Rio Ferdinand, Wilfried Zaha & Eni Aluko Talk Heritage & Homecomings at The Best of Africa Awards

Photography: Hamish Stephenson / Interview & Words: Tom Everest

Last night, on Sunday 6th October, key protagonists, top footballers and notable names across sport, music and popular culture descended on the Rosewood Hotel in London for the Best of African Awards (BoA). Now celebrating its eighth year, the BoA continues to unite the people who support and underpin socio-economic ethical development across the continent as well as those who continue to defy convention by breaking records, breaking boundaries and creating inspiring stories that promote the modern African narrative in the United Kingdom and around the world. 

At this year’s event, GAFFER linked up with all the award-winners and attendees to find out why nights like this are so significant, how their heritage inspires their future endeavours as well as what African footballer they believe has made the biggest impact in the Premier League. 

Wilfried Zaha

“The biggest thing I’ve learned is that things don’t always work out but you have to carry on no matter what otherwise you’ll hinder your own progress.”

How significant are nights like this for the culture? Especially, for you, as they give you an opportunity to enjoy and talk about things outside the realm of football and to celebrate the things you do outside of the game… 

It’s massive. Because, people just see you as a football player, they don’t tend to care what you do outside of football. So, that’s why being here is incredible, being able to celebrate as an African man to celebrate the stuff which is being achieved across the continent. 

How has your African heritage and upbringing helped you on the pitch?

I feel it all comes down to feeling proud. That’s helped me on the pitch because I am just proud of who I am and where I am from. It helps me fight every day. I just bring that onto the pitch in the same way. Everyday is a fight when I get on the pitch. I have to fight to prove that I am good enough and then I have to keep fighting to show the world that I  am good enough.

What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned in the last 12 months?

The biggest thing I’ve learned is that things don’t always work out but you have to carry on no matter what otherwise you’ll hinder your own progress.

Eni Aluko

“It’s that fearlessness and that idea that you have to be twice as good which has given me and a lot of African players that drive to succeed. That lion inside, that inner Mufasa, drives a lot African players to achieve great things.”

How significant are nights like this for the culture?

Huge. Ultimately, it’s our job to keep shouting to the rooftops about what we’re doing and elevating ourselves to make sure that the world knows of the amazingness of African and black culture. I think the world has clocked on. Once upon a time it wasn’t that cool to be African but now it’s influencing music, style, fashion, football – everything. I’m really proud. We’ve got to make sure we’re pushing the levels of excellence because we can reach any level. 

What characteristics of your African heritage have directly helped you to the top of modern football? 

I think its fearlessness. I grew up playing estate football, which is common whether you’re African or not, but football offered me a sense of freedom. So, I think that fearlessness and that idea that you have to be twice as good, because you just do, has given me and a lot of African players that drive to succeed. That lion inside, that inner Mufasa, drives a lot African players to achieve great things. 

Have you been taking that inner lion with you to Turin?

I’m trying! I’ve tried to add two or three songs to the team playlist but they are not having it. So, now they’ve only given me one song. But the one song I’ve got is Donaeo ‘Party Hard’ and they’re loving that one now.

What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned since being in Italy?

I think it’s really important to stand on your own two feet and be very proud of who you are. A lot of the time people make you feel like you have to earn the right to be part of them. I didn’t go over to Italy to be Italian. I went over to Italy to experience that culture but with me in the middle, to learn it through my own eyes. Sometimes situations happen where you feel like you’re outside of your comfort zone but it’s important to remain true to yourself. So, it’s an important lesson to anyone to not comprise who you are if you want to feel comfortable. 

Rio Ferdinand

“Didier Drogba made a massive impact. He scored big goals; the Champions League winner, the FA Cup final winner. But, above all else, he’s a great guy. He’s got a lot of great initiatives off the field. He’s the full 360.”

How significant are nights like this for the culture?

It’s good, man, you get so many people from different fields and different cultures together and you get to chill and properly connect. These things, where you can go and vibe and cross-pollinate,  should happen a lot often. 

Tonight they are releasing the list of 100 of the greatest African players to have played in the Premier League. What player do you think has made the biggest impact?

Drogba. He was a beast. He scored a few goals which were offside against us, but I’ll overlook that. Perhaps he didn’t score as many as others but he scored big, big goals. The Champions League winner, the FA Cup final winner. But, above all else, he’s a great guy. He’s got great initiatives off the field as well. He’s the full 360.

What is the biggest thing you’ve learned in the past 12 months? 

Communication is key. That’s the most important thing.

Luol Deng

“There’s a lot of African athletes across so many different sports who have come through adversity so there’s always been these people to look up to and give me the motivation to do what I do.”

You traveled a lot through your career, how did you ensure you always kept your African heritage true to you?

It was easy, I come from a huge family. I am one of 9 so growing up everyone was always talking about Africa and how important it is to go home. My family was always giving back and helping so it became natural for me to always be so close to my African heritage. 

What was it about your upbringing which helped you get to the top? 

The first thing is passion and love of the sport and wanting to be great. But, being from Africa, I had a desire to make everyone proud. There’s a lot of African athletes across so many different sports who have come through adversity so there’s always been these people to look up to and give me the motivation to do what I do. 

How important to you are the charitable initiatives which you’re involved in away from basketball?

They mean everything. To see that these initiatives can make a difference to people’s lives is incredible. I’ve worked hard to succeed in this sport but I’ve also been given a lot from this sport, I’ve been very blessed so I am very humble and grateful to have the opportunity to give back. Helping others is the greatest thing in this world, these selfless acts hopefully show what people can do when they have the opportunity to give back too. 

Akala

“It’s important to see success. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”

How significant are nights like this for the culture?

Incredibly important. Let’s call it how it is, we see a lot of negative stories about young black people in particular – it’s not like those stories are not real – but they are given so much attention in comparison to the amount of success and the amount of achievement out there. So, there can be a danger of perpetuating stereotypes by emphasis. It’s important to see success. If you can’t see it you can’t be it.

What is the most important thing that you’ve learned over the past 12 months? 

That I’m nowhere near as smart or important than I thought I was when I was 25. Genuinely. The last year has honestly taught me that. Writing a book is the most humbling experience and it forces you to confront what you know and what you don’t know. They say ‘the more you know, the more you know you don’t know’, that’s been my experience in the last year. I realise I know a lot about a few things but I’m ignorant to a lot else. And that’s cool. 

What is one piece of advice which you live your life by?

Try to get better everyday. Whether that’s because you’re eating every day, going to the gym, because you’re reading more, or spending more time with your family. That’s important. We’re all deeply flawed human beings, myself especially included, so just try to get a little bit better every day.

Chris Hughton

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to celebrate and showcase the best of Africa and to celebrate those who are prepared to give something back. It’s a part of life that society don’t often get to see.”

How significant are nights like this for the culture?

It’s a wonderful opportunity to celebrate and showcase the best of Africa and to celebrate those who are prepared to give something back. It’s a part of life that society don’t often get to see. People don’t see the charity work and the community work that these players do, whether that’s local initiatives or wider projects that give back to Africa to parents and communities. There’s a lot going on and it’s important that these initiatives are celebrated. 

What African player do you think has made the biggest impact on the pitch in the last year? 

There’s multiple ones to choose from. Ngolo Kante has been incredible for the last few seasons but I think Wilfried Zaha is an exceptional talent. I’m really pleased for him after what was a tough summer. But, he’s at a great club with a great manager and he’s now showcasing what an exceptional talent and an exceptional player he is. Do I think he’s a top 6 player? Yes I do. Do I think he could play in one of the biggest teams in the country? Of course I do. He’s playing in a good team, great club and with a great manager, I wish him the best of luck for the rest of the season. 

Diamond Platnumz

“I believe if you’re positive in everything you do then everything is possible. The more you empower others, the more power you get yourself.”

How important is it to bring so many different African cultural leaders in one room?

As an African celebrity it’s great to have events like this because it brings the whole continent together – it celebrates Pan-Africanism. Bringing all these special people together gives us more opportunities to empower the culture and the entire continent. You cannot downplay its importance. 

What is one piece of advice which you live your life by?

I believe if you’re positive in everything you do everything is possible. If you can empower others, the more power you get yourself. The more you empower others, the more strength and desire you can give the culture. 

Anita Asante 

“It’s increasingly important to show young people that they should have goals and people to aspire to. If they have that and put in hard work then they know they can achieve anything.”

What does being at the BoA awards mean to you?

They’re incredibly important. Achievements need to be recognised. People put in so much hard work in all their different fields and sometimes that goes unnoticed, so nights like this are great to celebrate and acknowledge the wide variety of talent whether it’s been in this past year or years before, it doesn’t matter how long it has taken. It’s increasingly important to show young people that they should have goals and people to aspire to, if they have that and put in hard work then they know they can achieve anything. 

How do you ensure you nurture your African heritage in your daily life, from your professional career to your personal life too?

I just think being who you are and being proud of your culture. If people ask you about it – whether they’re interested in the food or like certain music – then you should be able and open to share your story, share your experiences and explain your culture as best as you can in order to bring people into your world. 

Be sure to stay up to date with all the incredible initiatives and stories from the Best of Africa awards on Instagram, @BOA_Awards.

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Issue 02: Heart & Soul
Ada Hegerberg, Andre Gray, Maya Jama, Andreas Perreira, Christian Pulisic
GAFFER Issue 02: ‘Heart & Soul.’ Honouring the way football cultivates community spirit, empowers the next generation and gives fans, teams and players something bigger and more beautiful to believe in. Be prepared to meet the people who are driving the culture to new heights and those who are set to change the face of the game forever.
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