a slightly different view on that,” says Mensah.“If you look and see what happened to Italy during the Covid-19, other EU (European Union) countries simply refused to get up and help. The world has become even more polarised since the emergence of a certain type of leader. We’ve seen it over a period of time, where we had (Nicolas) Sarkozy and you had (George) Bush, you had (Tony) Blair: you had a certain type of leader. And then to repair things in the world you then got the (Barack) Obama types that came out and suddenly the world liked the Americans again. Now you’ve got (Donald) Trump, you’ve got Boris Johnson, you’ve got a very extreme form of global leadership that seems to make it tolerable for people to create confusion in the world and then to reject immigrants who have been denigrated in their countries, destroyed because of the confusion they (world leaders) have caused.
“The world has changed in many ways. What has not changed though is that people serve their own interests. So if you have something to offer the world, offer their economy, then somebody is prepared to talk to you. I’ve always believed that there is a need to be proud and strong as an African. But at the same time I’ve also understood the need to develop your own particular global relationships. We can no longer say you’re Ghanaians, or we’re Zimbabweans, or purely Africans, when we are disunited ourselves as a continent.
“Our linkages back to colonial roots, we have seen what happens with the Francophone (African countries), they report back to the Francophone (leadership). I’ve seen what happened when Zimbabwe went to play Tunisia in rugby, the treatment was disgraceful. We’ve seen things that happen in Africa that don’t happen elsewhere.”
Although South Africa as a world rugby power has historically had a representative since readmission, last week’s highly-anticipated vote resulted, for the first time, in the election of African rugby’s confederation boss to the executive committee of World Cup, sparking some kind of hope for the rest of the continent.
While hailing this development and calling upon countries to be forceful in pursuit of fairness, Sussex University economics graduate Mensah, who is credited with spreading South African pay-TV broadcaster M-Net into the wider continent, warned that Africa should not expect any special form of favours from the suits at the World Rugby headquarters in Dublin.
“Africa needs to be stronger. Right now we have the current president of Rugby Africa (Tunisia’s Khaled Babbou), who has been elected onto the ex-co of World Rugby, and this is a very big deal for African people,” Mensah said.
“For many people it will be ‘yeah, it’s at long last!’ I don’t take that view, I really don’t. I don’t buy into the view of entitlement. Buy into the view of right. Buy into the view that because we are black, we deserve. Buy into the view that historically. . . this and that. Because nobody really cares! Unless if you are from some particular quarters like maybe the Jews, the world is still sympathetic for what they went through. But the world is not sympathetic to what happened in the slave trade et cetera, et cetera.
“We need to develop fast, stronger links ourselves, as individuals. Not because we are Africa, not because we are there. But our links have got to be that your relationship with somebody must be such that they serve a purpose. And therefore talking of relationships, you’ll see the (congratulatory) letters that I exchanged with Bill, there is a relationship and a link, the relationship is very informal. You need to take those and work out what your plans are. So if Africa is disgracefully underfunded, which it is, which it has been, under the new presidency there has been an increment in the amount of money that is being released, although peanuts in the real world, in the real scheme of things. But clearly World Rugby believed that there need to be a change. And there was a change with the outgoing (Rugby Africa) president and the incoming one.
“We do need to develop those special relationships, that say that as part of our five-year plan, or 10-year plan, or three-year plan, we need to increase our base by massive amounts so that we say that by the next World Cup, Africa will still not be competitive enough to make a mark, but maybe by 2027. If we say, for example, Africa is receiving US$10 million per year, which is still nothing in the big scheme of things, but let’s just say US$12 million per year, then there is enough for the right kinds of competitions, the right kinds of development programmes. The right kinds of elite programmes, the right kinds of preparation, that says whatever countries like Fiji or Uruguay could do at the World Cup, then we’ve got about five to six countries that are capable of matching them in technique, in performance and ultimately in results.”
Mensah proceeds to cite examples of incidents in which he has had to take matters up with the powers that be in world rugby.
“How do we make those little incremental steps? I said to Bill about six months ago, I was in the UK with Khaled Babbou and we were having a discussion about the same thing because when I go into meetings if I’m ever invited, I’m not interested in the scones, the tea and the small talk,” Mensah says.
“I’m really interested in . . . there has to be one decisive moment. Where it is that you can engage and you get to ask that one simple question about equity. Because if you’re black, your whole life, I mean your whole life, is defined by equity, and lack of it. And you interact with people who listen to you, but they don’t get it.
“Because they have never suffered at the hands of some form of economic, political or social apartheid. And if they haven’t, they don’t get it, they don’t get it if you have to apply for visas, get humiliated, because they want your bank accounts, your tax clearance certificate. If you arrive and they are not at the other end and your passport is the wrong kind of passport, then you are put in the category of something that doesn’t work and it goes to up the chain.
“They look at you in a specific kind of way. But some of us have succeeded on the global playing field. And we understand that in order to do that, you’ve got to play the game in the rules that they outline. And the rules are not yours. And the questions of prejudice and the questions of inequity, inequality, over a period of time, nobody really cares. So you need to look at it and look at different angles of the same. Therefore you need to look at leadership.
“I talk to people who are in my corporate affairs, or institutions that I am in, involved in. Let’s talk, for example, when I started off with Kumasi Asante Kotoko in football, the battles internally were the biggest: to change the mindset, to change where things go, and therefore to be able to put a front of faces together for the corporate world to say ‘yes. I relate, I understand’. And with that in mind, you push with personal relationships that you develop.
“A corporate could be involved in a beauty pageant, but make them say ‘you know what, we gonna give it to the football’. It’s the way you position yourself that determines what you get. So African Rugby has got to embrace this, clearly the vote that came gave Bill victory by virtue of historical ability of some countries to carry three votes. For example, Africa to carry two votes for the whole continent (. . . laughs), ridiculous! But it is what it is.”
Mensah, though, seems to believe that Beaumont could somehow deliver on his own pledges of transformation in the world game, given how he dominated the elections that gave him a second spell.
“Being so much of a close vote in many ways, I think and you’ll you see in Bill’s response to me, and how he sees his legacy, is to create some kind of equity. So we must be that catalyst. So that at the end of the four-year term there is that greater equity.”
The man who captained England, as well as the British and Irish Lions, however, frankly disclosed to Mensah a worrying attitude of the bigger rugby nations, a selfish agenda that Beaumont and his administration need to confront without fear or favour if the goal of a global sport is to be achieved in the end.
“When I spoke to Bill last time, he spoke so candidly to me, about what many of the countries — I don’t want to use the words first world or tier-one, stroke tier two. Everybody is looking after themselves, they are not looking to share,” Mensah says.
“And naturally that is the case, isn’t it? Everybody wants their country, their union, to develop further. Everybody knows that if you break into the upper echelons or competitions they are in, in terms of the World Cup and the Six Nations, whatever it may be, you are more than likely to start raising massive amounts of money yourself in other ways. So we need to present Africa as a viable option. In order to do that, it’s not necessarily the documents that you bring. It’s your ability to develop personal relationships with people that make the decisions, draw out your own path and see if it matches their own business plan.
“We need in Africa to start to look at a regional plan, and once Covid-19 has brought its head down and allows us to breath a little bit, we have to look and say what is the value and how do we take it through? To not just get people to play, but to make ourselves competitive, knowing that within Africa, some region like Sadc, you’ve got massively competitive rugby in that region, all the way down to South Africa. In East Africa, massively competitive. West Africa, no so much and Anglophone and Francophone, not so well-developed inter-relationships. We are trying to develop that at the moment.
“In North Africa, you’re never quite sure whether all their players playing in Europe come down for African competitions. We must present ourselves, and people like World Rugby will sit up. The unions within Africa have to self-examine and make sure you have tighter, stronger leadership in place. Not people who have been there forever. You need to make the investment yourself and move into a different direction, nobody does that for you. I know our current president is trying to create a different path from his predecessor while still gaining the respect of his predecessor. And I respect him for that.
Look, the bottom line is the days of (recent past Africa Rugby president) Aziz Boudja are gone. You know, you’ve got to move forward in a slightly different direction. I think all ourselves included must not sit after 10 years and say ‘oh we did well, we are strong, oh we got 30%, oh, 40%.’ Because if that is what we expect from World Rugby, then we’ve failed. Then we’ve failed! We’ve really got to be strong, and bold, and gain the respect by being globalist, and yet proudly African. It’s tough (. . . laughs). The leadership of Africa has to be truly African, and united. I know the current president is trying to do that. But he is far away from actually achieving that at present.”