Sunderland win hearts and minds in Africa before Capital One Cup final
Indeed, ever since Sunderland entered into a commercial, coaching and community relations partnership with Ghana’s Premier League champions, Asante Kotoko – aka the Porcupine Warriors – King Osei has dedicated regular prayers to Poyet’s players.
The club’s stock is so high in Ashanti – the region of southern Ghana ruled by King Osei – that a coaching delegation from Wearside recently found themselves honoured guests at the royal palace.
With Sunderland having formed similar footballing alliances in Tanzania, Nigeria and South Africa, red and white striped replica shirts are no longer rarities on the streets of Accra, Dar es Salaam and Lagos but Ashanti was where it all began.
During Steve Bruce’s managerial tenure Sunderland found themselves with three Ghanaian players, John Mensah, Asamoah Gyan and Sulley Muntari. A delegation from Asante Kotoko approached Ellis Short, Sunderland’s owner, and asked if the two clubs could form a collaborative relationship based on the exchange of marketing, charitable, sponsorship and sports science expertise.
It proved so successful that word spread to neighbouring countries. With doors opened by David Miliband, Sunderland’s then vice-chairman and a former foreign secretary, the Wearsiders’s profile rose steadily in one of football’s emerging markets. Although Miliband had stepped down from the board by the time President Kikwete of Tanzania arrived in England last summer to meet world leaders gathering for the G8 summit, Kikwete made a detour to Sunderland and asked to meet Short.
Suitably impressed by a tour of the “Academy of Light” training centre, he then invited Margaret Byrne, Sunderland’s chief executive, to Dar es Salaam and, in conjunction with the international electricity company Symbion Power, she and her boardroom colleagues agreed the club would help build Tanzania’s first football academy.
The first bricks are scheduled to be laid within the next few weeks and the intention is to provide an academic as well as a football education while also using the facilities to benefit the wider community.
With the Africa initiative very much about winning hearts and minds, Sunderland have become involved in a variety of community initiatives, including the purchase and distribution of solar lamps in rural areas across a continent in which traditional kerosene lamps are expensive, environmentally unfriendly and extremely dangerous.
Then there is their support for Alive and Kicking in Ghana. An innovative Africa-wide charity dedicated to promoting health awareness and creating jobs, it employs local people, often disabled or disadvantaged, to hand-stitch leather footballs for either global sale or donation to schools, orphanages and refugee camps.
“I think what makes us a bit different to some other English clubs is that we have a tangible presence in Africa – and we want to give something back to the communities,” says Bryne, who has overseen the forging of formal ties between Sunderland and the Nelson Mandela Foundation in addition to shirt sponsorships, first with Invest in Africa and now Bidvest, the South African food and beverage company.
Through the latter Sunderland have forged a partnership with Johannesburg’s Bidvest Wits, a leading South African team, dubbed “the clever boys”. Having celebrated his 70th birthday with a charity dinner in aid of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Jimmy Montgomery, Sunderland’s 1973 FA Cup goalkeeping hero and now a club ambassador, was recently invited to Johannesburg to see its work in action.
‘We got to witness how the club’s partnership is truly making a difference,” says Montgomery. “And we experienced the warmth and good feeling there is towards Sunderland in Africa.”