Cape Town, 5 June 2010.
Rio Ferdinand, Jose Bosingwa and Michael Essien hurt their knees. Didier Drogba broke his elbow. Michael Ballack and Jon Obi Mikel messed up their ankles. Arjen Robben tweaked his hamstring. Andrea Pirlo aches in his calf. No Charlie Davies, no Lassana Diara, no Mourad Meghni, no David Beckham.
As the World Cup approaches, European dailies are apoplectic in the wake of several high profile player injuries ruling some of football’s most familiar faces out of the big show (apparently Ferdinand’s absence means England’s World Cup chances have dimmed, as if success in international football came down to having the right names in the first team, something that might come as a surprise to say, Germany) . The usual debate arising from these types of injuries tends to focus on the ever-increasing number of games at the highest level, but there are other factors as well. The speed and increased physical demands of modern football take their physical toll, although advances in sport medicine and nutrition have likely mitigated their effects somewhat.
But some of these injuries are just common, run-of-the-mill knacks; Didier Drogba’s broken elbow playing Japan was a cruel fluke. Some have nothing to do with football; Charlie Davies was in a high-profile car accident. Some players have been nursing injuries long before the World Cup. It’s also worth noting that these sorts of injuries occur with almost banal regularity throughout the league season; it’s just that hearing that your star player won’t be fit for a month’s time is less devastating in an eight-month season in which clubs play a game a week.
So why the hemming and hawing so close to the World Cup? Well with this year’s tournament the first in Africa, the absence of several African stars like Essien and Drogba has alarmed several hoping the tournament would be a “showcase” for African football. In fact, most of the panic surrounding these injuries arises from the notion that the World Cup is a sort of thirty-two national all-star select show, rather than an international football tournament.
Of course, popular perception of the tournament has always been more about stars than nations, certainly more so after 1970, when everyone watched Pele in technicolor for the very first time. Most of what we remember from past tournaments comes from slow motion film close-ups of various key players: Puskas in ’54, Pele in ’58, Garrincha in ’62, Eusebio in ’66, Pele in ’70, Cruyff in ’74, Rossi in ’82, Maradona in ’86 and so on and so on.
And the reality of player absences doesn’t sit well with some of the World Cup’s biggest advertisers. Nike pulled out all the stops in a rollicking, four minute ad directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, and now two of five prominently featured stars—Drogba due to injury, and Ronaldinho due to Dunga leaving him out of the Brazil squad—will not feature in South Africa. Adidas’ bizarre Star Wars-related spot looks brilliant in comparison simply by not featuring any current soccer stars whatsoever (or anyone remotely related to football for the most part, except for David Beckham, and a two second shot of Franz Beckenbauer).
Yet player absences have always played a part, and often a very interesting one, during the World Cup. Garrincha rose to the fore in Chile in 1962 because Pele was injured early on in a group stage match. Cesar Menotti controversially left out a young but supremely gifted Maradona from the 1978 squad in Argentina and won the World Cup against a Dutch team in the final defined by the absence of Johan Cruyff. Absences form an integral part of the narrative arc of a tournament. They also make room for other players to rise in their stead. This year happens to be worse for star player absences than most, but it is far too early to wail that 2010 is cursed and a write-off.
Ghana’s Michael Essien said it quietly and best the other day, when he remarked of his World Cup ending injury, “I have to admit no one was more disappointed than me but that’s life and I have to move on.” Almost all the papers said Essien spoke “philosophically,” as if not ranting and raving against cruel Fate or consigning your team’s chances to the dust-bin of history well before the fact because you wouldn’t be there was in and of itself a “philosophy.” Meanwhile, Messi, Rooney, Ronaldo—they’re all still there, touch wood. There’s still a feast amid all the famine. If Kent Brockman asks you if this is the time to panic, just say no.
It’s no surprise that some of the best writing in the mainstream press on soccer and South Africa comes from those who have actually spent some time in the country, or at least the relevant continent. Not a shocker.
Today, David Crary — a news editor for the Associated Press in South Africa from 1987 to 1990 — offers an informative, compelling and positive story including a brief history of soccer in South Africa as a force for good, despite the obstacles its development faced, as he explains in a piece for the AP:
Over many decades of minority rule, South Africa’s white authorities wielded every kind of law and policy they could think of to maintain a segregated society that kept blacks down. Yet one sport confounded every strategy – soccer.
When Bafana Bafana, the mostly black national squad, takes the field next Friday as host team of the 2010 World Cup, that moment will culminate the dramatic evolution of South African soccer along a path that foretold the demise of apartheid.
Crary delves into this history in some detail, at least for an AP article, such as with this passage:
The ’70s and ’80s produced an array of brilliant black players – including Ace Ntsoelengoe of the Kaizer Chiefs and Jomo Sono of the Orlando Pirates. They both played in the North American Soccer League as well as in South Africa, and Sono – highlighting the ascension of blacks in the sport – purchased a previously white Johannesburg team when he returned home in 1982.
Tony Karon, a South African-born journalist with Time.com, wrote an essay after Ntsoelengoe’s death in 2006, recalling how the great black stars of the apartheid era had become heroes to young South African fans of all races.
Because of the international sports boycott imposed on South Africa during apartheid, players like Ntsoelengoe never got to represent their country internationally. Yet Karon argues that they played a historic role nonetheless.
“The emergence of Ace and his contemporaries as the first generation of urban black celebrities in South Africa … was a negation of the very basis of apartheid’s version of black identity as a rural, tribal phenomenon,” Karon wrote.
Read the rest here. Note: some of the history mentioned in it has been covered here by Andrew Guest, so check out his pieces on South African soccer and the old North American Soccer League,and one on how South Africa’s greatest soccer moment complemented their now famous Rugby World Cup victory.
This is the sixth in series of brief and miscellaneous perspectives on the World Cup groups and nations (here’s Group A, Group B, Group C, Group D, and Group E). The mostly light-hearted intention is to both provoke and satisfy curiosities, to utilize Eric Hobsbawn’s notion that “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people,” to fill some space towards the World Cup frenzy…
What if the World Cup was organized by some criteria beyond just nation-state boundary? What if it was like boxing or wrestling, with different weight classes to make matches competitive? Or what if it were like American professional sports, where the teams that get to play are the ones with the most money? What would be the criteria to keep things fair in world football?
Taking this hypothetical as a question of what objective characteristics matter most to a country’s soccer success, I’ll turn (yet again) to the book Soccernomics: Why England Loses. Authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski identify three key variables in their effort to statistically predict international football success by country: experience (ie, number of international games played in a nation’s history), wealth, and population. I don’t really buy Kuper and Szymanski’s argument for experience—it just doesn’t makes sense that what happened 50 years ago matters much to a team now, and seems more like their Euro-centrism in statistical guise (since most western European countries have been playing regular internationals for longer than countries in other parts of the world). I do buy that wealth, operationalized as GDP per capita, matters—but that wouldn’t be much fun as a criteria for a World Cup because it would leave Brazil and Argentina playing against mostly minnows while the US gets whooped by Germany and France.
That leaves population. And population brings me to Group F: the Super Flyweights of the 2010 World Cup. As the smallest quartet in the tournament, you could combine the populations of all four teams in Group F—Italy with 60 million, Paraguay with 6.3 million, New Zealand with 4 million, and Slovakia with 5.4 million—and get a population that would fit two and a half times over in Brazil alone. Or four times over in the United States (as a side note, when people express surprise that Americans have bought more World Cup tickets than any other nation outside the hosts, remind them that the US is quite easily the largest country in the tournament—and certainly the largest with significant disposable income).
So what would a World Cup contested by population brackets look like? The Best Eleven blog did much of the work on this back in January with a post comparing FIFA rankings by population for countries with over 100 million (the US came in third behind Brazil and Russia—with Bangladesh and Pakistan at the bottom of the table); 50-100 million; 30-50 million; 20-30 million; 10-20 million; and then a separate post for countries with 8-10 million; 6-8 million; 5-6 million; 4-5 million; 3-4 million; 2-3 million; 1-2 million; and less than 1 million (go Bahrain and Cyprus!).
In that scheme Group F looks pretty good. Italy was number one in the 50-100 million group (with Myanmar and the Philippines at the bottom of the table); Slovakia came second to Denmark in the 5-6 million people group; Paraguay was third in the 6-8 million group (behind only Switzerland of World Cup teams); and New Zealand came in a respectable fifth in a tough 4-5 million group (behind Croatia, Norway, Ireland, and Costa Rica).
Now what if we took this line of thinking to another logical extreme and tried to make the World Cup a representative democracy? If we value all human life equally, shouldn’t teams be representative of the world’s population? Well, probably not. Because if you did it that way, you’d have to allot 12 of the 32 spots to teams from China (with about 20% of the world’s population) and India (with about 17%). The US, with about 4.5% of the world’s population, would get almost a team and half—but to make up that other half it would probably need to combine with Mexico (1.5% of the world’s population) and that just wouldn’t be any fun. Brazil, with about 2.8% of the world’s population, would still just about get a team—but so would Indonesia (3.39%), Pakistan (2.49%), and Bangladesh (2.38%). Group F, on the other hand, represents just 1.1% of the world population combined—good for about a third of an entry in a truly representative 32 team World Cup. Finally, Europe (with about 10.9% of the world’s population) would only get about three teams in total (compared to 13 in South Africa 2010)—confirming that indeed FIFA would never let this happen.
It is, however, worth keeping in mind that for all the discussion about youth development schemes, league set-ups, coaching traditions, sports culture, and “passion for the game,” population does matter. Why, for example, is Australia likely to be significantly better than New Zealand at the World Cup? Could it be as simple as the fact that the Australian population, and thus the Aussie player pool, is nearly six times bigger than the Kiwis? It is probably quite significant that since tiny Uruguay (currently the 132nd largest country in the world with 3.4 million) won the first and fourth World Cups in 1930 and 1950, no nation with a current population under 40 million has lifted the trophy (by my count, Argentina is the least-populous winner).
Fortunately, part of the fun of the World Cup is that it ultimately comes down to eleven players on the day—regardless of how big the national player pool. I might be able to explain the contrast between New Zealand and Australia in terms of population, but that doesn’t explain why the Kiwis are likely to get pasted by comparably sized Paraguay and Slovakia. To figure that one out, we’ll just need to watch the games.
Group F: The Group of _______________
In addition to the notably small population size, Group F has some intriguing statistical character (see the table below). Take Paraguay: besides the African nations, Paraguay and Honduras are the two poorest countries in the tournament (Paraguay as a GDP per capita of $4500, Honduras $4100) and the two with the lowest ranking on the United Nations Human Development Index (Paraguay is 101st, Honduras 112th). Yet for Paraguay that may be misleading since it also ranks as the World Cup nation with the highest level of economic inequality (based on the “Gini index” scores reported on Wikipedia from the CIA World Factbook). The only two countries close to Paraguay (at 128th of 135 countries) on inequality are the current and future World Cup hosts: South Africa was one spot better at 127th and Brazil three spots up at 125th.
What I found most statistically interesting about this group, however, was another random category in which Paraguay tops the World Cup nations: corruption. On this one, according to Transparency International, Paraguay is actually tied with Côte d’Ivoire at 154th out of 180 world nations on ‘perceptions of corruption.’ Slovakia (at 56th) and Italy (at 63rd) do a bit better—but of course we all know the reputation of Italian football. John Foot, in his aptly titled book Winning at All Costs: A Scandalous History of Italian Soccer, has an entire section on ‘Corruption, Suspicion, Legitimation’ where he notes:
“For the Italian football fan, the referee is always corrupt, unless proven otherwise. What remains to be discovered is how he is or has been corrupt, in favour of whom, and why. It is this thesis that dominates most discussions of Italian football. Conspiracy theories abound – are hegemonic, in fact. Who will be allowed to win next year, next week, tomorrow, and why? In Italy, there is the strong conviction that the state, its rules and regulations are flexible entities, besmirched with corruption and therefore ready to be flouted and challenged…In Italy, as the writer and football critic Giovanni Arpino put it, ‘those who hold power, even for ninety minutes, are never looked upon in a good light’.”
A generalization? Sure; but in soccer terms the Italians have to be considered at least as corrupt as the Paraguayans.
Interestingly, however, all these perceptions of corruption are counterbalanced in Group F by the presence of New Zealand—ranked by Transparency International as the least corrupt country in the world. But still, while the nation of New Zealand seems beyond suspicion, any national team with a center back who can’t get a game with the New York Red Bulls on the roster (Andrew Boyens) could only be described as ‘suspect.’ So I’m labeling Group F The Group of Suspicion and Innuendo.
Who would advance if there were any justice in the world?
The Paraguayans are a tough one to calculate with my secret formula of soccer history and global politics. Being relatively small and relatively poor makes them seem a bit like a noble underdog, and it would be just for them to win in the name of their fallen compatriot—national team regular Salvador Cabañas who was shot, but not killed, in Mexico City. I also tend to think they just look majestic in their red and white stripes. But it’s not enough to overcome being the most unequal country in the tournament: Paraguay is out.
The Italians also have much against them. Silvio Berlusconi. That ugly catenaccio lock-down style. The traitor Giuseppe Rossi. I want to hate them. But I just can’t—perhaps because I know they don’t particularly care what anyone else thinks (and they are not bad in regard to inequality: at 38th, they’re just three spots behind Canada). They’ll win, and they are in.
Pop quiz: which World Cup team will likely feature two Stanford University graduates? Hint: it’s not the US or England. I feel some affinity for New Zealand thanks to their strange connections with the much maligned American college soccer system (both Simon Elliott and Ryan Nelson finished college at Stanford, after the Cardinal soccer program was briefly taken over by former New Zealand national team coach, former Scottish international, and current Notre Dame coach Bobby Clark). In addition to the two from Stanford, Tony Lochhead played at UC Santa Barbara, Tim Brown played at the University of Cincinnati, Andrew Barron played at William Carey University in Mississippi, Aaron Clapham finished at the University of Louisville, Andrew Boyens played at the University of New Mexico, and there may be others I’ve missed. So even if they won’t win any games, I’ll take the Kiwis in a debate about the value of a good liberal arts education. The problem is that I just don’t think soccer matters enough in New Zealand—everything else (including Rugby) is going too well. So despite a respect for higher education, New Zealand is out.
That leaves me with Slovakia—and I’m fine with that. After they split with the Czechs I kind of lost the plot, but that whole ‘Velvet Divorce’ seemed quite reasonable. So if there were any justice in the world, Italy and Slovakia would advance from Group F. But, as the lack of representative democracy in the World Cup makes clear, there is rarely any justice in the world.
Group F – Some Stats
|FIFA rank||Betting odds on winning the Cup||Population||GDP per capita||Rank out of 182 nations on the Human Development Index||Life expectancy||Rank out of 180 nations on perception of corruption||A subjective ranking of how much the WC matters by country(1-32)|
|New Zealand||78||2500||4 mil.||26700||20||80.2||1||30|
A week ago, we called the upcoming extravaganza in South Africa the first Twitter World Cup, perhaps the most moronically obvious statement we’ve ever written, given the service barely existed in mid-2006.
Still, though, the existence of the service and other social media will present a fascinating angle to the tournament, with information control a far harder challenge for the organisers and team managements than ever before. Imagine if Twitter had existed during the 1998 World Cup, and the explosions and leaks that would have surrounded the Ronaldo imbroglio before the final.
Even before the tournament has started, we have a Twitter controversy:
England coach Fabio Capello has banned his players from commenting on Twitter, but that didn’t prevent others from tweeting about who was going or not going to the World Cup — before Capello even announced the England 23-player roster on Tuesday. That Theo Walcott was among the topics “trending” on Twitter was indeed not good news as he was the most notable of the seven players Capello cut.
Almost two hours before Capello’s scheduled announcement of the England 23, news of the seven players who had been dropped had spread across the web, and celebrity tweeters — at least celebrities in Britain — were adding their opinions on who was in or out.
“It’s frankly a shambolic and unacceptable way for England’s World Cup campaign to begin,” noted the BBC’s Jonathan Stevenson.
England players will not be allowed to comment on any social media site or write articles for newspapers during the tournament.
By contrast, the surprise of the United States’ squad announcement — that Robbie Findley was in and Brian Ching was out — largely was a surprise when the announcement was made, though some Twitter buzz had noted Ching had been seen earlier at an airport heading off. Without the suffocating interest and media coverage in England, social media is less of a danger to official Communications channels in the U.S. — though that’s not to say it’s not a concern or opportunity at all.
Different squads face different challenges and team managements are handling the situations in markedly divergent ways. England’s Football Association, as it mentions above, have put a blanket ban on players using social media: ensuring their superstars remain as remote as ever from us, though frankly, I would not have too much interest in what Frank Lampard had to tweet in any case.
For a team still striving for media attention domestically, like the United States, it makes sense to allow players to tweet, even if it still presents a challenge for the communications department of U.S. Soccer, who told me they simply offer “guidelines” for players to follow when using Twitter. They did not expand on what these guidelines encompass, but you can bet they will have some nervous moments when you think of an exhausted player with direct access to thousands of followers after a defeat with 140 characters to fill.
Imagine, for example, the media storm if Ledley King had typed the words U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu did after his selection for the U.S. team was announced, overcoming injury and doubters who he ill-advisedly termed “haters”:
Athletes are young, cocooned, and often unaware how their words ping around and are perceived by fans. It’s good that U.S. Soccer are treating their players like grown-ups, unlike the Football Association. There’s a serious upside to this too for soccer in the United States, with the connections players build with fans through Twitter. But one suspects there will be a hairy moment or two for U.S. Soccer officials to deal with come gametime.
The England flags will be breaking out again soon. This was the last time they flew in hope for the England team, on July 1st 2006, a day that I for one almost threw my television out of the window after England lost on penalty kicks to Portugal at the quarter-final stage.
(Note: The second half of this post is a set of suggested links and sources for context and culture around the coming World Cup; anyone interested in that more than my own thoughts on context—or anyone with suggestions of your own—should feel free to skip ahead)
I’ve cried twice this last year. Pathetically, perplexingly, and maybe significantly, both those occasions were prompted by World Cup promotional media: one was the first time I saw the video of K’Naan’s ‘Wavin’ Flag’ thinking it was going to be the official World Cup anthem (it has since come to pass that there are many different “official anthems” at the whim of various sponsors, and that the lyrics of the World Cup version of ‘Wavin’ Flag’ have been significantly watered down); the other was the first time I saw the Puma ‘Journey of Football’ video. I’m generally quite a stoic fellow. I tend to be hyper-critical of marketing and its mechanisms. Yet, somehow these brief pieces tore down all the intellectualizing I’ve tried to do during this ‘Year of African Soccer’ and confronted me with confusing and raw emotions: the media representations of Africa that are coming out of this World Cup, which in my mind also translate to broader representations of global inequality and social justice, matter.
I started writing these weekly pieces almost a year ago for exactly that reason: I hoped to be a small part of intelligent conversations about soccer and/as culture, and to offer whatever perspectives I have as an American soccer fan with experiences in Africa and training in social science. Trying to write from that place has been engrossing, frustrating, great fun, and occasionally demoralizing. I’ve been alternately engaged, insulted, complimented, and ignored (and I’ve come to understand why bloggers do so much meta-commentary about blogging—something I never understood when I was just a reader). Any conversations my writing generated mostly are nothing to do with Africa: the things I’ve written this year have been about half related to Africa and half not, but the pieces that have gotten the most comments and links are about the psychology of fan rivalries and the demographics of American soccer.
I know rationally that this shouldn’t surprise me—Africa is usually not on our radar. It has also become increasingly clear that FIFA so dominates and manufactures the modern World Cup that there is little room for genuine local character. As Greg Fredericks, identified as “a senior manager for South Africa’s World Cup organizing committee,” explained to the New York Times: “This is not our World Cup…It is FIFA’s World Cup. We are just the organizers. We are the stage.”
But I still think if there is to be any lasting legacy of this 2010 World Cup, for good or for ill, it will be in offering millions of soccer fans around the globe a rare window on Africa as a full member of the global community. When else, besides in the context of war or disaster, do we pay much attention? So far, however, the media coverage I’ve seen has not been encouraging. As much as I like the Puma ‘Journey of Football’ video for representing African football in all its passionate guises, I am bothered by the many other ads that try to sell an image of Africa as one large rural village full of barefoot boys and rag balls. Similarly, as much as I appreciate the sudden appearance of several decent books about soccer in Africa, I am bothered by how most of the day-to-day media seems to focus on sensationalizing stories about crime, unsold tickets, and perceived dysfunction.
There are, certainly, problems in South Africa—but the fearful stories are so rarely counterweighted by any appreciation for the nuanced reality of South Africa as a complex society. I’ve been surprised at how little interest there seems to be in the real soccer experiences, and ‘normal’ daily experiences, of 47 million South Africans who somehow manage—as most of us do—to muddle through.
Take, for example, Friday’s Soccer America Daily “Section Two: Around the Net” (which arrived as an email while I was writing) with the dramatic headline “US State Department issues South Africa travel alert” and proceeds to raise an alarm:
“The U.S. State Department has issued a travel alert to U.S. citizens traveling to or residing in South Africa to safety and security issues related to the FIFA World Cup taking place in nine cities across the country. It includes:
‘The vast majority of visitors complete their travels in South Africa without problems; however, visitors should be aware that criminal activity, including violent crime, is prevalent throughout the country. Be alert and aware of your surroundings at all times, looking out for your own personal security. While driving, keep doors locked and windows closed, avoid having purses, phones, bags and luggage in plain view, and when stopping at intersections at night or in isolated locations, leave enough space in front of your vehicle for a quick exit. …’”
At the bottom, however, is a subtle link to “Full information” on the “U.S. Mission to South Africa” dedicated World Cup website, which offers a different message that most readers won’t see:
“As we count down to the World Cup, the entire United States Diplomatic Mission to South Africa shares your excitement about what is to be a world-class sporting event showcasing the beauty of South Africa and her people.
We believe that South Africa will host a dynamic sporting event and that the World Cup 2010 will be a great success. As South Africa’s friend and partner on the continent and in global affairs, the United States Mission is proud to welcome and support its National Team in the games this year.”
Obviously the issuing of a travel alert, no matter that it is boilerplate stuff for a sports mega-event, seems much more newsworthy than travel-agent style platitudes (and most days I really enjoy the ecclectic links in ‘Around the Net’). But I still feel bothered by what seems to be unbalanced sensationalizing, and can’t help think it panders to classic stereotypes of Africa as ‘dark and dangerous.’
I suppose all I can do at this point is go and see for myself. I leave for South Africa June 7th, arriving a mere two days later (after stops in Newark, London, and Doha Qatar to make the flight moderately affordable) where I hope to offer impressions of my own for this site during the group stage. I have not, unfortunately, been able to wrangle any special connections or credentials—I’m going entirely on my own tab as a regular soccer fan. But I would welcome any ideas for off-the-beaten-track stories, suggestions of what people who will not be there are curious to know, or connections with people who will be in the Pretoria/Johannesburg area for the US group games (I’ve even got an extra ticket for the US-England game if anyone is interested in a trade—my email is linked below). I’m not sure what or how often I’ll be able to write while there, but it will likely be my last hurrah: after the World Cup I’ve got to cut back or cut out this soccer writing. It’s just too consuming.
For now, however, I’m still in full World Cup frenzy and still feel intensely engaged with thinking about representations of South Africa 2010. So in that vein, I’d like to offer some suggestions of media I’ve found worthwhile for thinking fans wanting to complement the games with the places. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list—in fact, if anyone out there is reading this and has additional recommendations to add in the comments that would be most welcome. But here’s a start on sources from which to try and find perspectives offering some of the context, complexity, and nuance the culmination of this ‘Year of African Soccer’ deserves:
South African Sources: South Africa itself has quite a vibrant and diverse media, and it is well-worth checking out local perspectives in addition to international sources. Regarding newspapers, for example, The Mail & Guardian is among the most respected in South Africa, and has its own special World Cup section (though so far I’ve found the main site more informative). In addition to straight news, interesting features here include satiric video segments of “ZA News” (see a sample below) and one of the most well-known political commentators in South Africa: a cartoonist known as Zapiro (who is currently embroiled in his own controversy around cartoons offense to some Muslim groups). Other interesting South African sources include The Star, the Cape Argus, the Sowetan, and the more alternative Daily Maverick—with others easily available on-line. One article on the Daily Maverick site includes a helpful Q & A for World Cup visitors including the question of whether there any local “special procedures for paying homage to Sepp Blatter?”, with the response that of course, “There’s the Sepp Blatter tribute dance, which you’ll learn on arrival at the airport.”
I’d also recommend keeping tabs on the blog Africa is a Country, which is run by a South African academic living in New York who also happens to really know soccer. In fact, I’d further recommend a soccer-specific sister site Football’s Coming Home, except that it seems to have had some hosting and updating problems lately [corrected, as per Sean's comment below]. So while ‘Africa is a Country’ is mostly about Africa-related politics, media, and art—with a smart, vibrant, critical spin (and links to other kindred sites in its blogroll)—I’m looking forward to some alternative World Cup content as the tournament happens.
Books: However predictable, I’ve been grateful for the run of good quality books on African soccer in the run-up to the World Cup. These include several that have been reviewed here on Pitch Invasion: a historical perspective on African soccer by scholar Peter Alegi titled African Soccerscapes, a historical book and documentary titled More Than Just a Game about the importance of soccer on Robben Island in apartheid South Africa, along with two quality journalistic takes—Africa United by Steve Bloomfield and Feet of the Chameleon by Ian Hawkey. Of the many tournament specific guidebooks on offer, I’ve particularly enjoyed World Cup 2010: The Indispensable Guide to Soccer and Geopolitics for its mix of eclectic perspectives and reasonably thorough overviews (it is clear from some minor editing over-sights that it was put together relatively quickly—but such is the challenge of actual hard-copy books for time-sensitive events). I’ve also been intrigued by a PDF book titled Player and Referee investigating the hosting process put out by South Africa’s respected Institute for Security Studies and linked to by a NY Times review.
Documentaries: There seem to have been several relevant documentary films put together amidst the World Cup build-up, but I’ve had a hard time figuring out how to actually track them down (barring ethically/legally suspect downloads). So if anyone knows how to access these legally, let me know. The hints I’ve seen include: The African Game by director/photographer Andrew Dosunmu; Fahrenheit 2010 (a critical take on FIFA and the hosting of the World Cup—which I think maybe has been re-named ‘Who Really Wins’ for distribution); and a fascinating looking film on the legacy of Zaire’s ill-fated trip to the 1974 World Cup titled Between the Cup and the Elections (but in French). There are also clips from short films, including one titled Drogba Fever, along with a fun story about a travelling South African ‘Soccer Cinema’ available on the PBS web-site. Other films mentioned by Soccer Cinema include Black Star: An African Football Odyssey (about Michael Essien), and Streetball (about South Africa’s team in the homeless World Cup). I also wrote a piece here on Pitch Invasion about an excellent documentary from a few years back on a women’s soccer team in Tanzania. Finally, I’m cautiously optimistic about some of the short features ESPN will be putting together on South Africa outside the big stadiums, and suspect there will be many other such takes from the world media—again, if anyone knows of good pieces please leave comments.
Essays: Everywhere I go the main World Cup magazine feature I see is that damn Vanity Fair issue with the Annie Leibovitz photos of famous players in their underwear, and the condescending essay by a haughty Brit. We’ve made much progress in the American soccer media, but the whole Vanity Fair thing feels like a major step back (though to be fair, they do have a good soccer specific web-site going that is much more interesting than the magazine’s World Cup feature). There are, however, some other good magazine style essays I’ve seen—and I’m sure more to come. But so far I’ve liked Alexandra Fuller’s piece in National Geographic (which has little to do with soccer, but much to do with South Africa), the excellently titled ‘Ballad of a South African Football Fan’ from the Economist’s Intelligent Life, and the Guardian series of essays on ‘South Africa Today’ by South African writers.
Other: Some random sources I’ve enjoyed stumbling across include an academic library bibliography on ‘Football in Africa’ (with a slight Dutch bias thanks to being put together by the African Studies Centre in Leiden); a collection of ‘official’ 2010 World Cup art; and a socialist perspective on why “South Africa wins the World Cup … of inequality.” I’m also interested in the many efforts to leverage the World Cup towards socially conscious ends, which include an interesting blog on the World Cup and Corporate Social Responsibility and FIFA partner ‘streetfootballworld’ who is leading the main World Cup charitable legacy of constructing ‘Football for Hope’ centers across Africa (suspiciously, however, while the official campaign was “20 Centres for 2010” there are only 6 announced and no one has been able to tell me what happened to the other 14). Finally, there will certainly continue to be much good web/blog coverage—though I can’t tell how much will focus on the contexts in addition to the games. I have enjoyed reading the archives of The Global Game for its occasional Africa themes, and Nutmeg Radio for its pieces on social change and series on South African history.
My work: Finally, forgive the self-promotion but I’ve worked hard this last year for nothing more than intrinsic satisfaction and writing practice. So I’d love it if anyone found some of my old work offering an American perspective on African soccer here on Pitch Invasion interesting: I first wrote about my own experiences playing in Malawi, then wrote several pieces on prominent issues in contemporary African soccer (on the uncertain ages of players, on local obsessions with European leagues, on youth academies and player migration, on the idea of sports as part of development, and on magic and superstition), several pieces related to January’s African Nations Cup in Angola (on China building stadiums, on a hypothetical ‘Francophone’ advantage, on my experiences working in Angolan refugee camps, a sort-of response to the Togo bus tragedy, and reflections on how Africa gets represented through soccer), two stories of African players coming to America (on Futty Danso and Steve Zakuani), and I’ve linked above to my various Africa related book and movie reviews. Finally, in recent months I put together two stories on South Africa’s soccer history that, to my great consternation, hardly anyone seemed to read: one on the connections between South African soccer and the old North American Soccer League, and one on how South Africa’s greatest soccer moment complemented their now famous Rugby World Cup. Thanks very sincerely to anyone who’s been paying attention.
This is the fifth in series of brief and miscellaneous perspectives on the World Cup groups and nations (here’s Group A, Group B, Group C, and Group D). The mostly light-hearted intention is to both provoke and satisfy curiosities, and to fill some space amidst the World Cup frenzy…
Maybe it’s because the Dutch are often described as having a ‘philosophical’ approach to their football. Or maybe it’s because the old Monty Python skit on soccer philosophers (where Nietzsche was “booked for arguing with the referee; he accused Confucius of having no free will”) has been popping up lately. Or maybe it’s just me. But when contemplating Group E (Holland, Denmark, Japan, and Cameroon) I couldn’t stop thinking about philosophy.
I’ve never been very good with philosophy, mind you, but that may just be appropriate to the vain pursuit of trying to make sports seem profound. In other words, I know just enough philosophy to cobble together quotes from a big thinker native to each of the countries in Group E and then take those quotes totally out of context: as they might translate to the World Cup.
With Holland, for example, my occasional academic interest in sports and play has led me at various points to the well-known 1938 book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture by Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga. It’s the type of book that I know is supposed to be really good and profound—but I’ve never quite gotten it. Kind of like Dutch football. If they can’t win anything, and if they somewhat regularly fail to qualify for the World Cup (as in 1982, 1986, and 2002) then I find it hard to appreciate their genius—no matter how many Dutchmen tell me I’m supposed to.
But maybe the answer is in Huizinga? In Homo Ludens he takes a world historical perspective on play, explaining it as a lost art:
“As a civilization becomes more complex, more variegated, and more over laden, and as the technology of goods production and social life itself become more finely organized, the old cultural soil is gradually smothered under a rank layer of ideas, systems of thought and knowledge, doctrines, rules and regulations, moralities and conventions which have all lost touch with play. Civilization, we then say has grown more serious; it assigns only a secondary place to playing. The heroic period is over, and the agonistic phase, too, seems a thing of the past.”
Perhaps, then, the Dutch national team’s reputation for style over results is a symbolic move towards recovering the lost art of play? Damn civilization and its “rank layer” of “doctrines, rules and regulations, moralities and conventions.” Damn scoring goals when it matters. To play, to really play, is the thing. And to exit the World Cup somewhere around the middle of the knock-out stages.
Though the Japanese don’t have the same soccer history as the Dutch, East Asian philosophy also rings of prioritizing subjective experience—the momentary beauty of an elegant poem, the First Noble Truth of life as suffering. When I looked up the man the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy calls “the most significant and influential Japanese philosopher of the twentieth-century,” I found a similar theme. Though I couldn’t understand most of the importance of Nishida Kitarō, I could recognize the wisdom in the poetry he wrote to cope with the death of his first wife and four of his eight children:
The bottom of my soul has such depth;
Neither joy nor the waves of sorrow can reach it
This may just be the best the Japanese can hope for at the 2010 World Cup: to not worry about the joy or the sorrow (especially since there is likely to be more of the latter) and instead contemplate the depth of one’s soul.
Which brings me, obviously, to Søren Kierkegaard. The Dane, famed for his existentialism and his depression, may well have been talking to the current Danish national team in one of his famous quotes:
“I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations – one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it – you will regret both.”
Translation: in South Africa the Danes will either advance from the group or they won’t. And they will regret it.
Leaving only Cameroon, with somewhat less of a modern philosophical tradition but—make no mistake—some legitimate intellectual heft. In fact, one of the earliest (and best) essays offering a critical local perspective on South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 World Cup is a 2006 piece by Cameroon-born, Sorbonne-educated, South Africa-based post-colonial scholar Achille Mbembe:
“Every indication is that ‘Africa, the cradle of humankind’ will be the dominant theme of the 2010 Soccer World Cup. On the world scene, such platitudes will only further relegate the continent to the realm of folklore. Not only does such a theme smack of nativism, it does not say anything meaningful about who we are, who we want to be, and what our proposition for the world is.
That Bafana Bafana (the national football team) will not win this competition is a public secret. Now, if we cannot win on the soccer field and if our victory won’t be economic and financial, then we better start thinking hard about changing the very terms of what it means to win at all.”
Translation: The trans-national Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, with players who ply their trade in 11 different countries, will be serious.
Group E: The Group of _______________
In looking at the statistics for the nations of Group E (see below) the most striking thing is the relative wealth of Holland, Denmark, and Japan. Having those three countries in the group, the only one in the World Cup with three nations whose GDP per capita is over $30,000 per year, makes Group E easily the wealthiest group (on average) in the tournament. Not coincidentally, it is also the quartet with the highest average ranking on the UN ‘Human Development Index.’
Contrasting the statistics from Holland, Denmark, and Japan with those of Cameroon does, however, offer cause for some notes on global inequality. We all know the general cliché of Europe = Rich, Africa = Poor, but seeing the numbers up against each other in a soccer tournament somehow reinforces for me the tragedy of global inequality—the Dutch are struggling through ‘the great recession’ on $40,000 per person per year, while the Cameroonians manage on $2000. And even if we put money aside, looking at life expectancy ranges from Japan’s 82.6 years to Cameroon’s 50.4 years is simply shocking.
I did, however, find an interesting statistic in which Cameroon is equal to its European group mates: tax rates. According to NationMaster.com, Cameroon, Denmark, and the Netherlands are 1, 2, and 3 in the world for “the highest rate shown on the schedule of tax rates applied to the taxable income of individual” (at 60%, 59%, and 52% respectively). Japan, in relative contrast, looks like a Tea Partier’s paradise at 37th (at 37%). But still, combining the overall high tax rates, the somewhat fatalistic trend in each nation’s philosophical history, and the conventional soccer moniker, Group E reminds me that only two things are certain in life—and shall be ‘The Group of Death and Taxes.’
Who would advance if there were any justice in the world?
In this first African World Cup, Cameroon has to be a sentimental favorite. They are, after all, the African country who has played in the most World Cups (5), and their 1990 performances against Argentina and England are widely regarded as the point where African soccer began to be taken seriously around the world. I remember that opening game of Italia ’90 between Cameroon and Argentina like it was yesterday—the joyful exuberance of the Indomitable Lions, the fear and confusion of the Argentineans, Roger Milla dancing with a wild grin at the corner flag. But then I realize that memory is a funny thing, and I’ve probably been watching too many Coca-Cola commercials. The historical record suggests that famous game was actually a relatively brutal display of cynical soccer—by the end Cameroon had two players dismissed for violent play. Francois Omam-Biyik scored the only goal for Cameroon off a deflected cross and a goalkeeper error (Milla played briefly in the game, but his magical scoring run only started after the first game). Cameroon did play some nice soccer at points in the 1990 tournament, and their performance was iconic, but it wasn’t always pretty. Using my secret formula of soccer history and global politics, however, the history is enough to justify Cameroon going through.
And speaking of having one’s perceptions distorted by marketing and clichés, I have some grudges against Dutch soccer. First, because they get much credit for playing the ‘beautiful game’ and ‘total football,’ they seem to get a free pass for employing unrepentant leg-breakers such as Nigel De Jong. Second, the arrogance too often associated with Dutch football is hard to stomach. I can’t believe American viewers are going to be subjected to Ruud Gullit commentary on the World Cup after the hubris and embarrassment that was his tenure with the LA Galaxy. Third, in my experience Dutch soccer people love to tell anyone who will listen what an accomplishment it is for them to be “so good for such a small country.” And while they are certainly smaller than some of the other favorites, population-wise there are 10 other countries at the World Cup with fewer people than the Dutch—including group-mates Denmark who have only 5.5 million, compared to Holland’s 16.5 million, along with an equal number of European Championships and World Cups (one and zero). Of course, the Dutch do have some brilliant players, coaches, and teams; they can be a joy to watch. But in my mind they are out.
Finally, there is not much between Japan and Denmark for the other spot. I’m partial to the Japanese for sending one of their former World Cup goal scorers, Takayuki Suzuki, to my local Portland Timbers. Sure, he seems to have lost a step or five—but how many USL teams can claim players with World Cup goals? But my scales were ultimately tipped by learning that Danish center back Daniel Agger has a bit of the old Kierkegaard attitude in him (or on him): two of his many tattoos read, in Latin, Memento mori (“Remember you will die”) and Mors certa hora incerta (“Death is certain, but the hour is uncertain”). For quite literally embodying the ethos of this Group of Death and Taxes, Denmark is in.
Meaning that if there were any justice in the world Cameroon and Denmark would go through. But remember the lessons of the great philosophers: there is rarely any justice in the world.
Group E – Some Stats
|FIFA rank||Betting odds on winning the Cup||Population||GDP per capita||Rank out of 182 nations on the Human Development Index||Life expectancy||Rank out of 117 nations on ‘highest marginal tax rate’||A subjective ranking of how much the WC matters by country(1-32)|
The obvious big story out of this week was Jose Mourinho’s transfer to Real Madrid immediately following Inter Milan’s Champions League win. Not one for subtlety, perhaps the most memorable image was that of Mourinho exiting his car to weepily embrace defender Marco Materazzi, presumably on his way to a similarly weepy exit interview with Massimo Moratti.
In the midst of all the tears and poorly-guarded transfer details, the Times‘ Oliver Kay cleverly reminded his followers what Real Madrid general manager Jorge Valdano said about “the Special One’s” managerial approach with Chelsea back in 2007:
Real Madrid’s Valdano “Mourinho/Benitez don’t believe in the talent of players or ability to improvise to win matches” (2007)
Valdano: “If football goes the way Chelsea/LFC are taking it, goodbye to expression of cleverness/talent we’ve enjoyed for 100 yrs” (2007)
Kay intended for Valdano to eat his three year-old words (“I found Valdano’s comments re Mourinho/Benitez disrespectful at the time. Interesting that Real have “sold out” though”), but he inadvertently underlined a massive change in the European footballing landscape.
This past season was supposed to be all about Real Madrid. While spending millions upon millions of Euros on securing the talents of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, and Karim Benzema in the summer of 2009 may have seemed preposterous in light of the success of the last generation of Galacticos, it followed a Madrista script that was written back in the mid 1950s: players are king at Real.
This was the ethos of the Yé-yé team that dominated the European Cup in the early days of the competition in the late 1950s, and it’s summed up best by Francisco Gento on the documentary, the History of Football, speaking of how Madrid beat AC Milan’s defense in the 1958 European Cup in Brussels: “we were Madrid, we broke down all systems.” No one remembers the names of the managers from that period; all that remains is Santiago Bernebeu’s collection of individual talents who worked together to overcome top-down tactical rigidity. This approach has marked Real Madrid’s player policy under president Florentino Perez.
It also sparked Valdano’s “shit on a stick” remarks back in 2007, which underlined his belief that talented players are still capable of winning games in the modern European game with cleverness, ingenuity, creativity. This was the ethos that led to a Madrid first team packed with wildly expensive footballing talent with the skilled but hardly world-beating Manuel Pelligrini at the helm. And it failed; Real didn’t win La Liga, and they yet again went out of the competition they first made famous, missing out on a Champions League final on their home ground. Real’s decision to acquire Mourinho is an admission of defeat. Player power is over; Mourinho’s Real Madrid signing caps the Age of the Manager.
Yet Valdano was wrong in 2007 to ascribe blame for the modern lack of individual creativity in football on Mourinho; he is a symbol (a fascinating one at that) how talented soccer players are molded in Europe in the 21st century. Hoovered up into academies or youth reserve teams at younger and younger ages, promising players aren’t given the space to improvise. They aren’t given the authority to make on-field decisions that will guide the team as a whole. They learn one or two on-field positions and are therefore incapable of variation. They play precisely to the manager’s wishes, or they are shunted off for good. Mourinho’s father-like embrace of Matrix on his exit from Inter Milan sums up the paternalistic philosophy of the modern manager.
This approach is also reflected in Mourinho’s remarks before the European Cup final last weekend that the Champions League is now bigger than the World Cup. This is a view increasingly held by journalists and managers alike, who reason that the motley collection of individually talented players thrown together every two years could not possibly be as good as the Europe’s big clubs, precisely because they have much less time playing under the national team manager.
Which is why the team to watch in the World Cup in South Africa will be Diego Maradona’s Argentina. Here is a manager with no discernible tactical approach but with a squad packed with some of the best players in the world, including Barcelona’s “Playstation player,” Lionel Messi. Maradona’s sincere belief in the talent of his squad—and his consistent lack of any and all managerial direction or authority—makes perfect sense considering his own individual footballing genius. Here is man who epitomizes Valdano’s football philosophy, using cleverness and ingenuity to give Argentina the World Cup in 1986. Their success in 2010 could be Player Power’s last stand. It will be fascinating to watch in any case.
It’s interesting that many still talk about 1986 as the last great FIFA tournament. It would too broad to blame the deterioration of the world’s most popular sporting tournament on the rise of the manager and the racehorse-breeding mentality of youth team coaches, but the two are probably not unrelated. Mourinho might be right: the Champions League could be the better competition, and the managers more than players are now the “Special Ones.” That other football philosopher, Eduardo Galeano, put it best:
In the old days there was the trainer and nobody paid him much heed. He died without a word when the game stopped being a game and professional soccer required a technocracy to keep people in line. Then the manager was born. His mission: to prevent improvisation, restrict freedom and maximize the productivity of the players, who were now obliged to become disciplined athletes.
I have no idea what kind of distribution The World is a Ball: The Joy, Madness and Meaning of Soccer is going to get outside of Canada and Ireland, where the author, John Doyle, has some kind of following. But if you’re in Canada, I suspect it’s going to be hard to go into a bookshop for the next two months without seeing this book prominently on display. Being football fans, you’re going to be tempted to buy it. So let me get the important part of this review of the way: if you do buy it, you will almost certainly be disappointed.
Who is John Doyle? He’s a likeable enough television columnist with the Globe and Mail. About a decade ago, when football was starting to gain some momentum as a spectator sport in Canada, he was tapped to do a little bit of football writing and given the altogether dreamy assignment of covering the first round of the Korea/Japan World Cup. It’s not entirely clear why he was given the job; as he himself says, he’s no sports reporter. One suspects that it’s because on a paper which was then largely clueless about the game, his Irishness seemed to give him some kind of insight into the game which the rest of Leaf Nation of Front St. lacked.
And so began Doyle’s Travels – come every major tournament since 2002, he’s been there for at least the first round, and usually through to the quarters (at which point a real sportswriter comes and replaces him). And he hasn’t been bad; he has a decent nose for the semi-operatic back-stories of major tournaments and unlike most North American writers he sees right through the England team’s hype to reveal it for the sad sack of crap it usually is.
But the question is: do you really want to read 375 pages of Doyle’s notebooks?
Because that’s what this book is. It’s a re-telling – by someone who begins the damn book by admitting he’s not a sportswriter – of every international game he’s been to since 2002. That’s about 35 games, though my eyes glazed over well before the end and I may have missed a few. A few of these were great, but most were tedious and not worth re-living. And even those that were memorable…well, the most distant of them was only eight years ago. The only thing I found even vaguely surprising in here was that Emmanuel Petit was in the France 2002 squad.
It doesn’t even work as a history of major tournaments because he keeps being sent home before the finals. Thus, in all the words about Germany 2006, we never hear about the magnificent Germany-Italy semi-final because he wasn’t there. This isn’t a history of two World Cups and two Euros; it’s a history of John Doyle’s two World Cups and two Euros. it’s a narcissist’s eye-view of the Tournaments
And oh, how we hear about his tournaments. Every plane, train and taxi ride. Every surly hotelkeeper and charming bar maid. Every half-drunken conversation with every Dutch, Swedish or Yemeni football fan across three continents. David Winner covered this territory of football-as-tourism in his Around the World in 90 Minutes, as did Giles Goodhead in Us vs. Them. There’s nothing about Doyle’s story that adds to this dubious genre.
The alleged payoff for all this is that Doyle can tell us about the “magic” of such events and how this shows the deeper meaning and wonderfulness of football. Occasionally, he is genuinely insightful – most notably when discussing the Irish fans and their rendition of The Fields of Athenry (by wilson at testsforge). But there’s a fair bit of dreck here, too. He invests the travelling “armies” of fans with greater cultural meaning than they probably deserve and he can’t help but indulge in some stereotypes when it comes to certain countries. Descriptions of Brazil never seem complete until he’s described their “glamorous” female TV correspondents or their “busty” female fans.
What he does a decent job of conveying is the way in which big football tournaments are a blast. People from many nations get together, drink, have fun and play and watch the best football on the planet. This is, indeed, insanely great, and he has lots of good stories and anecdotes to back this up (though, to be honest, if you’re enough of a football fan to buy this book, do you really need to be told this?). However, when he begins to describe tournaments as events in which “the Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies of human nature are united”, you wonder if he hasn’t passed the line from being a profound sage to being a wanker. Later, when he compares himself to Eduardo Galeano or muses about James Joyce’s likely response to the modern phenomenon of the “Esperanto of soccer language”, and the odds start to shift heavily in favour of the latter.
But what grates most about this book is the smugness. Clearly, Doyle has a lovely time being at all these tournaments on the Globe’s dime. So good that “there is no possible way to explain and describe…these long, mad nights when there’s music in the moonlight, or those dreamy, delightful days that bracket the game” He “cannot chronicle this mad, magnificent world (he) inhabit(s), this vaudeville, this place that the gods of pleasure and play have blessed”. Or, more concisely, as he says to another Canadian sports hack, “this is the life”.
When you get to the promised land, it’s unseemly to flaunt it. Doyle, instead of having the grace to realize this, went out and got himself a publisher instead.
Is Nike’s new World Cup video the highest form of commercial art?
Chris Good at The Atlantic:
Nike’s new ad, in keeping with that advertising tradition, is one of the highest-end pieces of commercial art you’ll see, considering the production from a bona fide filmmaker and the aggregate global appeal of all the multi-national stars on screen. Its airing will be an oddly tailored event of art, commerce and sport.
Or is it bloated, macho cliche in comparison to Puma’s own video?
Jennifer Doyle at From A Left Wing:
Contrast the above (and its soundtrack) with Nike’s bloated ad, which is seasoned with the most tired forms of machismo and sexism. Here there are even a few girls and women, presented not as sex objects or football failures, but as fans and players (asking the boys to give her the ball!). This ad, furthermore, is actually about African soccer.
Both videos are, obviously, impressive productions. And perhaps the biggest irony of all is that neither Nike nor Puma are official FIFA World Cup sponsors: you’ll notice if you watch both videos again that there is no mention of the World Cup itself. But we don’t need that: such is the global fever for the World Cup, we effortlessly read into these videos the event itself, without either company having to shell out millions to sponsor it (of course, they have both shelled out millions to sponsor the teams and players featured).
It’s yet more proof that marketers can “own” even the world’s biggest sporting event without paying a red cent in contract fees — if you’re clever enough.
This is a significant problem for sports sponsorship: NBC vastly overpaid to broadcast the Olympics and lost money when advertisers didn’t show up. Sure, the recession didn’t help. But it’s also to do with the fact that venues such as Youtube, where the Nike ad is already approaching 1 million views, offer massive audiences for zero money. Why bother paying for an official slot when an unofficial effort is so much more efficient?
Interestingly, one of Adidas’ World Cup videos — which is much more along the lines of Puma’s effort than Nike’s, but has received far less attention — also does not mention the event itself. And its relaxed insouciance, especially given the hype we cannot avoid elsewhere surrounding the event, might actually make it my favourite.
Update: A reader has made the important correction to me that the Adidas video above was actually made on spec by director Igor Martinovic, and is not an official Adidas video. Shame, for Adidas, though I guess that’s some damn cheap good publicity they have….
Robbie Findley! The surprising selection for the US World Cup roster by Bob Bradley, edging out Brian Ching, is apparently a global talking point on Twitter (the US is still by far the biggest nation of Twitter users, though now barely half the total).
Welcome to the first Twitter World Cup.
And another reminder of the remarkable amount of data on the World Cup about to pour around the world, with Akamai also saying this week they expect the event to far surpass any previous demand for anything in online video.
That’s all for now, back to discussing the merits of, well, Robbie Findley on Twitter.
This is the fourth in series of miscellaneous perspectives on the World Cup groups and nations (here’s Group A, Group B, and Group C). The mostly light-hearted intention is to both provoke and satisfy curiosities, and to utilize Eric Hobsbawn’s notion that “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.”
This is the second time around for the teams of Group D. It is the only quartet in the tournament comprised of four teams who were also at the World Cup in 2006 (so long as we stretch a bit by allowing an independent Serbia to substitute for 2006’s ‘Serbia and Montenegro’). While that may mean something about big game experience, for my miscellany series it means better writers than I have already done the hard work: Ghana, Serbia, Australia, and Germany were all covered in my sacred book, the 2006 Thinking Fans Guide to the World Cup. So I thought I’d turn the introduction over to them, selecting excerpts from longer essays on each:
Here’s British author Geoff Dyer on Serbia (and Montenegro—as they were combined in 2006):
“I could be wrong, could have been unduly influenced by Rebecca West’s belief ‘that acceptance of tragedy…is the basis of Slav life,’ but it should not be assumed that all teams attending the World Cup actually want to win it. We hear much about the will to win; the idea of choking is taken as a tightening up, a defeat brought about by wanting too badly to win. But there is also a will to lose. We English know all about this. Chris Waddle succumbed to it in Italy ’90. Something in his English heart—and in ours too—craved defeat, shame, the taste of ashes in the mouth. The urge does not usually manifest itself so simply. Ideally one wants to feel wronged, cheated, robbed, betrayed. The Serbs will not win the World Cup but they might achieve their goal: to crash out as a result of some error of their own which is either compounded by or—even better—indistinguishable from a decision by referees or linesmen who have been duped by the cunning of the opposition who are themselves in cahoots with FIFA. ‘Only part of us is sane,’ writes Rebecca West, ‘only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in piece, in a house that we build, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.’
History plays a part in this. No one in England can remember anything about football from before the 1966 World Cup. But in Serbia, I imagine, people remember incidents and talking points from every game since the dawn of time. This also occurs within the context of an individual match. X fouls Y because Y fouled him because he was fouled by X…As I understand the Serbian mentality there are always prior offenses to be taken into account. That’s why the Serbian writer Vesna Goldsworthy begins Chernobyl Strawberries, her memoir of growing up in Belgrade, with an epigraph from Wittgenstein: ‘It is difficult to find the beginning. Or better; it is difficult to begin at the beginning, and not to try to go further back.”
Here’s British novelist Ben Rice writing about his wife’s home country, imagining what it must have been like to play in Australia’s world record 31-0 thrashing of American Samoa (back when the Socceroos had to play preliminary qualifiers in the Oceania region):
“You are killing the American Samoans. By halftime you have bagged six goals, more than you’ve scored in an entire season for the Serie A side where you play your club football. If you liked you could wheel on a gas Barbie, cook up some prawns, have a few beers, make love to a beautiful woman right here on the pitch, and probably score a few more. But you get no pleasure from this game. It is nice to be home, bloody oath it is, but despite the vast improvement to your international goal stats, you are miserable. It’s a bloody farce. The fans are already barracking for the opposition. Some of them are leaving. Your coach has fallen asleep on the sideline. And one of these American Samoans, you can’t fail to notice, is young enough to be your kid.
Your mates back in Italy will just assume football in Australia has an entirely different scoring system. You will never be taken seriously. You consider suggesting to the referee that you play without a goalkeeper, that you play blindfolded, that you withdraw half your team from the field, or offer your opponents a twenty goal cushion to make more of a game of it, but you know this will not help; if anything it will only reinforce the amateurishness of the contest. And then it hits you—the only decent way to make the organizers appreciate your plight is by creating a massive comedy scoreline, a scoreline that will hopefully transmit the message that soccer deserves a proper place in the sporting psyche of the nation.”
Here’s British writer Caryl Phillips on Ghana:
“In August 2005 I sat on a crowded British Airways jet that was flying from London to Accra. Seated all around me were the players and coaches of the Black Stars—the Ghanaian national football team—who, the previous evening, had drawn 1-1 in a friendly match with Senegal that had been played in London at the ground of Brentford Football Club. The players were polite, relatively quiet, and displayed good manners and behavior of a type that one would never expect from an equivalent group of English players. An hour into the flight one player tapped me on the shoulder and politely asked if he might ‘borrow’ my iPod, while another player eyed my newspaper until I folded it in half and offered it to him. It appeared that these young men did not have much in the way of material possessions; in fact, I had seen better kitted-out high school teams, and the mind boggled when one realized that by contrast with their own seemingly modest lifestyles, one of their teammates, Michael Essien, had just been transferred from Lyon to Chelsea for $40 million and was earning more than $75,000 per week. In fact, he probably earned enough in one half-hour stretching session in the gym to equip all of his teammates with iPods. Of course, Michael Essien was not on the flight. He had remained behind in London, but as I somewhat self-consciously listened to my music I wondered just what kind of a cohesive team spirit could possibily be engendered in a squad of players where First and Third World values clashed so crudely.
Three months later, Ghana qualified for its first-ever World Cup appearance…”
Here’s Der Spiegel journalist Alexander Osang, who grew up in East Germany before reunification, on Germany:
“With reunification there was an opportunity for change—no more GDR and no more GDR national team—but I couldn’t let go of the past.
I watched the 1990 World Cup semifinal, between Germany and England, on a big screen in the Berlin Lustgarten, with thousands of people. England’s Paul Gascoigne cried, and I cried too when Germany won. I stood among rejoicing German fans, very alone. I Couldn’t watch the final against Argentina. I simply couldn’t bear it. I drove my seventeen-year-old Polski Fiat, a gift from my brother-in-law before he fled to the West, to a residential area in Berlin and parked there for ninety minutes. I sat in the stillness of the city and waited. When I heard the screams and the fireworks, I knew that it was over. Germany had won and I had lost again. Later I learned that the game had been decided by a penalty kick, taken by Andreas Brehme, a blond defender; a typical German goal. After winning the championship, Franz Beckenbauer, who’d coached the team, predicted that a reunified soccer-Germany would be undefeated for years.
In 1999 I moved to New York to leave it all behind. I didn’t have a soccer team anymore—why not live in a country that didn’t care about soccer? Things went well. I only encountered the game in the tiny tables at the back of the New York Times sports section. Or sometimes, watching my son play in Prospect Park, when another father made a friendly reference to the great German soccer tradition, and I’d nod, smiling. Some things you can’t explain.”
Group D: The Group of _______________
The idea that in soccer there are ‘some things you can’t explain’ is both disturbing and comforting to me: I had a tough time tracking down clever non-soccer related statistics for Group D. Beyond learning a few odd facts (did you know Serbia is the country with the most chess grandmasters per capita in the World Cup?), I mostly learned that these are four extremely disparate countries. They do, however, share pretty good soccer teams.
Though I’m with those describing Group G (Brazil, North Korea, Cote d’Ivoire, and Portugal) as the tournament’s actual ‘Group of Death,” Group D could also make a good statistical argument for itself. Group D has the highest average FIFA ranking of any quartet in the World Cup, and the best average betting odds on winning the whole thing. That is mostly because there is no true patsy in this group; each takes its sporting cultures seriously. In fact, this group would also have the highest average FIFA ranking of any in the tournament if it were a Women’s World Cup—the Germans and the Australians are even better on the women’s side as on the men’s, and the Ghanaians are among the best women’s teams in Africa.
But still, what strikes me as most notable about this group is where I started: it’s the only group where each team was also there in 2006. And aside from Germany, if we stretch the facts a little it is almost the case that 2010 is the second time around for each of these teams: Australia did manage to have a mostly amateur team qualify in 1974 but this is only their second appearance since then, and Serbia was represented regularly in various Yugoslav incarnations, but still…I’m going with the Group of Teutons and Second Chances.
Who would advance if there were any justice in the world?
In calculating who would advance with my secret formula of soccer history and global politics, for Group D I’m hopelessly biased in regard to soccer history. As a US fan I still harbor anger towards the Germans for the cheating hand of Torsten Frings that kept the Americans from the semi-finals. I’m also somewhat bitter about Ghana being awarded a controversial and critical penalty in 2006 due to the simple fact that Oguchi Onyewu is a much larger man than Razak Pimpong. But on that one I’d rather blame the referee. Let’s see, who was that again? Oh, right—Markus Merk. German! With that, and a desire to prove that it is not only English fans tormented by the Deutscher Fußball-Bund, in my mind Germany is out.
Ghana, on the other hand, gets my sympathies. Ghana was the first independent African country, it is often held up as a model of relative democratic stability on the continent, and it is the place that gave us Freddy Adu. Ghana also happens to be the poorest country (by GDP per capita) in the tournament, making them the truest underdog. I’ve also always liked the Ghanaian flair for team names: Accra Hearts of Oak is one of my all-time favorites for club teams, and I find the story behind the ‘Black Stars’ fascinating (Ghana’s independence leader Kwame Nkrumah named the team after the ‘Black Star’ shipping line imagined by Marcus Garvey to connect the African Diaspora). So Ghana is in.
In regard to soccer justice, I can’t say much between Australia and Serbia. It is a bit disappointing that Neven Subotić played for the US at the U-17 and U-20 levels (and even played some at the University of South Florida) before switching to Serbia, but at least he was born in the former Yugoslavia—he’s traitorousness is nowhere near that of Giuseppe Rossi. I also have some bad memories of travelling through Australia in my younger days and getting endlessly hassled for being in a short-lived bohemian phase. But overall I feel some kinship with the Aussie soccer fans in that the momentum of the game in that country, gradually overcoming hints of xenophobia and the pull of another idiosyncratic football code, feels akin to what’s happening in the US. I suspect, on the other hand, that soccer is robust enough in Serbia to survive—and if Geoff Dwyer is right, maybe even thrive—with a first round exit.
So from my completely subjective standpoint, if there were any justice in the world Ghana and Australia would advance from Group D. But keep in mind, there is rarely any justice in the world.
Group D – Some Stats
|FIFA rank||Betting odds on winning the Cup||Population||GDP per capita||Rank out of 182 nations on the Human Development Index||Life expectancy||FIFA rank of the Women’s National Team||A subjective ranking of how much the WC matters by country(1-32)|
|Germany||6||14||82 mil.||34200||22||79.4 yrs.||2||23|
|Australia||20||125||22 mil.||38900||2||81.2 yrs.||14||26|
|Serbia||16||66||9.9 mil.||10600||67||74 yrs.||39||7|
|Ghana||32||80||24 mil.||1550||152||60 yrs.||44||6|
JOHANNESBURG, Feb. 1 1996 (The New York Times)— In the first month of 1996 in South Africa, a four-year drought has been declared over, Luciano Pavarotti and Louis Farrakhan have come and gone, there was a massacre of job seekers outside a factory and the Truth Commission geared up to investigate years of crimes committed in the name of apartheid.
But who knew? All one has been hearing for weeks is: Bafana Bafana!
In early 1996, as the above quote emphasizes, it was South Africa’s Bafana Bafana soccer team—not its rugby ‘Springboks’—that captured South Africa’s imagination. Yet, in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup, the American media has constructed a history implying that the most important sports moment in South African history was their victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. This construction is thanks largely to Clint Eastwood’s rendition of those events in Invictus (which was released in DVD last week, ensuring further pre-World Cup attention), though ESPN has also chimed in with a documentary entitled The 16th Man. I prefer the ESPN documentary because it includes some genuine South African voices, but I also find it fascinating that in the hype around that Rugby World Cup the media seems to be missing a somewhat analogous soccer moment that came about seven months “post-Invictus:” South Africa’s victory in the 1996 African Cup of Nations.
I took my first trip to Africa later that year, starting a two year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, and during my time there I heard much about the Cup of Nations victory but nothing about rugby. In that part of the continent, where South Africa was a promised land for everyone from prospective soccer players to laborers looking for decent wage, everybody seemed to know players such as Lucas Radebe and Mark Fish from the racially diverse soccer team. But as far as I can remember no one ever mentioned François Pienaar or his almost exclusively white Rugby teammates (the one mixed race player on the Rugby team was Chester Williams—who, contrary to the happy story in Invictus, claimed he was often the target of racial abuse in his rugby career). The Bafana Bafana team that lifted the 1996 African Nations Cup was legend; the 1995 Springboks team that has become the Hollywood face of South African sports was anonymous.
So why has the Rugby team gotten all the attention? Certainly some of it is the difference between a “World Cup” and an African Nations Cup—though one could argue that the number of countries passionate about Rugby is fewer than the number of African nations passionate about soccer. And some of it is the fact that the Springbok rugby victory was indeed of massive symbolic importance—it was a crucial early test of whether Nelson Mandela’s South Africa would integrate or ostracize the minority white population. But some of it may also be about the complicated dynamics of sport, race, and power that make it easy to write off African soccer as simple, meaningless beyond the cliché of barefoot boys joyously chasing a ball of rags.
Yet the story of the 1996 African Nations Cup is anything but simple. In fact, it seems to me a story that, like the Rugby World Cup before it, deserves books and movies to be made. But in the meantime I’ve followed up my long ago memories of Bafana Bafana’s glory days by tracking down as many accounts as I could find from a distance. There is much detail to be filled in, but there is also the outline of a great soccer story.
South Africa was not originally supposed to host the 1996 African Cup of Nations. The tournament had first been awarded to Kenya, but in 1995 the the Kenyans withdrew for financial reasons and the Confederation of African Football (CAF) proclaimed that the tournament was being moved. While it may have been true that Kenya was behind schedule to host the newly expanded tournament (the 1996 tournament was the first with 16, rather than 12, teams at the finals), that was not the only thing going on: in the mid-1990’s it was becoming clear that FIFA wanted to eventually host a World Cup in Africa and CAF wanted to put what it considered the best option on display. As Italian journalist Filippo Maria Ricci explains in his book on African football:
“It was urgently necessary to show the world that Africa was capable of organising a World Cup and, as far as the organisation of major events is concerned, for the rest of the world Africa could only mean South Africa – a country of big hotels, golf courses, wine, safaris and clean, well-appointed beaches. Seen from the north, it seemed to be the least African country in Africa, hence the most reassuring, the best organized, the best prepared, the closest to western standards.”
Ricci goes on to explain that the 1996 tournament was not, in fact, particularly well organized—he even notes that “the tournament was to be organized much better in Burkina Faso two years later.” And the attendance figures from the 1996 Cup of Nations bear that out. While the South Africa games were all well-attended (averaging around 80,000 for 6 games), the other 21 games in the tournament only averaged 3900 (including a reported attendance of 180 in Port Elizabeth for Algeria v Burkina Faso and 200 in Bloemfontein for Zambia v Sierra Leone). The confusing relationship between South Africans and soccer tickets was showing its face. As Rob Hughes wrote in the middle of the tournament:
“Alas, apart from the sights and sounds of criminal violence in Johannesburg, the football itself reminds us that racism dies hard. Apart from Soccer City, the vast stadium near Soweto, the games have been played to almost empty houses in rugby strongholds. The blacks cannot afford the prices or the time off work, the whites show little inclination to explore football, the township game, or to reciprocate the goodwill that the blacks afforded their sport at the rugby union World Cup last summer. The loss is theirs.” (from The Times of January 30th, 1996)
In their defense, the organizers did also have to deal with the mess of a continental political spat that was well beyond their control. Nigeria was the defending Africa Cup of Nations champion, coming off a year in 2004 that saw them reach what I believe to be the highest ever FIFA ranking for an African national team (at number 5 in the world). Unfortunately, the nation of Nigeria at the time was being led by a shady military regime with Sani Abacha, among the most corrupt leaders in recent world history, at its head. Dealing with the Nigerian regime was one of Mandela’s first serious international challenges after becoming the president of South Africa in 1994. Immediately considered the elder statesman of African politics, and grateful for the long-time support Nigeria had provided his African National Congress in exile, Mandela initially tried to address Nigeria diplomatically. But when the Nigerian government, in cahoots with Shell Oil, proceeded to execute Ken Saro Wiwa and eight Ogoni activists in November of 1995, Mandela had to confront one of his first public failures. The political honeymoon was over.
Mandela acted quickly to sanction Nigeria, including having them kicked out of the Commonwealth, and Nigeria responded by pulling its national team out of the 1996 Cup of Nations shortly before the tournament was scheduled to begin. Officially Nigeria would be punished by CAF with suspension from the 1998 Cup of Nations, but the ‘Super Eagles’ proceeded to win the gold medal in soccer at the 1996 Olympic Games and were allowed to co-host the 2000 tournament with Ghana. The South African organizers, on the other hand, were left scrambling—tentatively considering a last-minute replacement, but instead proceeding with 15 teams.
From that point on, however, what Ricci calls “Madiba’s Magic” started to again rear its lovely head. South Africa was on one of the all time great sports streaks—even after the 1995 Rugby World Cup victory and during the political machinations with Nigeria, the South African cricket team had achieved a historic victory over England that solidified Mandela’s claim to symbolic inclusion. So now all that was left was the most popular sport in the country as a whole: soccer.
South Africa’s Bafana Bafana was in a tough group in the 1996 African Cup of Nations, opening with Cameroon to be followed by Angola and Egypt. That first game against an always dangerous Cameroon side, which was complete with a halftime appearance by the recently crowned rugby team, would be critical. And to the delight of 80,000 fans in Soccer City (which in its refurbished form will host both the opening match and the final of the 2010 World Cup) Bafana Bafana thumped Cameroon 3-0. As Mark Gleeson wrote in the January 14th, 1996 Observer:
“It was a sporting event every bit as loaded with emotion and significance as was that unforgettable rugby World Cup final victory at Ellis Park last year, when Nelson Mandela cried with joy, and the world did too. This was black Africa’s game of choice, though, and it was at Soccer City, the gloriously futuristic name given to a stadium built from a huge hole in the ground on the edge of Johannesburg. The victory over Cameroon – twice winners of the tournament – also represented the biggest winning margin for South Africa in 34 internationals since their return from the wilderness three years ago, and it left the crowd of 70,000 every bit as satisfied as their rugby counterparts had been last June.”
South Africa’s other group games were less impressive. They took a 1-0 squeaker over Angola and a 1-0 loss to Egypt, but had shown enough in that first game to generate enthusiasm amongst the locals and to advance from the group for a quarterfinal match-up with Algeria. In that quarterfinal game, in the midst of rain storms and ominous signs against an Algeria team with eight players fasting for Ramadan, South Africa got a scrappy goal from center back Mark Fish in the 71st minute, allowed an equalizer in the 84th, but responded with a John ‘Shoes’ Moshoeu goal one minute later to advance. The whole thing prompted Ian Hawkey writing for The Sunday Times (January 28th, 1996) to state:
“Another cup and a real-life fairy tale. South Africa, hosts and debutants at the African Cup of Nations, made stirring progress into the semi-finals yesterday. There they are likely to meet their match in the shape of Ghana. For a team so fresh to international football after three decades of isolation, they have surpassed the expectations even of a country that demands so much of its sport.”
But Hawkey was underestimating the hosts. Ghana was indeed a fearsome opponent—led by players such as Tony Yeboah and Abedi Pele, the Black Stars were the top ranked team in the tournament. But Pele was suspended for the semi due to card accumulation, and South Africa seemed to be on the wings of destiny: ‘Shoes’ scored early, Shaun Bartlett scored to open the second half, and ‘Shoes’ scored again in the late going to seal a 3-0 thumping.
In the other semi-final Tunisia had snuck past Zambia (playing an inspired tournament in tribute to the infamous plane crash that had decimated their team in 1993), but by this point South Africa’s triumph seemed pre-ordained. It was one of the rare occasions in South African soccer where game tickets were being gobbled up in advance at suburban shopping malls—the usual crowd was more improvisational. But by this point the whole country was on board: according to a February 1996 New York Times report, even “the leading Afrikaans-language newspaper, Beeld, had a huge picture of a soccer game on its front page. More amazingly, the headline was in Zulu: “Yebo Bafana Bafana!” (“Yebo,” pronounced “YAY-boh,” means “yeah.”)” Likewise, on the day of the final the Irish Times describes a situation where,
“Having paid little attention to the team’s progress through the early rounds of the competition, cricket and rugby loving white South Africans suddenly decided that soccer was no longer ‘a black game.’
Tickets for today’s final against Tunisia sold out in a few hours on Thursday morning as white suburbanites joined the long queues at computer booking offices: none of the previous games attracted a full house.
Contributing to all the interest is the belated realisation that the soccer team is much more representative of South Africa than its World Cup winning rugby squad or the cricket team which recently thrashed England.
While the rugby and cricket teams could only muster one coloured mixed race player – apiece, South Africa’s first XI includes three whites and three coloureds. Its manager, Clive Barker, is a white South African, while the darlings of the black fans who flock to Soccer City on the edge of Soweto are ‘Shooooes’ and ‘Feeesh’ black midfielder John Moshoeu and white defender Mark Fish.
‘It’s good for solidarity and for national pride,’ said Brenda Goldblatt, a white bar owner and television producer. ‘It’s great that they’re winning because then there would have been a terrible imbalance. Whites would say that the blacks couldn’t deliver.’”
As that final quote suggests, despite the 1996 Bafana Bafana team representing a wide cross-section of South Africa, it was still framed as a “black” team—albeit one with some optimistic support from the white population. But in the final against Tunisia it was a mixed race player named Mark Williams—identified under apartheid as ‘coloured’—who came through with two late goals after a tense contest. South Africa became the first, and to this day only, continental champion from southern Africa.
Then, after the final whistle had blown, it was the team’s white captain, Neil Tovey, who famously accepted the trophy from Nelson Mandela and set off a huge, peaceful, and proud celebration across the nation. If the Rugby championship was South Africa’s most iconic sports victory, the 1996 Cup of Nations may have been its most accurate in truly representing the country—and it was arguably the most important. As The Economist noted in a February 10th, 1996 brief titled “Bafana Bafana and the birth of a nation”:
“Forget rugby. South Africa’s triumph over the world in that game last year may have rescued the pride of 5m whites, but for 31m blacks nothing matched the jubilation on February 3rd when “Bafana Bafana”–the boys, the national soccer team–won the African Nations’ Cup. Yet not only blacks: a nation in the making rejoiced with them.
Nelson Mandela has used sport to define South Africans’ sense of themselves, as he struggles to pull umpteen tongues, groups and faiths into one. Rugby almost did it: blacks, surprised at themselves, swung behind that Afrikaner secular religion. Victory over England at cricket, with a lone non-white player, helped. But it is the soccer victory that has truly spanned the ethnic divide–and President Mandela, Deputy-President F.W. de Klerk and King Goodwill Zwelithini, Xhosa, Afrikaner and Zulu, were all in the stadium to prove it.”
Sadly, some of the unity and goodwill from 1996 seems to have faded—along with the fortunes of Bafana Bafana. The recent book Africa United (which is well worth reading), for example, offers a contemporary perspective from a (white) South African academic: “Local soccer is not something racial minorities get terribly excited about. Black sports fans have a point when they say the whites should care more about Bafana Bafana. They joyously rallied around teams with two or three black guys. When we won the African Nations [in 1996], I was one of maybe ten white people in the stadium.”
But from every news account I read, this memory of being one of “maybe ten white people” at that 1996 final is almost certainly not true: most newspaper accounts from the time identify thousands of whites who made for an enthusiastic minority in Soccer City for the South Africa v Tunisia game. The (at least partially) erroneous suggestion that white South Africa did not support Bafana Bafana in 1996 is, I suspect, a product of the vagaries of memory and the short-cut we often take in defining South African soccer as only a “black” sport.
The reality is that soccer has a rich and interesting history across ethnic groups in South Africa—at points during apartheid there were top-level leagues for both white and black teams, and soccer became an integrated sport well before Mandela became president in 1994 (albeit with a complicated politics of its own). Where else did the players on that 1996 team come from? Neil Tovey, according to Ian Hawkey in Feet of the Chameleon, had even earned the nickname ‘Codesa’ as “shorthand for diplomacy, it was the acronym for the Council for a Democratic South Africa, for the talks going on between the National Party, the ANC and others about the future of the nation.”
Likewise, (white) hard-man midfielder Eric Tinkler was briefly known as “Mandela.” As the New York Times described after the final game:
“Every time Eric Tinkler, a blond with a crew cut, got the ball, the crowd screamed out the new nickname he’s earned: ‘Mandela!’
Mandela? You’ve got to be kidding. How did that happen?
‘Because he’s our hero,’ said Reggie Madlabane, who was cheering Tinkler on from high up in the bleachers. ‘He can really drive the ball home.’
And when Tinkler lined up to boot a penalty kick, the crowd sang a war song. The words, in Zulu, used to be a taunt at whites: ‘The spear of the Nation is coming. Better watch out.’ This time, it was ‘Tinkler’s coming. Better watch out.’”
Though you wouldn’t know it by the over-simplified reporting around the coming World Cup defining soccer in South Africa as a “black” sport, South Africa’s Premier Soccer League still has a small but reasonable representation of white and mixed race players (who are, after all, a minority in the country as a whole)—but overall it is true that Bafana Bafana’s glory days are in the past. After that 1996 Nations Cup, the team made a respectable showing at the 1998 World Cup and qualified again in 2002, but it’s more recent struggles have been well-documented: there is great national angst about whether the team can avoid the embarrassment of being the first host country to not advance from its World Cup group. Some have even suggested that Bafana Bafana’s early success so soon after their re-admittance to FIFA competitions may have made them complacent—there was little sense of urgency towards creating an effective player development system for the future.
Whatever the current status of Bafana Bafana, however, that 1996 version offers an important South African story that may better represent their distinctive mix of sports, race, culture, and politics than Invictus. In fact, in researching for this article I stumbled across the fact that the Hollywood version of the 1995 Rugby triumph—while reasonably accurate despite whatever cinematic failings—did take liberties with its source of poetic inspiration. It is true, apparently, that Mandela kept a copy of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus with him during his long isolation, and took solace in the famous words: “It matters not how strait the gate, / How charged with punishments the scroll, / I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul.” But it is apparently not true that he gave that particular poem to South African rugby captain François Pienaar.
Instead, Mandela is reputed to have sent Pineear words that may in fact be more appropriate to this first ever African World Cup—the words of Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘Man in the Arena’ speech:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
Those words seem more true to my memory of southern Africa in 1996: there was a widespread sense that what South Africa represented was a noble, risky, inevitable experiment led by people of immense talent, deep scars, human flaws, and much hopefulness. And a sense that Bafana Bafana and their 1996 African Nations Cup triumph, rather than the Springboks Rugby victory, were the most important (if not the most iconic) emblem of that reality.
This is the third in series of (relatively) brief and miscellaneous perspectives on the World Cup groups and nations (here’s Group A and Group B). The mostly light-hearted intention is to both provoke and satisfy curiosities, and to utilize Eric Hobsbawn’s notion that “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.” Take these group previews for what they are worth (which is mostly as filler while Tom is re-charging Pitch Invasion)…
The catty British press, I’m told, has labeled Group C with the acronym EASY: England, Algeria, Slovenia, Yanks. And it is true that by on-field stature there is not much here: England were probably lucky to be seeded, the US ranking of 14th in the world is widely understood to be inflated by a weak region, while Algeria (ranked 31st in the world) and Slovenia (ranked 23rd) are decidedly middling. As a quartet of places, however, the group has some verve.
The England v US thing has, of course, dominated the Anglo-American media and has indeed been fun to watch. I particularly enjoyed a brief exchange between Jon Stewart and Hugh Grant back in December soon after the World Cup draw had been announced. Stewart, known to fans as a former college soccer player at William and Mary, started the interview by wanting to know of the English: “Are you fearing us?”
Grant was dismissive. “I’m always surprised that you [Americans] have a male football team. Because it’s a female game here—it’s little girls that play it, right?” And then he gave Stewart a look that can only be described as snide.
After more jocularity and more burnishing of imagined masculinities, Stewart got to the point: “I just think that if we do beat you, it really does in some respects put the final nail in the Empire.”
It was all funny and charming in a way the befits the entertainment industry, but I remember it for something else: at the end of the interview it was fairly clear that underneath the guise of playful World Cup banter Stewart and Grant had realized they genuinely didn’t like each other. True, that dislike was enhanced by the fact that Grant was there to hype a terrible movie that Stewart had clearly not bothered to learn anything about. But it was real dislike. On an iconic American TV show. And it was (partially) about winning a soccer game.
That thematic, a sort of faux good humor edged by real investment of identity, may aptly characterize Group C. The English have long had it and the Americans are getting it, while for the Algerians and the Slovenians I’m mostly guessing. In fact, to an outsider Algeria actually seems to be a pretty serious place—the epic clashes with the Egyptians to qualify for this World Cup, the classic war movie The Battle of Algiers, Franz Fanon, Albert Camus, the Zidane lineage, etc.. But the Slovenians must have a reasonable sense of humor if only to deal with geographically-challenged Americans who have a hard time remembering how it is different from Slovakia (one obliging web-site even has a comparison table, including the helpful hint that Slovakia is ex-Czechoslovakia while Slovenia is ex-Yugoslavia). So let’s turn to the facts.
Group C: The Group of _______________
Likely the most famous confusion about Slovenia/Slovakia is the story about former US president George W. Bush, who had met a Slovene delegation during his time as a governor. Later Bush told a Slovak journalist: “The only thing I know about Slovakia is what I learned first-hand from your foreign minister, who came to Texas.” Wrong Slov…. G.W.. Luckily, an organization called the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty (CCADP) came to the rescue with a helpful web-page noting that the key difference between Slovenia and Slovakia is that “Slovakia hasn’t joined the international boycott of Texas…yet!”
The point of the CCADP , beyond just mocking George W. Bush, was that Texas is famous as the death penalty capital of the Western world—bringing some morbid intrigue to a moniker like the ‘Group of Death’ and provoking me to make the esoteric statistic for Group C about executions. Which turns out to be quite an easy calculation for this World Cup: according to Amnesty International, only 3 countries of the 32 in the World Cup committed any executions in 2009—the US, Japan, and North Korea. Though the exact numbers aren’t available for North Korea, as a nation the US would seem to be the World Cup leader in barbarity with 52 documented executions during 2009 (compared to 7 in Japan). There are several other countries in the World Cup that still proffer death sentences but haven’t actually executed anyone recently (including Algeria, which sentenced “at least 100” people to death in 2009, but had a government imposed moratorium on actual executions), but the United Kingdom and Slovenia are among the 95 countries in the world “whose laws do not provide for the death penalty for any crime.”
In contrast to statistics on executions, Group C also happens to be the group that comes out highest for this World Cup in its average ranking on the UN Human Development Index—mostly because the US, England, and Slovenia all have relatively high standards of living, while Algeria is the highest of the African countries (its per capita income is significantly lower than South Africa, but that is made up for by a significantly higher life expectancy). Group C also has the most populous country (the US with 309 million people) and the least populous country (Slovenia with 2 million people) in the competition.
Overall, however, in thinking about this group I can’t stop going back to Jon Stewart’s comment about putting “the final nail in the Empire.” These countries all in their own way are globally associated with very different versions of colonialisms—Britian in its faded glory, America as a hegemonic abstraction, the Algerians in their fierce independence fight against the French, and Slovenia with an appropriately small “Ten-Day War” to dissociate itself from Yugoslavia. Ultimately, then, I’m labeling Group C the ‘Group of Confusing Postcolonialims.’
Who would advance if there were any justice in the world?
To start here, I must make clear that I am an American kid, and a US fan—I’ve got the US Supporters Club scarf to prove it. I’ve also got tickets for all three US group games in South Africa, and there is no question who I would like to see win: U-S-A. But to be fair and balanced, again drawing off my secret formula combining soccer history and global politics (ie, completely subjective and having little to do with who actually plays the best soccer), I cannot try to take a global perspective and say that we deserve to go through. First, there is the arrogance of having laid a plan 12 years ago to win this specific World Cup—along with the presumption that Carlos Queiroz was the man to explain how to get to the promise land (he of the failed stints with the MetroStars and Real Madrid). And then there is the fact that as a frequently reviled global bully away from soccer, the relative mediocrity of the US men’s team sometimes feels like a bit of a relief: at least with soccer an American abroad doesn’t have to pretend to be Canadian. So while I’ll be rooting proudly for the US in South Africa, for present purposes they are out.
For Slovenia they get immense credit just for making it this far—and being a legitimate threat to go through. The whole country of Slovenia has fewer people than my fair city of Portland Oregon (the Portland metropolitan area has around 2.2 million people, while Slovenia has about 2.1 million), and my Portland Timbers can’t even beat Crystal Palace Baltimore let alone a Russian squad managed by Dutch master Gus Hiddink (as Slovenia did in the World Cup qualification play-off). But with all due respect, I just don’t know how much it means to Slovenia: from everything I read it just seems like a nice, comfortable place and I suspect it will stay that way whether they advance or not. So they are out.
Which leaves me feeling ok about suggesting that England and Algeria should advance if there were any justice in the world (which there usually is not)—for both countries advancing in the World Cup just seems like the type of thing that would matter a lot. The English (probably) did invent the game, after all, and the Algerians certainly deserve some recompense for “The Shame of Gijon” (the debacle where the Germans and Austrians conspired to keep Algeria from advancing in the 1982 World Cup). The University of Algeria also deserves some credit for offering the game some of its best intellectual pseudo-credibility in the famous quote from Albert Camus when asked about his time playing in goal for Racing Universitaire Algerios (RUA): “After many years during which I saw many things, what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport and learned it in the RUA.”
Unfortunately, according to The Albert Camus Society of the UK: “People have read more into these words than, perhaps, Camus would want them to. He was referring to a kind of simple morality he wrote about in his early essays, an ethic of sticking up for your friends, of valuing courage and fair-play. Camus believed that the people of politics and religion try to confuse us with convoluted moral systems to make things appear more complicated than they really are, possibly to suit their own agendas. People may do better to look to the simple morality of the football field than to politicians and philosophers.”
Wait, so the point was actually that looking for morals in football is juvenile?
Group C – Some Stats
|FIFA rank||Betting odds on winning the Cup||Population||GDP per capita||Rank out of 182 nations on the Human Development Index||Life expectancy||Prisoners put to death in 2009||A subjective ranking of how much the WC matters by country(1-32)|
|England||8||6.5||51.5 mil.||$34600||21||79.4 yrs.||0||1|
|USA||14||80||309 mil.||$46400||13||78.2 yrs.||52||25|
|Algeria||31||600||35 mil.||$6700||104||72.3 yrs.||0||12|
|Slovenia||23||300||2 mil.||$27600||29||77.9 yrs.||0||24|
In trying to think through the nations and the teams of Group B, I could not shake from my mind the word diabolical. And I mean that in the best possible way. Argentina with its strangely alluring combination of Latin style and ruthlessness; its claim to having hosted perhaps the most politically dubious World Cup of them all in 1978. Nigeria with its 4-1-9 scammers and its prize winning writers; its enigmatic and brilliant Super Eagles dominating FIFA age-group competitions with players of uncertain age. Greece with its recent protests for the workers of a bankrupt state; its cynical and magnificent 2004 European Championship on the back of 7 goals in 6 games. South Korea…well, they seem ok. It is a “random draw” after all. But I admire them each in their ways.
Group B thus inspired me to go back to one of my favorite academic articles on the game, in which anthropologist Jeff Tobin draws on his experiences in Argentina to write about “Soccer Conspiracies: Maradona, the CIA, and Popular Critique.” The central question he raises is about the relationship between soccer and politics. Tobin references Umberto Eco as the typical intellectual who considers sport a potentially dangerous distraction:
“According to Eco, to the extent that we ponder sports instead of politics, we are all like the Argentines who welcomed the spectacle of the  World Cup as an escape from thinking and talking about the military dictatorship: [now quoting Eco] ‘Sports debate is the easiest substitute for political debate. Instead of judging the job done by the minister of finance (for which you have to know about economics, among other things), you discuss the job done by the coach; instead of criticizing the record of Parliament you criticize the record of the athletes; instead of asking (difficult and obscure questions) if such-and-such a minister signed some shady agreements with such-and-such a foreign power, you ask if the final or decisive game will be decided by chance, athletic prowess, or by diplomatic alchemy. In short, it allows you to play at the direction of the government without all the sufferings, the duties, the imponderables of political debate…And at a moment like this, concerning oneself with the running of the government (the real one) is traumatic. So faced with such a choice, we are all Argentines (Eco 1986: 171).’”
But Tobin disagrees with Eco. He places himself amidst the “us who in the midst of governmental turmoil, general strikes, and even revolutions, persist in asking such questions as: ‘How did you become a Boca fan?’ ‘Who taught you that dance step?’ or ‘Do you salt the meat before or after putting in on the grill?’” And Tobin sees Maradona himself as an embodiment of the common man who tries, with varying degrees of success, to use soccer as a lever on politics. In Maradona’s bizarrely intense friendship with Fidel Castro, his insistence that his expulsion from the 1994 World Cup for drug use was a “CIA-style plot against him,” and the rest of his moderately delusional life, Tobin argues that Maradona feeds the mass critical consciousness:
“In the case of Argentine soccer, conspiracy theories produce a map of the occult economic and political forces that structure the soccer fan’s everyday life. The theories serve to construct an image of the world in which ‘fair play,’ like ‘free trade,’ is exposed as an illusion, trusted only by giles (suckers). Eco argues that in talk about soccer, ‘the strength that the citizen had at his disposal for political debate is vitiated and disciplined’ (Eco 1986: 163) and Sebreli writes that thinking about soccer ‘is a sort of training in escaping from oneself, in not doubting, not criticizing, not discussing, not thinking’ (Sebreli 1981:151), but I would argue that conspiracy theorizing trains soccer fans precisely to doubt, to criticize, to discuss, and to think.”
So what does this all mean for Group B? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps it is all just meaningless theorizing. Perhaps whoever advances will have really been the best team on the field on the day. Perhaps.
Group B: The Group of _______________
But enough abstraction. What are the facts? Frankly, there is little amongst the nations of Group B that stands out to me.
Nigeria, I suppose it is worth noting, is fairly easily the largest country in Africa by population with 155 million people. That also makes Nigeria the third most populous country in the World Cup (behind the US with about 309 million, and Brazil with about 192 million). But those numbers also remind me that many of the most populous countries in the world won’t actually be in South Africa because they aren’t that good at soccer. Though there is a general correlation between population size, the numbers in a country’s talent pool, and the success of a national team, this World Cup is another reminder that the correlation is far from perfect: the whole continent of Africa has fewer people than India alone. There are almost nine Chinese for every one Nigerian. The fact that China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Russia failed to qualify means South Africa 2010 is missing over half of the 10 largest countries in the world: it is missing about half the world’s population in those 6 countries alone. As the MBA’s might say, lots of potential for fresh markets.
The one weird thing that did stand out as I combed through obscure statistics was that, compared with the averages for the other seven World Cup groups, this group looks a little sad—in a literal, emotional sense: not counting Group H (since there is no data available for North Korea), Group B has the lowest average rank on ‘satisfaction with life’ among 176 nations ranked by the University of Leicester (the Argentines are the sunny ones at 56th in the world, followed by Greece at 84th, South Korea at 102nd, and Nigeria at 120th). Perhaps not coincidentally, as a quartet this group of nations also seems to have the highest per capita alcohol consumption of any in the World Cup (though the individual honors go to Germany). Ultimately, then, combining the conspiracies with the dissatisfactions and the liquor, I’m labeling Group B the ‘Group of Drowned Sorrows.’
Who would advance if there were any justice in the world?
Again drawing off my secret formula combining soccer history and global politics (ie, completely subjective and having little to do with who actually plays the best soccer), I find myself torn. Despite it being fairly clear that Maradona has virtually no idea what he is doing as a manager, let alone in the rest of his life, Argentina maintains a perplexing allure. I still remember fondly the awe I felt growing up watching the Argentine 11 step onto the pitch in their glorious blue and white stripes, a band of shaggy haired assassins ready to dance, destroy, or both. But the cult of Maradona at this point feels too overwhelming, and I’m skeptical of kirchnerismo as a long term solution. So Argentina is out.
Otherwise, I always have a soft-spot in my heart for the African nations, but I have little emotional connection to Nigeria (other than learning over the week-end that Team USA members Oguchi Onyewu and Maurice Edu are both sons of Nigerian parents) and know that the reputation of Nigerians across Africa tends to not be good (see, for example, ‘District 9’). I also find the appointment of Swede Lars Lagerback as Nigeria’s manager for the World Cup to be among the more bizarre moves in a bothersome pattern of African teams being coached by short-time Europeans with little local knowledge. I do want to support a country whose recently confirmed president is named Goodluck Jonathan (an academic with a penchant for fedora-like hats nonetheless!), but I just can’t do it. Nigeria is out.
So purely by process of elimination, from my completely subjective standpoint if there were any justice in the world South Korea and Greece would advance from Group B. But keep in mind, there is rarely any justice in the world.
Group B – Some Stats
|FIFA rank||Betting odds on winning the Cup||Population||GDP per capita in US$||Rank out of 182 nations on the Human Development Index||Life exp.||Per capita litres of pure alcohol consumed annually||Rank of 178 nations on ‘satisfaction with life’||A subjective ranking of how much the WC matters by country(1-32)|
|South Korea||47||250||49.7 mil.||28000||26||78.6||7.87||102||28|
ESPN has decided to go all British for its lead voices in all 64 World Cup games this summer on American television this summer, and Steve Davis is not happy about it. In an eloquent rant, Davis comments that:
I’m on this British accent thing again because you guys just announced your lineup for World Cup broadcasts. Talk about a kick in the nads to the American soccer establishment! Here’s the opening line from your announcement:
“ESPN’s World Cup telecasts will have a British accent.
“Adrian Healey, Derek Rae and Ian Darke have been hired by ESPN for its U.S. broadcasts at this year’s World Cup and will join Martin Tyler to give the network British play-by-play announcers for all 64 games beginning June 11.”
Man, that’s a fine “How Do You Do” for Yankee viewers …and announcers.
In an open letter to ESPN, Davis asks “couldn’t you guys at ESPN squeeze an American voice into the play-by-play lineup? Is American soccer such a craphole wasteland that a guy like JP Dellacamera can’t get a bite of the play-by-play mic?”
Dellacamera is certainly hard done by here. Most odd of all, as EPL Talk has commented, is that United States games (including against England) will not have an American voice as lead commentator. The only American voice we will hear is the dull John Harkes.
What Davis doesn’t mention is the disappointing coverage provided by ESPN at the previous World Cup behind the microphone, led by baseball guy Dave O’Brien, as this New York Times article from July 2006 reminds us:
At the beginning of this tournament, we received so many comments from readers complaining about the ESPN and ABC announcers that we had to ask you to stop sending them in. It was true, however, that like many of you, I found it so hard to listen to their game commentary that I switched to Univision — even though I was describing matches live and needed a steady flow of information. It felt as if whatever information I was getting through half-understood Spanish was superior to what I was getting on the English-language telecasts.
After a few days, however, the ESPN and ABC announcers had gotten better. They had stopped shoehorning trivia facts, interesting sidelights and random statistics into the play-by-play and color commentary, and best of all, they had stopped making tortuous analogies to sports like baseball and basketball to “explain” soccer to their American audience.
This was true for all the announcing teams (although the English/Irish team of Adrian Healey and Tommy Smyth were getting it right pretty much from the start). Shep Messing, who had been particularly awful the first couple of days with constant explanatory references to baseball while doing color to Glenn Davis’s play by play, must have heard the complaints and thankfully kept it to soccer thereafter. Two other teams, JP Dellacamera and John Harkes, and Rob Stone and Robin Fraser, were straightforward and even insightful from a fairly early point. Sometime during the World Cup’s second week, I found myself gravitating back to ESPN.
Which brings us to the lead announcing team, Dave O’Brien and Marcelo Balboa. O’Brien in particular has come under a heavy barrage of criticism for his lack of feel for soccer, which is down to his being a baseball announcer who didn’t follow soccer until a few months ago. Some American soccer fans were upset with ESPN’s choice of O’Brien even before the tournament started, with one starting a petition to remove him in favor of a career soccer announcer, and certainly once the tournament got under way, the reaction has been consistently negative from fans in general, as anyone reading the comments sections to this blog’s live game reports can tell.
All true, though for my money Marcelo Balboa was worse; so inane and inaccurate was his commentary that I had to institute a house-rule to all visitors to my house for World Cup games not to point out his every annoying comment, so we might be able to talk about something else at some point. In any case, it’s pretty clear (and this was obvious in their Euro 2008 coverage as well) ESPN is committed to not repeating that mistake by going with more experience.
At the same time I think Davis is still right that it’s a shame ESPN could not find room for one talented American soccer commentator (rather than attempting another Dave O’Brien transplant from another sport), and Dellacamera would have done a decent enough job.
All things considered, though, it’s going to be much easier for every fan of the sport to listen to Martin Tyler in 2010 than it was to Dave O’Brien in 2006.
Then again, I have (the remnants of) a British accent, so perhaps this isn’t my place to speak.
- Cardiff City’s Supporters’ Trust has released a statement about the club’s financial crisis, issuing some alarm about the way the club is run following court proceedings: “It is obvious that our beloved football club is in a wretched financial state and yet there appears to be none of the drastic cost-cutting measures we have seen at other clubs who have encountered similar problems. Instead, it seems the only remedies being offered by the Cardiff City board are the hopes of substantial foreign investment or promotion to the Premiership.”
- A sneak peak at the new MLS website. That’s MLSsoccer.com with two Sssss, then. We’ll have our own review of one MLS club’s new website up sometime this week. Bet you can’t guess which one.
- Kinda wish someone would do this for every city in the US: Football in Miami and Beyond has an excellent roundup of all the media coverage out there for the sport in Miami.
The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.
Making an academic career out of studying soccer might sound (kind of like) fun, but it turns out to be hard work—mostly because you tend to get dissed from all sides. Here’s how Peter Alegi and Chris Bolsmann explain it in their introduction to South Africa and the Global Game, a forthcoming edited collection of scholarly essays addressing issues around the coming World Cup:
“Many conservative and progressive scholars find football (and sports) research superficial and banal; the former dismiss it as the embodiment of ‘low culture’, while the latter denigrate it as an ‘opium of the masses’, a distraction from engaging with truly pressing concerns such as poverty and class struggle, environmental degradation, gender inequality, unemployment, homelessness, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, crime, corruption and so on.”
Perhaps as a consequence, Alegi and Bolsmann also note “the output of academic studies of football in South Africa has been inversely proportional to the game’s relevance in South African society.” The same could probably be said more generally about the study of sports in Africa, though many academics around the world are working to correct that imbalance. And Peter Alegi is certainly doing his part.
A historian at Michigan State University who is spending this propitious year as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, Alegi has been a busy man. Having published “the first academic monograph on football” in South Africa in 2004 (Laduma! Soccer, Politics and Society in South Africa), in 2010 Alegi is publishing two books that should be of interest to thinking fans: both the aforementioned South Africa and the Global Game and African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World’s Game—a short but comprehensive book published by Ohio University Press as part of their Africa in World History series, which is intended to offer scholarly but accessible perspectives on “the particular and valuable ways in which Africans have experienced, and expressed, universal human experiences.”
Alegi has also been a go-to guy for media looking for intelligent perspectives on soccer in South Africa, and if you are paying attention to the social and political side to this ‘Year of African Football’ you will likely run across his voice (as one example, he makes an appearance in the interesting recent BBC radio documentary series on African football). But amidst it all Alegi was kind enough to respond to some questions I had after reading African Soccerscapes (our ‘interview’ is included below after a brief review), and to help me consider his book in relation to broad questions about what is at stake this year in the world of ideas: Beyond soccer, what does South Africa 2010 mean?
Both South Africa and the Global Game and African Soccerscapes are worth reading for intelligent perspectives on African soccer, though South Africa and the Global Game is an edited collection oriented more towards specialists. I was able to preview the contents of that collection since they have also been published as part of a special issue of the academic journal Soccer & Society, and for a set of academic essays it looks to be a good read (it is particularly nice to get perspectives from an impressive group of South African scholars—a group too often missing from the media coverage I’ve seen). But for present purposes I’m focusing primarily on African Soccerscapes which, while certainly more academic than journalistic in tone, is likely to be of greater interest to a general reader.
African Soccerscapes presents an overview of the history of the game on the continent through essentially chronological themes—starting with the introduction of the game around the turn of the 20th century (through colonialists, missionaries, and merchants), and progressing through the ‘privatization’ of football from the 1980s to the present. There is also an interesting epilogue specifically about the 2010 World Cup—arguing that “South Africa’s hosting of the World Cup represents the latest and most ambitious attempt by an African country to use football to showcase its political achievements, accelerate economic growth, and assert the continent’s global citizenship.”
Many of the chapters are necessarily eclectic in the countries and regions they cover. Documentation on the history of African football is tough to come by, and you take what you can get. Nevertheless, I particularly enjoyed some of the more extended narratives such as those in ‘Chapter Three: Making Nations in Late Colonial Africa, 1940s-1964,’ which uses case studies from Nigeria, Algeria, and South Africa to demonstrate the ways independence politics often became linked with the game. Local clubs provided politicians such as Nnamdi Azikiwe (also known as ‘Zik’—the first president of an independent Nigeria) chances for community organizing, while ‘national’ teams such as that organized by the Algerian National Liberation Front offered chances for colonized societies to negotiate new identities.
Such examples represent the basic theme of African Soccerscapes: Africa both shapes and has been shaped by the game in ways that too often go unrecognized. Seeing those patterns in the broad scope of modern history is most helpful to understanding soccer and Africa—as is evident in the final chapter’s discussion of contemporary issues around the game. In regard to controversies around the migration of African players to Europe (often at the expense of local leagues) and the explosion of youth academies (often at the expense of children’s rights), for example, Alegi makes a convincing case that we have the World Bank (at least partially) to blame.
The imposition of ‘Structural Adjustment’ requiring drastic cuts in African governments’ social spending essentially destroyed any hopes that local leagues or youth development programs might flourish as part of the greater good. Instead, the global ‘free’ market has been allowed to run amuck, meaning that the already rich leagues and agents hold disproportionate power. And while that mostly privileges Europe in the soccer world, Alegi also importantly notes that within the continent South Africa itself often serves as the hegemon—due to its relative economic strength, South African companies, media outlets, and personalities have huge influence across the whole of Africa (something Alegi describes as “South Africa’s increasingly subimperial role on the continent”).
Interestingly, however, African Soccerscapes also points out some ways in which the ‘privatization of football’ has had positive effects. With the women’s game, for example, local versions of the ‘old boys’ network have long been reluctant to promote soccer for both genders—historically soccer has been closely identified with masculinity in much of Africa, and when girls and women have been allowed to play sports it is often netball, basketball, or athletics. But with the proliferation of NGO’s using sports as part of development and with funding from multi-nationals such as FIFA requiring at least some attention to the women’s side, things are looking a bit better for the women’s game.
Overall, by putting the game in Africa in social, political, and historical context African Soccerscapes serves as a valuable reminder to be skeptical of simple narratives about South Africa 2010. It is not, as Sepp Blatter might like us to believe, just a happy story of the game uniting the continent for celebrations benevolently sponsored by FIFA and its corporate partners. But nor is it, as some critics might like us to believe, just about South Africa being used as the dupe of a frivolous game. It is all much more complicated, and much more interesting, than that.
While the history described in African Soccerscapes offers much to think about on its own, after reading the book I was also interested to follow-up with Alegi on his work and on how it all applies. Since he is in South Africa for the year and I’m stuck in Portland for now, the below is a very slightly edited version of our interview by email:
Guest: If it is possible to describe in short form, what do you see as the major intellectual/academic issues at stake with the major African soccer events this year? And do you see those issues overlapping with more general issues in African Studies as a field?
Alegi: The 2010 World Cup presents Africanist academics with a tremendous opportunity to speak to a massive audience and to spread more widely our still largely neglected work. With African Soccerscapes I hope to educate general readers about how Africa fits into broader patterns of the world’s recent history, including globalization itself. For the journalists, academics, media producers, business people seeking to better understand Africans’ intense passion for and participation in soccer, I offer insight into the sometimes conflicting priorities of private investment and public support, of play and profit, of club and nation, of tradition and modernity. The book aims to “mainstream” specialized knowledge and, hopefully, will lead to new collaborative projects with scholars in Africa and beyond, including the creation of a center for soccer research on African soil.
Guest: It was interesting to read in introduction to South Africa and the Global Game that historical documentation on football is particularly hard to find—partially because it often got wrapped up in politics. What was your process like for getting together all the material for African Soccerscapes?
Alegi: Lack of evidence is a massive problem for scholars of the African game. There is an almost complete lack of archival records for clubs, associations, and leagues, especially before 1990. Government documents, where they exist, say little, if anything, about the game and the same applies to missionaries’ documents. So for African Soccerscapes I relied mainly on a growing body of academic literature in English and French. With the help of two research assistants and Peter Limb, Africana Bibliographer at Michigan State. I spent a year digging for dissertations, journal articles, book chapters, and monographs on African soccer. At the same time, I mined African newspapers and magazines collected by the Cooperative Africana Microfilm Project (CAMP) in Chicago, and also used some oral history interviews. I then applied and won a grant that gave me time to make sense of this mountain of evidence and to prepare the manuscript for publication before the World Cup kickoff in June.
Guest: One theme that seems to underlie the history you write about in the book is the tension between soccer elaborating on the diversity of both Africa as a whole and within African nations, and soccer as a unifying force for countries and the continent. I wonder about that with things like Puma’s marketing an “African Unity Kit.” On balance, do you see soccer as more unifying or divisive for Africa—or how do you think about that tension?
Alegi: As is the case everywhere in SoccerWorld, the game unites while it divides. This paradox is at the heart of the global game’s history, culture, and popularity. It’s hard to generalize about Africa and even harder to reliably say whether soccer has been more unifying or divisive across 12 million square miles of land, with nearly a billion people speaking 2000 languages in more than 50 countries. As a historian my aim is to provide context, explore where, when, and why unity or division occurs and to connect what happens in soccer with what is happening in society.
Guest: In the book you also show how there is a long history of soccer being promoted as doing one thing (eg, ‘civilizing’ or ‘nation building’) from a top-down perspective but actually working as a form of resistance from the bottom-up. So I enjoyed the examples in your work of “Africanization” and how the game takes on “indigenous characteristics.” Do you see that happening now around the World Cup? Are there ways that despite the rhetoric of FIFA and the organizers, South Africans themselves are/can adapt it all towards their own ends?
Alegi: Africans are not passive, faceless, powerless victims. Soccer was originally a colonial game but it is now synonymous with Africa. The power of Africans is visible in soccer’s continuing cultural Africanization. Just the other day, an official of AmaZulu FC, a Premier Soccer League side in Durban, was quoted in our local newspaper stating proudly that magicians and traditional medicine (umuthi in isiZulu) are still an important part of the team’s match preparations. Fan culture is another example of soccer “going local.” In southern Africa, for example, the makarapa—a hard hat decorated with the club’s colors and symbols—is a better example than the vuvuzela of how local people infuse the game with indigenous characteristics. When I started going to games in South Africa in the early 1990s there were no vuvuzelas (thankfully) but I saw fans wearing beautifully adorned makarapas. These hard hats are a symbol of black working class men’s long experience working underground in the mines, in factories and constructions sites in South Africa. The emergence of the makarapa has to do not only with modernity and the urban industrial experience, but also with African traditional culture. The adornment of the head was a very important feature of precolonial societies. One’s headgear expressed status, power and prestige. So as black men migrated from the countryside to the city, soccer became a cultural weapon for self-definition and empowerment in a racially oppressive context.
But Africanizing the 2010 World Cup is going to be extremely difficult. The tournament is a FIFA corporate event. The passion, warmth, and generosity of South Africans will impress the world, but it is a pity that few ordinary Africans will make it into the stadiums. Most people in South Africa (and Africa) cannot afford match tickets even at reduced prices. Moreover, the local vendors and microentrepreneurs that contribute much to the festive atmosphere at domestic matches will be excluded from “restricted zones” around the World Cup stadiums, which are the preserve of FIFA corporate sponsors. Black South Africans may be reduced to providing “African” flavor in the Fan Parks and in the streets.
Guest: So is the commodification of African football you describe in African Soccerscapes part of an inevitable march? Are there signs of hope you see for football becoming more of a people’s game in Africa, or is the power dynamic too far gone?
Alegi: As the old saying goes, “The only things that are inevitable are death and taxes,” but the process of turning professional soccer into another entertainment “product” is unlikely to go away any time soon, in Africa or anywhere else. I do see hope for people to take charge and win some small victories. For example, Africa is the only continent in which TV rights to World Cup matches were awarded to free-to-air public broadcasting networks to allow as many people as possible to watch. Even in South Africa, the only African country where a private satellite provider had initially secured the rights to 2010, pressure was brought to bear by FIFA and the South African government to ensure that SABC—the national broadcaster—would also show all 64 matches live. Signs of hope also come from the growth, despite gargantuan obstacles, of women’s soccer and NGOs using soccer for social development goals. By struggling to broaden access to the game, whether on TV or at the local ground, people and communities are building alternatives to corporate soccer.
Guest: In general it strikes me that much of the academic literature around South Africa hosting the World Cup is pretty critical of the way it is being done. That is a valuable role, but I’m curious if overall it means you wish SA had never been awarded the Cup. Or how do you balance the criticism with the potential of it all?
Alegi: Only African countries could bid for the 2010 World Cup as a result of the 2002 FIFA decision to rotate the finals on a continental basis. As much as I respect North African soccer, I had to support South Africa! I was in Soweto on May 15, 2004, when FIFA made the hosting decision. It was a beautiful, joyful day that I’ll never forget. It was as if South Africa had won the Cup and not just the right to host the finals. This year I am fortunate to be a Fulbright Scholar at the University of KwaZulu-Natal where I am learning from South Africans and giving something back as well. Getting back to the potential benefits of the 2010 World Cup for South Africa, there are likely to be two main positive effects. First, elite South African football will benefit from engagement with soccer’s international networks of knowledge, which Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski identify in Soccernomics as one of the keys to closing the gap between soccer’s First World and Third World. Second, emotional benefits are possible, such fun and once-in-a-lifetime memories for a soccer-obsessed people; short-term feelings of pride and unity; an improved global image for South Africa and Africa as a whole; and greater confidence among some foreign investors.
Guest: Is there other stuff on African football (writing, film, etc..) that you’d particularly recommend to the thinking fan who is not necessarily an academic?
Alegi: I would recommend these films: Le Ballon d’Or based on Salif Keita’s story (winner of the first African Golden Ball in 1970); Zanzibari Soccer Queens on a team of women determined to better their lives and define new identities through playing the game in East Africa; and the South African documentary Pitch Revolution about soccer’s influential role in the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1970s. Among non-academic books, I would recommend Filippo Ricci’s Elephants, Lions, and Eagles and Peter Auf der Heyde’s Has Anybody Got a Whistle?, which describe the contemporary worlds of African soccer from the perspectives of sport reporters, an Italian and a South African respectively.
[note: For anyone interested in other academic reading, in their introduction to South Africa and the Global Game Alegi and Bolsmann also note the following as “important books on African football”: Africa, Football and FIFA by Paul Darby; the collection Football in Africa edited by Gary Armstrong and Richard Giulianotti; the FIFA produced Le Football en Afrique by Paul Dietschy and David-Claude Kemo-Keimbou; and the “three-chapter long treatment of Africa” in The Ball is Round by David Goldblatt.]
The General Secretary of FIFA, Jerome Valcke, has admitted ticket sales for the 2010 World Cup have been a shambles, and changes will be made for the 2014 event.
And ticket prices will be cut in an effort to fill stadiums in South Africa this summer. According to the Telegraph, Valcke also admitted that running ticket sales through agency Match had not been successful:
He also acknowledged that Fifa may have made mistakes in the way it had run ticketing and travel arrangements. Fifa granted agency Match exclusive rights to sell travel and ticket packages for the 2010 and 2014 tournaments, but its near-monopoly on hotel rooms has seen supporters asked to pay high prices. Valcke predicted that Match was unlikely to make a profit from South Africa.
“We have good lessons to learn from 2010 and they will help us in 2014. For the World Cup 2010 we will have to sell the tickets to fans direct, we will think about setting up Fifa ticketing centres around the world.”
The Telegraph doesn’t mention that the original decision to award Match the exclusive rights generated considerable controversy. It just so happens that Match is part-owned by Swiss company Infront Sports & Media, whose president and CEO is Philippe Blatter — yep, nephew of one Sepp Blatter.
Last month, Andrew Jennings reported on Match — who stood to earn as much as $342m from the contract — and their expensive surcharges that have raised prices for everyone.
Travel agents have to pay MATCH $30,000 just to be allowed to buy tickets to package with rooms and sometimes flights. Then they have to pay up to 35% surcharge on every ticket MATCH sells them, boosting a ticket with a face value of $160 to as much $244. So MATCH can take up to $84 from each fan.
The company has also established an iron grip on rooms. Hotel chains and Bed & Breakfast want business from fans and have signed up with MATCH – and must pay them 30% of their gross charges – so driving up prices again.
Any thoughts on this, Sepp or Philippe?
FIFA are under fire for their press accreditation rules at the 2010 World Cup, with the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) at loggerheads over numerous restrictions the governing body is putting in place, most of which follow on similar tight controls from previous World Cups, which have been criticised before.
One South African report says “Local journalists have accused world football governing body FIFA of acting as a bunch of ‘bullies’ and ‘dictators’ with a neo-colonialist mentality, following what analysts see as ‘unreasonable’ media restrictions on the 2010 FIFA World Cup coverage.”
Of most obvious concern is that FIFA’s rules include a stipulation against bringing FIFA itself it into disrepute, defined as anything that ‘negatively affects the public standing of the Local Organising Committee or FIFA’.
Yet after the last World Cup, the World Association of Newspapers & News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) worked to ensure this stipulation did not restrict press freedom in practice, and in 2009 — under the threat of legal action from WAN-IFRA – FIFA agreed to insert the following clause to the accreditation regulations: “For the avoidance of doubt, nothing in these Accreditation Terms and Conditions is intended to be, or shall be interpreted as restricting or undermining the editorial independence or freedom to report and comment of Accredited Parties.”
Play the Game quotes Larry Kilman, director of communications & public affairs at WAN-IFRA, as saying the question mark over press freedom had been resolved: “The issue of press freedom, and concerns that FIFA intends to restrict critical reporting by preventing anything that brings the game into disrepute, have been dealt with by the insertion of a clause that says nothing in the terms is meant to inhibit press freedom.”
It appears that the South African media remains concerned that WAN-IFRA has only received a verbal promise from FIFA that journalists who violate accreditation rules won’t be removed without prior discussion and explanation. SANEF is asking for written confirmation from FIFA. Some have cited the long struggle for press freedom in South Africa as motivation for an uncompromising stance towards FIFA.
Several other practical restrictions have perhaps been and remain of greater concern: FIFA’s terms also placed restrictions on the use of images by media organisations in order to maximise commercial revenue, which again after pressure from WAN-IFRA, have been loosened for World Cup 2010, as the World Editors Forum explains:
WAN-IFRA, which promotes press freedom and campaigns on behalf of the newspaper industry on international issues, is involved in debates over sports rights. It has presented the concerns of the news media about coverage of the World Cup to FIFA.
“The free and open coverage of sports events is under attack,” Kilman said. Sports companies want to control news publishers’ coverage of their events, he says, limiting editorial and commercial freedom. In return for accreditation for journalists, sports organisations require strict contracts to be signed. Conditions can include preventing a print publication from superimposing a headline over a photo of the event, in case it blocks the names of sponsors, and not allowing articles to be presented in a way that would damage the reputation of the clubs, that is, in a critical way, he says.
Indeed, the newspaper industry faces a variety of restrictions, including the delay of text reports to websites, restrictions on who can attend press conferences, the assumption of copyright over photos, and the blocking of innovations such as audio-visual reporting for websites. Some legitimate news entities have even been banned from covering sports events.
Negotiations about sports restrictions are not public. He points out that sports organisers see sports news as entertainment, and news coverage as for commercial gain, which leads them to support restrictions on such coverage. Sports organisers also define newspapers as print-only, while new technology allows them to bypass the press in distributing information about their events.
WAN-IFRA is lobbying for changes. An industry declaration has called on sports organisations to recognise the right and duty of the free press to report on matters of the public interest without interference. Indeed, the press has an important role here as an independent representative of the public, Kilman argues, and its coverage develops and promotes sport. Similarly, the News Media Coalition, a group of publishers and press associations, aims to end unreasonable restrictions and promote consensus.
Kilman has been involved in the FIFA – World Cup negotiations, and a mechanism has been established for regular discussions on terms and conditions. In the 2006 World Cup, a very public debate was held when FIFA limited the use of still photos on websites. This was eventually dropped. For this year’s World Cup, there are some improvements. There is no limit on photos used on websites. Mobile browsing is allowed, but “push” to mobile is not, and video is allowed from training grounds but not from venues. The ban on headlines across print photos has also been removed.
The South African media remains concerned about several of the remaining restrictions, including on video and use of pictures on mobile platforms, and FIFA has work to do to appease the local media before kick-off, with six areas of contention highlighted:
- Newspapers will not be able to push pictures on to their mobile platforms (they can, however, push text);
- There are restrictions on newspapers doing video packages for their websites;
- That reporters will not be able to report on the names of hotels in which the teams are staying;
- No newspapers will be able to sell papers within the restricted zone around stadiums, which has a radius of about 800m;
- Although Fifa commits itself to guaranteeing freedom of expression there is also a clause that says that news organisations may not bring Fifa into disrepute; and
- Many of the terms and conditions apply to reporters and photographers and their “organisations” (suggesting their colleagues, some of whom will not be covering the World Cup) rather than “employer” (ie, their editors).
Kilman’s conclusion is perhaps the most balanced take on the demands of the press and the need for FIFA to protect what it would see as its commercial property:
Many news organizations wake up to these terms when a major event comes to their country. What used to be a simple request for a press pass has now morphed into a contract with far-reaching implications. It should really be a publisher or managing director looking over and signing this contract. We have no objections to sports organisers trying to increase revenue from their events, and we don’t think that conflicts with maintaining open press coverage — in fact, press coverage helps enhance the sport. We think there is room for both
Terrible news broke today that the Togo team bus was attacked on its way to the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola, with machine gun fire leaving the driver dead and several players hurt.
The incident has many questioning the safety of players for the World Cup in South Africa. The Telegraph’s Henry Winter tweeted right away that “Fifa must investigate events in Angola and improve teams’ safety before World Cup. S Africa are organised but nothing can be left to chance.”
Togo’s bus was attacked just after crossing the border from the Democratic Republic of Congo the Republic of the Congo into the Cabinda region of Angola, an area that has seen three decades of separatist violence, even after the conclusion of the Angolan civil war in 2002. There was apparently a very foolish decision made to travel through there by bus, one apparently not communicated to the organisers of the tournament, the Confédération Africaine de Football (CAF).
“They should not have travelled by road,” Togolese football federation vice-president Gabriel Ameyi told The Associated Press. “They did not tell CAF that they were travelling by road. They should have flown to Angola.” (Was the Togolese federation itself unaware of their team’s travel plans? Ameyi’s comments are rather curious in this regard.)
“We were machine-gunned, like dogs,” Togo striker Thomas Dossevi said. “At the border with Angola – machine-gunned! I don’t know why. I thought it was some rebels. We were under the seats of the bus for 20 minutes, trying to get away from the bullets.”
To return to Winter’s comment, and those of many who will conflate this incident with concerns for the World Cup: neither the DR Congo or Angola even borders South Africa. FIFA will run the World Cup, not CAF. All teams will fly to their destinations. Africa is a vast, diverse continent, dangerous in parts, just as Europe, South America, North America and Asia are. Certainly, FIFA should work as hard as it can to ensure the safety of teams travelling there. Today’s incident was a tragic reminder that football administrators must always do so, and it appears there was a failure here by someone. But that doesn’t mean Angola is South Africa.
It’s fairly rare that the London Review of Books features an article on football, but it’s perhaps unsurprising that the World Cup in South Africa has prompted one, by R.W. Johnson, a Cape Town resident and apparently a Liverpool supporter. The first half of the article is an excellent local rejoinder to all the hype of the World Cup we will be immersed in over the next six months, reminding us the preparation of the stadia has taken place with little apparent concern for the social needs of the population:
The new Mbombela stadium in Nelspruit, on the edge of the Kruger National Park, is a 43,500-seater suitable only for first and second round matches. Its chief feature is 18 giant roof support columns all built in the shape of giraffes. It’s neat, you could say: the soaring necks hold up the roof while advertising the delights of a quick safari in the park between matches. This stadium, which cost more than £100 million, is cheek-by-jowl with a large settlement of shacks. Despite 15 years of ANC governments that have repeatedly promised them houses, jobs and services, the inhabitants of this squatter camp enjoy close to 100 per cent unemployment, have no electricity and lack any provision for sewage or tapped water. Every time they look at the vast new stadium it tells them that it was not thought worth spending on them even a fraction of the money spent on that.
Worse, when the Franco-South African consortium arrived to construct this monstrosity, they said they needed one or two modern buildings (i.e. buildings with electricity and air conditioning, for it gets unpleasantly hot in the lowveld in summer) to house their accounts, architecture and surveying departments. The only two such buildings available were the local schools, so these were taken over and the children booted out. New schools were promised but meanwhile the children were supposed to attend lessons inside empty containers which had neither windows nor air conditioning. Two years later, there is no sign of new schools being built and latterly this has produced violent protests and rioting by the angry residents. It is highly unlikely that any of them will attend games in the stadium but certain that all manner of international celebrities will, mingling with well-heeled locals.
The rest of the article unhinges itself from the quality one expects of the LRB with chatter about fixed World Cup draws and apparent bemusement that the World Cup doesn’t just feature the world’s 32 highest-ranked teams (thank god, if we’re depending on FIFA’s system), but the first half is certainly worth a read to consider the broader social context of the World Cup as a potential white elephant.
- It looks like Setanta is done for in the United States: it has admirably staggered on with its Premier League, rugby and gaelic football offerings since the collapse of its bigger brother on the other side of the Atlantic, but it looks likely to now be acquired by Fox. EPL Talk speculates that this could mean reduced offerings of soccer (and even more so, rugby and gaelic football) for fans in the United States, as Fox is more likely to cherrypick the best of Setanta’s rights and show them on Fox Soccer Channel than keep Setanta’s two channels going. Or might Fox sublicense more offerings to ESPN for the remainder of the season, especially with college football no longer around for the next few months?
- Notts County have been served another winding-up order, but their executive chairman Peter Trembling says it’s nothing to worry about. Sven, meanwhile, argues all the club needs is the money that always seems to be around the corner from Trembling: “The project to get Notts County in to the Premier League in five years is on hold unfortunately for the moment because things went bad,” Sven said. “But hopefully in just a couple of weeks it will take off again. That’s what we are hoping and that’s what we are working very, very hard for. I still believe it’s possible. What is needed is funding. It’s money. It’s very easy if you want to reach the Premier League from the position we are in: you need money of course.” Unfortunately, Notts County are currently £1.5m in debt.
- Freezing conditions have led to the postponement of more than the usual number of games over the Christmas period in England, leaving many lower league clubs strapped for cash. There is still little talk about a winter break; the Christmas period, after all, does usually bring bumper crowds to stadiums, but unfortunately many clubs are in such a perilous financial condition that one bad winter more-or-less threatens their existence.
- The MLS Cup Final is to be played at a neutral site again in 2010, with many (who I don’t remember saying much about it until it was raised as a possibility recently) now up in arms about it — Sam Stejskal at Fire Confidential says “Hate. It. I’m starting to think the people who run this league are idiots (cue Apart from allowing teams/media to make travel arrangements in advance, I see no positives to playing the game at a neutral site. It makes it hard (and costly) for fans to get there. As a result atmosphere suffers. The coveted “casual fan” (whatever that means…) watching on TV sees the bad atmosphere and their perception of the league is affected negatively. This is not rocket science. Play the cup in the home stadium of the higher side. It’s better for everyone.” MLS did give the move serious condition, so obviously it wouldn’t have been better for everyone. . .
The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.
North Korea have clinched a place in the World Cup finals for the first time since 1966. That appearance in England remains one of the most extraordinary in the history of the finals — perhaps as extraordinary as the fact that the North Korean team of today is almost as much as an enigma emerging from a closed society as that of their predecessor over forty years ago.
Heading into the 1966 finals as Asia’s sole representative just over a decade after a war that had devastated and divided their country, North Korea were 1000-1 outsiders to win the World Cup, despite the proud boast of their specially composed World Cup anthem that proclaimed “We can beat everyone, even the strongest team”. North Korea had qualified by beating Australia in a playoff, after many other Asian and African countries had withdrawn in protest that only one team from the two continents would be granted a place in the finals.
Getting entry into the United Kingdom proved to be a considerable challenge in itself for the North Koreans. Lacking diplomatic relations with Great Britain since the Korean War, the British Foreign Office took their time granting the Koreans entry clearance, and only relented when it was agreed their national anthem would not be played before games. The British Post Office even had to redesign a planned commemorative stamp and remove the North Korean flag after the Foreign Office objected to the design.
The North Koreans entered the tournament an enigma to the British press. The Times‘ 1966 World Cup finals preview said that “the North Koreans, offering a string of names that have the sound of waterfalls, remain for the moment a mysterious, unknown quantity.” The Times‘ correspondent expected Italy and Russia to waltz through the group that also included the North Koreans and Chile, as the Italians have “the cut and look of finalists”. And despite the preview already admitting the North Koreans were an unknown quantity, the Times’ correspondent was dismissive of their chances:
Unless the Koreans turn out to be jugglers, with some unexpected ploy like running with the ball cushioned in the crook of their necks, it looks as though Italy and Russia should have the run of the place.
The shroud of mystery was lifted from the North Koreans in their first match, a 3-0 loss to Russia that earned them plaudits as plucky underdogs (or the “little Orientals”, as The Times called them), who won the support of the Middlesborough crowd.
At Ayresome Park again for the second match, North Korea earned a draw with Chile, with The Times waxing that “rarely have supporters taken a team to their hearts as the football followers of Middlesborough have taken these whimsical orientals.” Their teamplay and effort was praised to the hilt, but quite why the people of Middlesborough embraced the Koreans so strongly was a mystery to the players themselves.
“It still remains a riddle to me,” North Korea’s Ring Jung-sun told the BBC in 2002. “The people of Middlesborough supported us all the way through. I still don’t know the reason why.”
But it was against Italy, who needed a point themselves to qualify for the knockout stage, that North Korea staged one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport in front of 19,000 awed and partisan fans at Ayresome Park. A goal by Pak Doo Ik, struck sweetly into the bottom-right corner of the net in the 42nd minute, was roared in by the crowd. Perhaps more importantly, just minutes earlier the Italian captain, Giacomo Bulgarelli, was stretchered off and did not return. The Italians could not break down the Koreans in the second half, with the press praising Pak Seung Zin and Ha Jung Won’s monumental workrates.
3,000 fans from Middlesborough followed North Korea across the country to Everton’s ground Goodison Park for their quarter-final match-up against the legendary Portugese. The Koreans raced out to a remarkable 3-0 lead after thirty minutes, only to be pegged back by Eusebio’s genius, the Portuguese coming back to win 5-3.
What happened to the North Korean team once they returned home was for decades as shrouded in mystery as the team had been on their arrival in England. The 2002 BBC documentary, The Game of Their Lives, attempted to answer this question, with rumours swirling for decades that the team had been sent to labour camps for allegedly womanising in Middlesborough.
It was clear that their time in England, and the connection the North Koreans had made, had left a lasting impression on the players, as the filmmakers Dan Gordon and Nick Bonner recount in this interview:
If you interviewed football players of today, you would get the usual “Yeah, it was a good game of two halves” response. But what we got from our interviews was wonderful. Rim Jung Son and his quote: “We saw lightness out of the darkness.” Pak Do Ik and his quote: “I learned that football is not only about the winning. Wherever we go . . . playing football can improve diplomatic relations and promote peace.”
The filmmakers found no evidence that the players had been mistreated in their return to North Korea, and Dan Gordon concluded that “I know for certain that they were heroes on their return and are heroes now.” Seven members of the team returned to England with the filmmakers, where they received standing ovations at Middlesborough and Everton matches.
North Korea’s appearance in the 2010 World Cup is unlikely to repeat such a fairytale, but it’s a history worth remembering for perhaps the greatest underdog story ever in the World Cup finals.
Maybe Sepp Blatter couldn’t shut up with his ridiculous blathering this weekend because he hoped to occlude some bad news from both South Africa and Brazil. There have long been concerns about the safety and infrastructure in both places ahead of the World Cups in 2010 and 2014 respectively, and those were seemingly amplified this weekend.
In South Africa, a retired Austrian footballer, Pieter Burgstaller, was shot dead on a golf course near Durban. Meanwhile, Oliver Bierhoff had his briefcase stolen on the way to the World Cup draw. The truth is, that isn’t exactly a crime wave that should stop the World Cup going ahead in South Africa, even if crime remains a concern there.
In Brazil, the partial collapse of the Fonte Nova stadium reminds us of the terrible state of stadium infrastructure there. Jose Roberto Bernasconi, head of the national association of engineering and architecture companies, told Reuters that “Many stadiums are in an absolutely deplorable state,” and that 80% need structural repairs. Again, though, the relevance to the World Cup could easily be overstated — a new stadium was planned to replace the Fonte Nova in time for 2014 anyway.
But I’ve already seen a professional soccer writer vow to spend 2010 at home due to fears about safety. I think that’s an overreaction, myself. Would you turn down the chance to go to either event? I know I wouldn’t.
Today, the draw for the qualifying round of the 2010 World Cup will take place. It will be beamed to 173 countries, and FIFA’s General Secretary Jérôme Valcke will be centre stage alongside Sepp Blatter.
Yet less than twelve months ago, Valcke, then FIFA’s marketing director, faced ruin following the finding of an American court that he had lied to both Visa and Mastercard during sponsorship negotiations for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups.
Shortly after, he lost his job and seemed destined for oblivion. But he was reinstated as the ruling went to the appeals court, and FIFA finally settled out of court for a mere US$90 million with Mastercard.
Amazingly, just six months later, Valcke was promoted to an even more powerful position in FIFA as Blatter’s number two. As ever, acclaimed investigative journalist Andrew Jennings cuts through the bullshit surrounding this bizarre timeline of events, and simply asks in today’s Sunday Herald: “What hold does the mendacious Valcke have over the wily Blatter, to prise out of him the game’s No 2 job?”