The Currents of History: What does it take to win the World Cup?

“What does it take to win the World Cup?” asked Henry D Fetter of The Atlantic a couple of days ago, in a post called “What It Takes To Win The World Cup.”

Past results suggest that going through a period of dictatorial government is almost a sine qua non for a nation to be a champion.

Brian at The Run of Play did a very good job crushing that idea.

… [C]orrelation doesn’t imply causation; the fact that two things occurred simultaneously doesn’t prove that one caused the other without a mechanism to demonstrate the cause. Fetter gestures toward such a mechanism—“soccer prowess proved a national morale builder for the dictatorships of the last century”—but while it holds up in some specific cases (Mussolini, et. al.), as a general theory it’s just silly, especially considering that, as Fetter himself points out, most of the World Cup-winning countries that have had dictators since 1930 weren’t actually dictatorships at the time when they lifted the trophy.

The idea memed, nonetheless. (I’m shocked that highbrow soccer dorks — my favourite phrase this World Cup, used by The New Republic’s Goal Post to describe their ideal reader base — appear not to check RoP before coffee.) Laughable, snobbish solipsism — it’s not just for FIFA anymore, kids. The soccer blogosphere has no shortage of writers doing sterling work dissecting the politics of the World Cup and men’s football in thoughtful, moving ways (Occasional Pitch Invasion writer Jennifer Doyle, of From a Left Wing, is just one of them). But who needs all that when the USA’s finest journalists are sitting around a table writing football stories that are the intellectual equivalent of those Hitchens-Amis word games where they mad-libbed book titles with ‘sex’ and ‘prick’?

Last week, the phenomenon’s most high-profile instance was a piece by Roger Cohen in the New York Times called ‘Özil the German‘, an op-ed ostensibly exploring the multiculturalism of Germany, and the shattering of its team’s power structure with the absence of ‘Big Man’ Michael Ballack.

Perhaps it’s not a bad thing that the first African World Cup has seen stars fail where they were not backed by teamwork. Cameroon, with its Big Man Samuel Eto’o of Inter Milan, and Ivory Coast, with Big Man Dider Drogba of Chelsea, are both out. Ghana, meanwhile, has endured through discipline and coordination.

Africa needs more of that kind of spirit.

Ignoring the warning bells that usually ring in my head when the word ‘Africa’ appears in a newspaper that takes ads from the Government of Sudan and has in the past reported extensively on the Congo civil war without once mentioning its international backers, I read on.

Since decolonization began in the second half of the 20th century, it has too often been the continent of “The Big Man.” That was the sobriquet V.S. Naipaul gave in “A Bend in the River” to the African dictator plundering the city of Kisangani in Congo through mercenaires granted license to run amok.

The colonizer’s plundering merely gave way to the Big Man’s impunity in stripping Africa’s assets bare.

Many things about African football became clearer at once to me. Unlike the rest of the world, African football runs on the transitive properties of morality. Losing because of bad tactics and positioning, like Cameroon, conceals the deeper flaw of playing their best player — an inspirational, talented, eloquent man with almost all the qualities of a great leader — at all. How dare manager Paul Le Guen attempt to shoulder the blame for setting Eto’o adrift in a formation where his co-ordination with Webo failed repeatedly and his ability to track back was severely limited by his having to run between left and centre? The blame is Africa’s for producing a player who is celebrated back home as much as he is in white cities like Barcelona and Milan. Memories of the Barnes Theory Of Socialist Righteousness pierce the heart.

Didier DrogbaAs for Cote d’Ivoire, it’s all very well for white people to give a man credit for stopping a civil war in his country. But ask him to play with a broken arm in order to bolster a team in a challenging group and reap the whirlwind, CIV. Given the paucity of Big Men in the rest of the group — no seriously, Kaka? Ronaldo? No civil wars! No Big Manhood! Oh, and Jong Tae-se who? — this was just as indicative of ‘African tragedy’ as any history of dictators in the Congo. Mobutu Sese Seko, your football Nazgul have failed you. Africa won and you lost.

Cohen is merely patting his column into shape at this point. The blissfully oblivious New York Times enjoys supporting the idea that the post-colonial world is self-sufficient and self-determining to such an extent that the origins of the ‘Big Man’ phenomenon in the support of African extremists by their former colonisers doesn’t seem to merit the status of rumour, much less truth, in their pages. Rest easy, readers; coltan wars, oil genocides and repeatedly invalidated democratic elections happen because Africans are just reverting to type. On the other hand, Cohen points out,

[South Africa] has resisted the devastating “Big Man” syndrome. Over the past 16 years, South Africa has had four free elections and four presidents … [a] robust judiciary and free press … [t]he interaction, under the law, of various interest groups … This is its great lesson for a continent where, by 2025, one in four of every person under 24 will live.

From which statement we infer:

1. All African countries have the same history.
2. All African countries have the same set of problems.
3. Big Men are okay with us if they are Big Men by Committee, which is to say that they are Big Men who can be safely invited to speak at G20 gatherings.
4. It’s fine that he brokered the most incredible nation-building negotiation in the last fifty years and possibly ever, but what would really symbolise a betrayal of big man Mandela’s anti-Big Man policies, more than Zuma and the ANC’s drift away from his vision, would be if Siphiwe Tshabalala were a thirty-a-season goalscorer for Manchester United.

At this point Roger Cohen is satisfied with the lesson he has just taught his African readers, and returns to the subject of multicultural Germany and the meaning of Mesut Özil.

A Social Democrat once told me that the country’s ultimate victory over Hitler would lie in the reconstitution of the Jewish community, then being pursued by luring Jews of the former Soviet Union. I always thought that was a vain, slightly kitschy idea.

Parsing issues aside, since vanity and kitschiness are things that Hannah Arendt, the great analyst of European totalitarianism, would have resisted in her political philosophy, this seems sound. Reconciliation and reparation, as Arendt knew, are overwhelmingly difficult, and sometimes even tragic ideas. (Guernica Magazine recently posted a horrifying exploration of how, in the context of some African history, they can simply be another form of torture.) They can be begun by legislation, but history’s best hope is only ever that such acts may go on to form a new chapter. They cannot erase or change the one that has already been made. That is indeed the cause and effect of kitsch and vanity.

But the Germany of Özil and Aogo is such a victory over the Big Man who destroyed Europe.

Which is to say: thank you Turkey and Nigeria for bearing the brunt of the history of European imperialism in your own distinct ways. Directly or indirectly, we dismantled your countries in our world wars, plundered your resources, broke up your nations, sold off the pieces, put your worst enemies in power over you, treated your people like shit when they came to Europe looking for work, and continue to do so. But our football teams are now full of brown kids and black kids. So Hitler lost and you lost, but we all won. So we’re cool, right? We’re cool.

Roger Cohen says:

Africa, take note

Thank you for taking note, New York Times, and other ‘highbrow’ American soccer writers. We know now that you see the currents of history where the rest of us are trying — sometimes for painful reasons of our own — to see football games. But please remember that if other people wore the same smug-coloured glasses as you, your theories would undergo a fundamental shift. Where you see models of correlation/causation between dictators and football victories, others would see the run of play as the rest of the world knows it: of a history of possession dominated by those who wrote the rules, of enforced migrations and unwilling recruitments, of fallouts of totalitarianism where there is no such thing as an ‘almost sine qua non‘; of contests that we must always resist seeing as wars, because they can only ever be only fought — and won — on the field.


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