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African legends believe continent's football has come of age

By Ben Wyatt, CNN
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Football greats say Africa is ready
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Legends of African football gathered at a pre-World Cup gala dinner in Johannesburg
  • Former Nigeria star Jay Jay Okocha believes African football has finally come of age
  • FIFA and CAF official Amos Adamu thinks African football is as good as it ever has been
  • Former South African footballer Jomo Sono will be offering advice to Bafana Bafana

Johannesburg, South Africa (CNN) -- The hosting of the 2010 World Cup by South Africa was always going to be an occasion for celebration among football lovers around the world, but for former soccer greats who call the continent home, the event has a significance beyond mere fandom.

Having moved from a period where only four African sides qualified for the World Cup in 44 years since the first event in 1930, the continent now boasts some of the greatest stars in global soccer.

Superstars like Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast), Michael Essien (Ghana) and Samuel Eto'o (Cameroon) may have global fame and great riches thanks to their talent, but for every modern legend from Africa there are just as many pioneers who helped break down the barriers to allow such opportunity.

Former players such as Kalusha Bwalya (Zambia), Abedi Pele (Ghana) and Salif Keita (Mali) may not be household names that roll off the tongue, but they all played a crucial role in breaking down the prejudice that existed, and hampered, the abilities of players from Africa.

One such pioneer was Nigerian great Jay-Jay Okocha -- a skilful attacker who help guide the Super Eagles to Olympic gold glory in 1996 -- told CNN he believes that the World Cup proves African football has finally come of age.

"I think we have contributed a lot to world football and we are glad that FIFA have finally recognized and believe that we belong," said the 36-year-old, who played in the top leagues in Germany, France, England and Turkey before retiring in 2008.

"It's not just a game for us, it's like a religion, it's like a tradition. We bring a lot of colors, we bring a lot of emotion and we bring a lot of enthusiasm to the game."

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Another great who did much to break down the barriers holding back footballers from Africa was Jomo Sono.

The South African former striker played during the apartheid era and significantly was one of the first black players to take part in the previously illegal activity of cross-color matches in the 1970s.

Sono was South Africa's youngest-ever professional and easily one of the country's greatest football talents.

But despite playing for the Orlando Pirates and the New York Cosmos alongside Franz Beckenbauer and Pele, he was unable to play in world competition due to the international ban that existed on the racist South African government.

it's difficult being an ex-player who never got to play. I feel like I could turn the clock back and play now. But everything happens for a reason.
--South African great Jomo Sono

For Sono, hosting the World Cup is bitter sweet: "It's difficult to describe, it's difficult being an ex-player who never got to play. I feel like I could turn the clock back and play now. But everything happens for a reason," he told CNN.

Sono controversially sacrificed a lucrative career in America to return to apartheid South Africa in an attempt to help the country to change.

"They needed role models, they needed people who made it in spite of the regime, so (they) knew they could do it too. Was it a sacrifice? Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison. That's sacrifice. Me, I played football," Sono said in an interview for Ian Hawkey's "Feet of the Chameleon" book.

No African side has ever progressed past the quarterfinals of the World Cup, so many hopes rests on hosts "Bafana Bafana" to perform well.

As a former technical director for the side Sono had some words of advise for his former students: "I know how the players are feeling. I'll be speaking to them the day before the games. They will call me at night and I'll say go out there and enjoy yourselves and don't put pressure on yourselves," he told CNN.

Hosting these games brings a lot of financial social and economic benefits to the nation
--Amos Adamu
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Amos Adamu, a member of the executive committees of football's world governing body FIFA and the Confederation of African Football (CAF), said whatever the progress of South Africa, new standards are being set.

"African football has reached the stage where it's compared favorably with football in any part if the world," he told CNN.

"If you look at African players, they are all around the world and they are very outstanding players. I'm very proud that African football has got to that level."

Adamu also attacked critics who have said that the cost of South Africa hosting the World Cup is too high, and instead claimed the tournament will leave a lasting legacy for the country.

"People complain that it's a waste of money, but it's important that the organizers and the countries know that the benefits are very enormous," he said.

"No country hosts the World Cup and remains the same. Hosting these games brings a lot of financial social and economic benefits to the nation."

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