‘Feet of the Chameleon’ and Stories of African Football

Feet of the Chameleon’, the title phrase of Ian Hawkey’s excellent recent book on African football, comes from a coinage of South African commentator Zama Masondo—who was trying to familiarize and localize slow motion television replays for Zulu-speaking rural audiences.  For members of that audience who were new to television of any sort, the replays were confusing.  They thought “something had gone wrong with their TV sets at first.”  So, Masondo explained to Hawkey, rather than just saying “Now for the replay” the commentator used the phrase “Ngonyawo lo nwabu” which means “Now let’s see it again with the feet of the chameleon.”

Hawkey goes on to note “It is a lovely metaphor, taking a creature nature blessed with the wonders of Technicolor, the ability to subtly alter its form and observing the purposeful languor with which the reptile moves its limbs along a branch.  Zama Masondo had made slow-motion replays no longer alarming, but comforting for his viewers.”  And in using the phrase ‘Feet of the Cameleon’ as the title of his book Hawkey has likewise picked appropriately: both the phrase and the book are intriguing, meaningful, smart, moderately obscure, a bit indirect, and well worthwhile.

The subtitle, on the other hand, is perhaps overly ambitious: ‘The Story of African Football.’ In the prologue Hawkey himself notes that the book is really a collection of many stories, mostly about the top clubs, players, and international competitions, rather than one single narrative for the game on a continent: “The stories here come from various territories, and make no claim to be an exhaustive history.”  That plural, stories of African football, would have made things just right, because Hawkey has many interesting, entertaining, and well-told tales of the game in Africa.

The Stories

The 13 main chapters of the book each contain a series of pieces organized by a somewhat abstract theme.  ‘Chapter 1: Big Game Hunting,’ for example, is about the flow of players from Africa to Europe, starting with Spanish–Moroccan footballer Nayim (Mohammed Ali Amar) through the Ghananian Nii Lampty to the Ivorian brothers Touré and their famed club ASEC Mimosas.  Or, as another example, ‘Chapter 11: Whispering at Pigeons’ is about the mix of witchcraft, evangelical religion, and modernity in African football from Nigeria to Benin.

Most of these thematic chapters bounce from good story to good story with only the subtlest of connective tissue.  This is not true for all the chapters (‘Chapter 5: The Desert Foxes,’ for example, offers a relatively steady account of how Algerians used football to declare their identity as independent from France towards the end of colonial rule), but it is true often enough to require the reader do some work to put everything together.  As such, it would probably help a reader to already know something about the game in Africa.  But the compensation is a freedom to make what you will of the stories—Feet of the Chameleon offers a contrast to the style of other recent books on the global game, such as How Soccer Explains the World, which sometimes feel too heavy on argument and too light on the game.

In the spirit of such stories, let me try to elaborate on two of the many that struck me as particularly thought-provoking.  In ‘Chapter 4: Leopards Skinned’ Hawkey offers an account of Africa’s early entrees into international competition, with some particular focus on Zaïre’s (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) ill-fated trip to the 1974 World Cup—the first appearance of a national team from sub-Saharan Africa in a World Cup.  The popular story line of that event is that it was a disastrous embarrassment: the Leopards were thrashed by a combined 14 goals to nil in their three group games.  To further the embarrassment, towards the end of the Brazil game defender Mwepu Illunga seemed to take the referee’s whistle after setting the wall on a Brazilian free kick as a signal to charge and knock the ball deep in the opposite direction.  It appeared the Africans did not even know the rules of the game.

Panini stickers of the ill-fated 1974 Zaire squad (from the blog 'Zaire 1974')

What Hawkey’s chapter illustrates is that the actual story of Zaïre in 1974 was more interesting and complicated than the popular story line.  First, the Leopards actually only lost their opening match to Scotland 2-0, having some chances but losing out on “aerial duels.”  But then some of the bogeymen of African soccer appeared—conflicts between players and administrators over bonuses, along with conspiracy theories suggesting that the Leopard’s Yugoslav coach played the second game with a deficient line-up to insure his homeland won big (they did: Yugoslavia 9 – Zaïre 0).  Hawkey also notes that Mwepu Illunga should have been sent off in that game—but the referee mistook a teammate for the red card.

So Illunga did play the final group game against Brazil, a game that became about ‘honour’ amidst vague threats from Zaïre’s dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and his cronies.  This was, Hawkey effectively reminds us, a time of a tenuous black pride movement in Africa and the Leopards displays at the 1974 World Cup were important to men like Mobutu.  So, the players were told, they could not lose to Brazil by more than three goals.  The infamous free kick occurred late in the game: “Brazil led 3-0 by then, and the South Americans were awarded a free-kick and the chance to make it four.  Ilunga lurched from the wall in the 85th minute, belting the ball from its designated spot.  He collected a caution.  But, he felt and would later explain, he had wasted some valuable seconds.  Why?  Because it had been made clear, from the very, very top, to the players that a greater margin than three goals would be deemed unacceptable back home.”

Thus, in an infamous moment of what has usually been interpreted as African ignorance, Hawkey offers the meaningful possibility that the African player was actually being as savvy as he could under very complicated circumstances.  And throughout the book Hawkey offers reminders of how such possibilities and contexts are always worth considering when interpreting stories from Africa.  (It is also worth noting that Illunga himself seems to look back on the infamous incident with some savvy and good humor, as is evident in a clip from 90’s football comedy show Fantasy Football League that can be found here.)

Another thought-provoking story from ‘Feet of the Chameleon’ comes from ‘Chapter 7: The Tortoise and the Hippo’ which mostly offers an engaging overview of Cameroon’s more successful forays on the world football stage.  What particularly struck me here were the nuggets about something not usually associated with African soccer: goalkeeping.  In players such as Jo Jo Bell, Thomas Nkono, and Carlos Kameni, Cameroon has been one of the rare African sides to claim goalkeeping as a strength.  And, embedded in the compelling story of how Bell and Nkono managed a personal rivalry through years of international success, Hawkey cites Cameroon’s former coach Claude Le Roy’s observations about an area of Cameroon near Pouma and Douala where children play a “special game.”  Le Roy is quoted in the book: “it uses a small ball, and it is a bit like head tennis, and the court was the space between two houses: If I head the ball and it hits your house, I win.  If I save the ball that you have headed, I win.  And so on.  And I was told they start doing this from very, very young.  That’s why you get so many players with such great co-ordination…all the goalkeepers [are] from there.”  (In a January attempt to explain what the African Cup of Nations highlighted as “Africa’s No. 1 weakness,” Jonathan Wilson writing for The Observer also drew on Feet of the Chameleon)

Though perhaps a bit too deterministic, the point here relates to one that has always interested me as an American soccer fan with great interest in the African game—why has America mostly only been good at producing world-class goalkeepers, while Africa produces bushels of field players with hardly a goalkeeper to shoot at?  The answer, I think, relates to cultural models of youth development—both in soccer and other domains.

Americans do well at sports that require specialized training where we can put our children on a circumscribed program from a very young age.  Goalkeeper training is the perfectly American piece of the game—a specialization with relatively clear rules that allows one to succeed or fail as an individual while also having some sense of being on a team.  In the places where I’ve worked with African youth players (in Malawi and Angola), in contrast,, the emphasis is on playing the game itself—with little interest in specialization and much joy from the collective.  What the Cameroonian example described in Feet of the Chameleon offers may be what all footballing nations need—a hybrid of some specialized training mixed with large dollops of collective joy in the game.

The Sum

Hawkey presumably learned many of the stories in Feet of the Chameleon through years of experience as a journalist working for both British and South African outlets.  He seems eminently qualified to translate African soccer stories for non-African audiences.  But a reader can mostly only presume how he learned the stories because one of the oddities of the book is a tendency towards not framing the authorial vantage point nor the sources.

The book touches on such a broad range of people, places, and historical epochs that some specific citations or footnotes might have helped.  There is a brief, two page bibliography that is not referenced to any specific parts of the text—but perhaps that brevity is due to the general shortage of accessible books on African soccer.  And certainly Hawkey is adding to that literature, both through the book and through his reportage.

Take, for example, Hawkey’s chapter on South Africa’s return to international competition in 1992 after the end of apartheid.  The reader is vaguely aware that Hawkey lived in South Africa at points, and occasionally gets firsthand accounts, but mostly the vantage point is missing.  So it comes as a surprise when, almost as an aside, he mentions that he happened to have an informal dinner with Bafana Bafana captain Lucas Radebe in Zimbabwe the day of South Africa’s first competitive game as a ‘free country’ (a Cup of Nations qualifier).  It just reads as odd to be so casual about having been part of a such a historic day—a sense reinforced by a brief recent review of Feet of the Chameleon from South Africa that is generally complimentary but notes some errors of detail.

Overall, however, Feet of the Chameleon is among the best journalistic reading I could recommend for thinking fans whose curiosity has been inspired by the upcoming World Cup in South Africa.  It is a smart book that, though occasionally disjointed and frustrating, conveys diverse stories and engaging machinations from captivating places.  It is, in short, worthy of the game in Africa.

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