Building Stadiums: Angola, China, and the African Cup of Nations

CAN 2010

The African teams are mostly set.  After last weekend’s final qualifiers, we know that Cameroon, Nigeria, and either Egypt or Algeria will join hosts South Africa, the Ivory Coast, and Ghana as Africa’s representatives at the first African World Cup.  But those qualifiers also served to decide the field for a more immediate event: the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations hosted by Angola in January (shorthanded as CAN2010—for the Campeonato Africano das Nações em Futebol Angola 2010).  So the African qualifiers will first be travelling to Angola, where they will be joined by the hosts and the teams that finished second and third in the four team final qualifying groups: Gabon, Togo, Tunisia, Mozambique, Zambia, Benin, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Malawi.

Which all leads me to a random trivia question: What is the most expensive city in the world for foreigners?  Tokyo?  Copenhagen?  Geneva?  All good guesses, all in the top 10.  But, out of context, I bet few people would have guessed the number one spot goes to the city that this coming Friday (November 20th) will host the draw for the CAN2010: Luanda, Angola.  Luanda is an archetypal global mega-city where massive wealth (due primarily to Angola’s huge reserves of oil and diamonds) combines with massive poverty (due primarily to the dual legacies of Portuguese colonialism and a brutal 27 year civil war between its 1975 independence and the 2002 death of rebel leader Jonas Savimbi) to create a place rife with both hope and hardship.  And now, during January’s African Cup of Nations, a place that makes an unlikely host for a major international soccer tournament.

I spent six months living in Angola during 2002-2003, working on my dissertation research through a volunteer posting with an international organization doing development-through-sports programs in refugee camps.  It was an intense and rich experience.  Living in Luanda and working outside the city in communities hosting refugees from Congo along with internally-displaced Angolans, I saw much of the diversity of Africa within a few square miles.  The region has a mix of quaint but crumbling Portuguese colonial villas, bullet strewn government blocks, private beach resorts, sprawling slums, modern high-rise bank headquarters, lush agricultural villages, modern suburban developments, old Cuban military bases, glistening corporate mansions in walled compounds, and hardscrabble squatter camps.  And then there were those ubiquitous African landmarks: hundreds of improvised soccer fields crammed into any available nook.

But now Angola is doing some improvising on a much bigger scale: through arrangements with China, Angola is building four brand new stadiums to host the Cup of Nations.  The designs for these stadiums were up on Pitch Invasion last month, and their aesthetics are well worth appreciating.  But the stories around the stadiums are also worth some consideration.  As the tournament approaches I hope I’ll have the chance to write some more personal stories about my soccer related experiences in Angola.  For starters, however, I’ll focus on the stadiums and the nation itself.

Estádio Cidade Universitária, Luanda's stadium for the 2010 African Cup of Nations

Estádio Cidade Universitária, Luanda

The Geo-Politics of Building Stadiums

As a country Angola is a prime example of the “paradox of plenty:” having massive quantities of natural resources too often makes places ripe for exploitation and destructive inequality.  Angola’s approximately 18 million people have a per capita GDP of around $6000 per year—which is relatively high for Africa, particularly in a country just emerging from a long civil war—but 70% of the population lives on less than $2 per day, the country has extremely high rates of infant mortality, low life expectancy, and is often rated among the most corrupt countries in the world.  In my experience, however, Angolans are also a proud and resilient people, and considering the challenges of overcoming the damning legacies of colonialism and war there is still some cause for hope.

One major reason for both hope and concern is the fact that among Angola’s wealth of natural resources is oil—what Venezuelan politician Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo called “the devil’s excrement.”  The short and massively over-simplified version of why Angola’s civil war went on for 27 long years is that one side had oil, the other side had diamonds, and the long-burn of the war allowed each to keep funding themselves.

The more contemporary geo-political implication of Angola’s oil is that it is one of several African countries embroiled in a quiet contest between the US and China in their quest to ensure energy for the future.  One by-product of the end of Angola’s civil war was the opportunity for the country and multi-national countries to more efficiently exploit the country’s oil—Angola became a member of Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 2007, and will host its first set of major OPEC meetings this December.  Several months ago when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on her first major African tour, the New York Times declared “once again Angola is a crucial battleground.  This time, it is the contest for influence between the United States and an increasingly powerful, resource-hungry China.”

And what does all this have to do with soccer?  One of China’s most interesting tactics as it strives for global influence as an emerging superpower is what some have called “stadium diplomacy.”  China’s general scheme in the world of international development has been to worry a lot less about moralizing and telling developing countries what to do (which has been the general caricature of much Western aid), and to worry a lot more about making friends and creating business opportunities with no strings attached.  In Africa at least, building soccer stadiums are a great way to do that.

According to at least one source: “The Chinese have built or are in the process of building stadiums across a veritable A to Z of African states, including Angola, Benin, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Djibouti, the Gambia, Liberia, Mali, Mauritius, Mozambique, Niger, Guinea, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.”  I can’t imagine the US Congress would be willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for soccer stadiums in Africa, but China doesn’t seem to have that problem.

There is also a sort of natural political connection between Angola and China since the governments in both places have a historical tie to Marxism and a contemporary affinity for making lots of money.  The MPLA party has officially ruled Angola since independence, and much of the framing of the long civil revolved around cold war ideology.  One of the amazing stories of the Angolan civil war involves a turning point when heavily armored and anti-communist South African convoys made a long charge up the Atlantic coast to take Luanda—but the MPLA called on their comrade Fidel Castro who sent Cuban troops to help the Angolans repel the invaders.  But now, likely to Fidel’s great consternation, Luanda is home to gleaming new skyscrapers for capitalist behemoths such as ExxonMobil that sit, with great irony, just off Avenida Lenin and not far from Rua Comandante Che Guevara.

The Practice of Building Stadiums

The situation in Angola does raise interesting questions about when and how a developing country should spend money on sports.  This question seems particularly acute considering the way China tends to go about building the African stadiums—by using Chinese contractors and Chinese workers.  So where South Africa has tried to partially justify the massive expenditures it is making for World Cup stadiums by arguing that the money offers employment to local workers (of course, the South African worker’s strikes confirm this is not always a clean process either), Angola is just making sure the stadiums get built.  In one report from the BBC, for example, the construction site at Benguela (a provincial capital on Angola’s Atlantic coast) was reported to have 700 Chinese workers contrasted with only 250 locals.

Benguela, Complexo da Sr. da Graca

Benguela, Complexo da Sr. da Graca

Overall, though there has been much concern and speculation as to whether having Angola host in 2010 was too ambitious—a familiar refrain for international tournaments in Africa considering naysayers targeting the just completed FIFA U-17 World Cup in Nigeria and upcoming South Africa 2010—it does look like the Angolan stadiums will be ready.  True, the opening date for the main stadium in Luanda has been pushed back, having targeted a grand opening for next week against Ghana in a friendly that will now be played in the old Estádio da Cidadela.  And they may have to do without the exterior landscaping that helped make the early drawings look so pretty.  But Luanda really is the least of the concerns—though the new Luanda stadium would be the biggest, the old stadium is still serviceable.

The other stadiums, in contrast, are in provinces more directly affected by the long civil conflict and without Luanda’s access to resources.  The fact that the stadiums in Benguela, Lubango, and Cabinda seem well in order, though smaller than in Luanda, is certainly an accomplishment of some sort.  And even with the Luanda stadium, the few Angolan workers are confident—as one told the Reuters when asked if the stadium would be ready: “I’m sure it will, the Chinese are building this thing.”

The other thing the Angolans, or the Chinese, or whoever, should probably get some credit for are the details of the stadiums themselves.  I attended a few games at the old Estádio da Cidadela, and it is one of those classic cement monstrosities common to many African capitals.  It can handle lots of people, and does the basic job, but that’s all that can be said for it.

From concept on, the new Angolan stadiums seem to be something more.  The original designs were apparently made by an Angolan architect to be based on the Welwitschia plant, which grows only on the borders of Angola and Namibia.  And, at least for the Luanda stadium, Reuters notes: “The stadium rim is expected to bend like the horns of the black sable antelope — the country’s national symbol. The soccer team is known as the ‘Black Antelopes.’”  Others of the stadiums also have thoughtful touches—such as Benguela’s Complexo da Sr. da Graça which opens out to a view of the ocean.  The efforts to make the stadiums aesthetically pleasing and culturally meaningful is important in African contexts long assigned only austere basics.

It is also worth noting that despite the expense of living in Luanda, the estimated costs of the stadiums could be considered reasonable in comparison to the insane sums devoted to other modern complexes: a common estimate seems to be a total cost of around $600 million for the four Angolan stadiums.  While that is still a huge amount of money to spend on sports, the four combined are only slightly more than the single Green Point Stadium being built in Cape Town for the World Cup.  Granted, the Angolan stadiums are significantly smaller and not fully enclosed, and soccer spectators may not appreciate the eyesore of running tracks, but considering where Angola is coming from and how it has all come together the stadiums would still seem to be an intriguing sort of modern soccer monument.


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