Questions and Representations in the Year of African Soccer

Finally, after an eventful January, I’ve got some answers to the big questions for this year of African soccer.  Was Angola 2010 a success or a failure?  Yes.  Will the World Cup in South Africa be a success or a failure?  Yes.

Let me try to explain.

I was hoping this week I could write something about the games at the African Cup of Nations, or something for fans caught up in a wave of enthusiasm for the coming World Cup.  Instead, while following the 2010 Cup of Nations as closely as possible from the massive geographic and psychological distance of my home in Oregon, I’ve found myself distracted from the fun of the game by the evolving storylines about and judgments of the continent itself.  These storylines and judgments have been building through the various preliminary events in this ‘year of African soccer’: last summer’s Confederations’ Cup, September’s U-20 World Cup in Egypt, and October’s U-17 World Cup in Nigeria.  But in this last month the narrative seemed to erupt.

The real jolt was the pre-tournament tragedy in Cabinda.  When terrorists massacred the Togo team bus, my heart broke and the plot thickened.  The blogosphere came alive, many in the British press did a reasonable job offering analysis, and the American mainstream press did its usual job by barely acknowledging that events in Africa could matter (I’ve rarely felt so disappointed in my beloved New York Times—their coverage of what could have been a fascinating story about geo-politics, sport, oil, terrorism, tragedy, etc. was barely a blip).

And just when the Cabinda tragedy seemed to start fading from the world’s radar (partially justifiable given it was superseded by a much larger tragedy in Haiti), the narrative was taken up by stories of undersold tickets for the main event in South Africa.  The naysayers came alive with absolute judgments of a place many had never been, Sepp Blatter and his crew offered both Pollyanna and recriminations, while quieter but willing fans continued to try and figure out how to afford the trip.

Then, in recent days, the African federation mangled world impressions of the final days of the Cup of Nations by capriciously suspending Togo from the next two tournaments.  And suddenly the evolving narrative acquired a moral fervor driven by the perceived ability of world soccer fans to rail with absolute certainty about injustice.  The Togolese government and football association have never before been so clearly identified as paragons of virtue—even if only by implication.  One brief on-line comment seemed to crystallize what many were thinking: “Africa is crazy. Bats**t crazy.”

If only it were that simple.

Off the continent, Africa tends to be either ignored, romanticized, or pathologized—and in this year of African soccer there has been much of each.  I tend to sympathize more with the romantics (or, more cynically, the apologists), such as the FIFA execs who blindly promote the rightness of hosting the World Cup in South Africa.  And I tend to despair at the critics, particularly when scanning through the fear and loathing promoted on BigSoccer by so many who seem to have never stepped foot on the African continent.  But I’m continually discomforted by the gnawing feeling that neither side is quite right nor quite wrong, and by my inability to make sense of it all.

I do find a small degree of comfort in knowing others seem to be struggling with these same dilemmas.  In recent weeks, for example, I’ve been fascinated to stumble upon blog entries from the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola by Sports Illustrated’s Jeff Bradley (who doesn’t usually write about soccer, but happens to be the brother of US Coach Bob Bradley).  It’s not clear why Bradley went to Angola for the Cup of Nations—on the blog he obscures that info with the reasonable excuse that it belongs to Sports Illustrated—but it is clear that he went with nothing but good intentions.  In fact, he starts on Day 1 with the explicit claim that:  “My theme for this trip is going to be about seeing how good people can be.”

And then it goes downhill.  With each day he seems to become more frustrated with Luanda—the traffic, the dysfunction, the inequality, the hawkers, the confusion.  By Day 6 he writes: Guess it’s time for me to send home a dose of reality.  And the reality is, this is a tough place.”  He grasps desperately onto a deep appreciation for his guide—an Angolan who has spent much of his life in South Africa, and tries to explain to “Mr. Jeff” why it all makes no sense.  The lesson here seems to be that Jeff Bradley is a really good guy, but when it comes to a place such as Luanda good intentions just aren’t enough.

Instead, good intentions in this year of African soccer seem to get overwhelmed by the delicate, frustrating question of representation.  Of course, other things are at stake in the soccer stories that we hear and tell; there is much to learn about geo-politics, infrastructure, development, mega-events, global labor flows, etc..  We may even learn some good stuff about the game.  But underneath it all is the tricky question of how to think about Africa, with soccer as the lens.

The question of representation is an ongoing challenge for many smart non-soccer people who care about Africa—both on and off the continent.  As evidence, take the viral popularity in recent years of a satirical essay by the Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina titled “How to Write about Africa” (also available as a sort-of odd video narrated by Djimon Hounsou) that begins: “Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’.”

And continues: “adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-much tone…Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.”

Though such satire hits uncomfortably close to home, in highlighting the absence of ambivalence it also suggests to me a glimmer of hope that may sound trite: all the representations and misrepresentations of Africa may well do some good if they ultimately impress upon people the reality of Africa as a big, complicated place.  After the Togo bus massacre, the knee-jerk mis-associations between Cabinda and South Africa were nothing if not a reminder of the persistent admonition “Africa is not a country.”  Any stories of Africa through soccer require attending to the particular local contexts that frame any story anywhere in the world.

This also means that telling stories in this year of African soccer requires confronting the tensions and contradictions of modern life.  Angola’s problems, for example, are not just about poverty—in many ways it is actually a place of great wealth—they are about the global problem of inequality.  The fact that hotel rooms go for $400 dollars a night in a place with an average life expectancy somewhere around 38 and an infant mortality rate of around 180 deaths per 1000 live births should be of concern to everyone (from conservatives prioritizing the value of life to liberals prioritizing the importance of equal rights).  But it requires recognizing that Angola is not rich or poor—it is both.  Likewise, South Africa’s challenges are not just about crime and dysfunction; it is a country with a vibrant media, a rich geography of diverse people and places, extraordinary intellectuals, and a crime problem deriving from a complex socio-historical nexus that I can’t pretend to understand.

Which also means that there is still much to learn.  Amidst the tragedy, triumph, and confusion of Angola 2010 the thing that has become most clear about the evolving narrative from the year of African soccer is that much has yet to be told.  I’m sure many at FIFA and with the South African organizing committee hope everything goes smoothly—that the World Cup is, how do they say, “one big party.”  But that no longer seems quite right.  I suspect there will be much partying, but there may well also be continuing problems and frustrations.  And all of that—the partying and the problems—should be part of the story of Africa through soccer.

So ultimately, it seems to me, the question is no longer whether Angola should have hosted the Cup of Nations.  They did, and it was an event with both inexcusable tragedy and impressive accomplishment (for a country emerging from 27 years of civil war).  The question is no longer whether South Africa should host the World Cup.  They will, and it will likely be an event of both frustration and joy for a country that deserves to share the global stage.

Instead, the question now is whether the stories from year of African soccer will be about success or about failure.  And I am increasingly satisfied with the answer being yes.

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