Tag Archives: Africa

Free Stadiums, At a Price: China’s Global Stadium Diplomacy

The chief of the Royal Grenadian Police Band was immediately relieved of his duties. His musical troupe had made a major diplomatic gaffe: at the grand opening ceremony for the Caribbean island nation’s rebuilt national cricket stadium, they had played the National Anthem of the Republic of China, to the considerable discomfort of the dignitaries present who hailed not from the Republic of China (Taiwan) but from the People’s Republic of China. An embarrassment all the greater given the latter had paid for and built the stadium, a great boon for a nation recovering from the devastation wreaked on its infrastructure by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, including the severe damage to its national cricket stadium.

Grenada National Cricket Stadium. AP Photo/Harold Quash.

The mistake was, perhaps, understandable. After all, it could just as easily have been Taiwan who had funded the stadium, and in part, they had. In December 2004, not long after Ivan had hit the island, Grenada’s Prime Minister Dr. Keith Mitchell made a surprise visit to Beijing, upsetting Grenada’s political establishment. They had forged close relations with Taiwan, with whom they had formed diplomatic relations in 1989, and had already received a pledge of $40 million in aid to rebuild the hurricane-wrecked national stadium and other infrastructure.

On hearing of Mitchell’s trip, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry tartly severed relations with Grenada and stated that “The government of the Republic of China regrets Prime Minister Mitchell’s lack of foresight. We have stated sincerely our intention of not participating in a meaningless game of “dollar diplomacy” with China, and will never let Grenada waver between the two sides of the Strait in order to seek profits. The government of the Republic of China expresses its serious protest against, and condemns, the People’s Republic of China for its use of “dollar diplomacy” to drive us out of the international community.”

Taiwan realized they had been trumped. Mitchell had worked out a better deal for Grenada from Beijing. Stung, Taiwan has since been trying to recover $28.1 million in loans dating back to the 1990s, even attempting to seize Grenadian properties in the United States. That loan had funded the cricket stadium’s original construction in 1998.

Meanwhile, 500 Chinese workers toiled day and night for a year to build Grenada’s new stadium. And elsewhere in the Caribbean, another cricket stadium showcased in the 2007 World Cup also came courtesy of China, Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua, at a cost of $21 million.

Sir Vivian Richards cricket stadium, Antigua

Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, Antigua. AP Photo/Jonhnny Jno-Baptiste.

Taiwan, though lacking the extensive reserves and free spending ability of its rival, also scored with the $12 million renovation of the Warner Park cricket facility in St. Kitts & Nevis.

Warner Park Stadium, St Kitts and Nevis.

Warner Park Stadium, St Kitts and Nevis. AP Photo/Lynne Sladky.

This stadium construction rivalry is the result of each nation’s aim to receive “one China” recognition from the Caribbean nations: with the latter trading an unusual resource, the identification of sovereignty, for financial assistance.

Asia and the Africa Cup of Nations

Outside the cricket-mad Caribbean, twenty-first century dollar diplomacy has had a similarly dramatic impact on football stadium infrastructure, and is proving particularly significant for the Africa Cup of Nations. Andrew Guest wrote extensively about that on this space two years ago, looking at China’s role in building the stadia used for Angola’s hosting of the Africa Cup of Nations. Andrew focused on China’s motivation from a different diplomatic angle, noting that the stadium could be seen as a chip in China’s bid for access to Angolan oil in competition with the United States.

Estádio da Tundavala, Angola

Estádio da Tundavala, Angola. AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell.

Angola is far from alone in benefiting from China’s “dollar diplomacy”, whether motivated by competition with Taiwan or the United States. Zambia’s shiny new 41,000 capacity Ndola Stadium came at a cost to the Chinese of $65 million, while in 2012, we will see another Africa Cup of Nations played at a Chinese built stadium in Libreville, capital of Gabon.

New Stadium in Libreville, Gabon

Stade d’Angondjé, Libreville, Gabon

As well as the politics in play, the construction of the stadia themselves raise some questions. Typically, these Chinese-funded stadiums are built relatively cheaply and quickly, and a large part of the reason for that is China’s use of its own workers and technicians in large numbers, instead of training local workers. And when local workers are used, problems have arisen.

In Zambia, for example, the construction of a Chinese-funded shiny new stadium has not allayed suspicions in the country about China’s motives and methods of assistance. Just two months ago, Michael Sata – a vocal critic of Chinese investment – was elected as the country’s president. He has in the past demanded the deportation of Chinese workers, and accused Chinese companies of mistreating Zambian workers (it should be said, whispers have long persisted that Sata has received funding from Taiwan). Sata, though, has toned down his criticism of China in recent months – perhaps a sign that China’s dollar diplomacy is, indeed, working.

Yet on a local scale, serious questions are still being raised in Zambia. China’s Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Company has overseen fatalities and strikes that have raised major question marks about the conditions workers have been placed in at the Ndola stadium construction site. Workers downed tools in the spring over unpaid wages, with one worker saying “We don’t know what will become of us. This stadium is finishing in two months time, so who is going to pay our benefits? Is it the Chinese or the Zambian government?” He continued, “We are not ready to go back for work until we get answers from government and the same government should tell their Chinese friends to improve our conditions of services.” This came shortly after a fire killed two workers at the site.

In Costa Rica, similar controversy has arisen. Eric Beard on the Football Ramble covered this superbly recently, noting the concessions Costa Rica’s then-president Oscar Arias made to China in return for the “donation” of a new 35,000 capacity home for Costa Rican football, Estadio Nacional.

“Arias agreed that Chinese workers could build the stadium, despite the fact that Costa Rica was stricken with unemployment from the global economic crisis,” Beard writes. “He allowed the Chinese company in charge of the project, AFEC, to entirely bypass Costa Rica’s labor laws, which are notoriously strict. Though Costa Rica is a proud advocate of human rights, Chinese employees of AFEC worked inhumane hours right under the nose of the Costa Rican democracy. There was even one casualty on the project, as 37-year-old Liu Hong Bin was hit by a construction vehicle in November 2010. Putting human rights aside, the stadium barely stimulated Costa Rica’s economy, as even most of the materials used were shipped over from China.”

And as is the case elsewhere, a sparkling new stadium came at the cost of disrupted relations with Taiwan and with a free trade agreement with China, along with questions about labor rights and worker safety. As China’s international power grows, expect to see China’s stadium diplomacy to continue its controversial path.

St Louis Stars

The Curious Career of Blagoje Vidinić: Bribes, Bank Notes and Balls

Champagne, bags of bank notes and Adidas balls: these were amongst the gifts Macedonian Blagoje Vidinić received during his African odyssey in the early 1970s.

This was a man who presided over the joint-worst World Cup performance of all time, but also a man who as a goalkeeper had once rivaled Lev Yashin in many eyes, who had played in Los Angeles, San Diego, St Louis in a pioneering era of American soccer; a man who as coach took two African countries to unprecedented heights – and managed to change the course of world sporting history, by tipping off Horst Dassler just in time for the Adidas head to back the right man in the 1974 FIFA presidential election.

Let’s start in the middle. It’s the beginning of a new decade, the 1970s, and the beginning of a new career for Blagoje Vidinić. He has just retired from playing after ending his career in North American soccer, having kept goal most recently for the St Louis Stars in the North American Soccer League, where he was known as “Barney” Vidinic. The 1968 season, Vidinić’s last as a goalkeeper, was not particularly successful, as he conceded 35 goals in 23 games, St Louis finishing third of four teams in the Gulf division during the NASL’s first season.

Vidinić is in the center in the top row. Photo via www.nasljerseys.com

Vidinić had previously spent two years playing for two incarnations of the Toros in the NPSL, having been part of a Yugoslavian invasion of American soccer in 1967, with no fewer than 25 of his compatriots joining him across the Atlantic. That season was not a success for Vidinić, either, as his LA team finished rock bottom of the Western Division, with Vidinić conceding almost two goals per game, then going on to play a handful of games for the San Diego version of the Toros before his spell in St Louis.

It was an inauspicious end to what had previously been an impressive career: in international play for what was then Yugoslavia, Vidinić had won a silver medal at the 1956 Olympic Games, a gold medal at the 1960 Olympic Games and had been part of the team that finished second at the 1960 European Championships. Facing the Soviet Union in the inaugural final of the latter competition, Vidinić uncharacteristically spilled a shot by Valentin Bubikin, allowing Slava Metreveli to equalise, with the Soviets going on to win in extra time.

Exactly how, following his North American adventure, Vidinić next ended up coaching Morocco isn’t clear – though the connection may well have come via former Yugoslavian international Bob Kap (Božidar Kapušto), who had also moved to American soccer – in his case to coach – and had been part of the Dallas Tornado’s unlikely world tour in 1968 that included a trip to Morocco (Kap, incidentally, went on to play a crucial role in “soccer-style” kicking coming to the NFL).

Regardless, Morocco’s recruitment of Vidinić would change his life. He took Morocco to the World Cup in 1970, held in Mexico, the first African nation to take part since Egypt in 1934. Morocco first faced West Germany, the 1966 finalists, and the Africans gave the Europeans an almighty scare, taking the lead into half-time thanks to a goal by Houmane Jarir – and not an entirely undeserved one at that, the Moroccans creating a good number of chances on the counter-attack (though West Germany did hit the bar twice, and missed a couple of fine chances to equalise before the break).

In the second half, Uwe Seeler equalized and then Gerd Müller found a late winner, the game ending 2-1 to West Germany, but it had been a fine showing by Vidinić’s men. Morocco again looked well-drilled by Vidinić in their next game in the first half, holding a talented Peru team scoreless for 65 minutes, though a trio of goals quickly came to end Morocco’s hopes of advancing any further in the competition.

Morocco did, at least, earn their first ever World Cup goal and point in their final game against Bulgaria, a 1-1 tie.

(How about those low-cut Bulgarian v-necks, eh?)

Vidinić had made his mark in Mexico. And someone else had made his mark on Vidinić. When he had taken charge of Morocco in the run-up to the World Cup, Vidinić found scant resources for his team, but soon received some unsolicited: boxes of Adidas equipment began arriving for his use with Morocco, boots even delivered for the team on their arrival in Mexico. Following elimination, Vidinić encountered the man who had provided the goods – part of his drive to win African support in his attempt to globalise his flourishing apparel business and increase his influence in FIFA circles. It was one Horst Dassler whom Vidinić met in Mexico City, who told him that “From now on, your family and mine shall be friends.”

Vidinić moved on to coach another African team, then known as Zaire (now DR Congo), in 1971. Zaire had only begun playing international soccer in 1963 (having gained independence from Belgium in 1960), and had never qualified for a World Cup, or come close to doing so. Indeed, no sub-Saharan team had ever qualified for the World Cup.

Zaire did, however, have a talented team: Hungarian coach Ferenc Csandai had led them to their first international honor with victory in the 1968 Africa Cup of Nations. But the team had not performed well at the 1970 Africa Cup of Nations. They quickly improved under Vidinić by taking fourth place at the same competition in 1972, as he instilled confidence and a greater understanding of modern tactics. Vidinić led Zaire to qualification for the 1974 World Cup with victory over his former team, Morocco, sealing their place with a 3-0 win in Kinshasa in December 1973.

In recognition of the achievement, the man whose money had brought him to Zaire gave Vidinić “a sack of banknotes”: Mobutu Sese Seko, Zaire’s authoritarian dictator.

Vidinić was recruited just as “Mobutisme”, a crude personality cult, was being instilled in Zaire, and the national football team did not escape from it – in fact, the international exposure it gave the country made it a key tool for Mobutu. The team suddenly became known as the Leopards, Mobutu known for his leopardskin hat.

Vidinić called up his new friend Horst Dassler, and Adidas got to work on a design for the country’s shirts that displayed the desired identity, in brilliant fashion:

Zaire 1974 World Cup jersey

In the lead-up to the World Cup, Vidinić oversaw Zaire’s victory at the March 1974 Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt, defeating Zambia in the final 2-0 in a replay.

In West Germany for the World Cup in June 1974, the political pressure from home – with expectations raised and the presence of a phalanx of officials created an uncomfortable atmosphere for the team – was hardly helpful as they prepared to play in a group containing reigning World Cup champions Brazil, and fancied teams from Yugoslavia and Scotland.

Vidinić’s team first faced Scotland at Westfalenstadion in Dortmund on 14 June, with the Scottish entering the game with expectations of winning by a double digit margin against the unknown Africans – skip to 5:49 in the video below.

While the Scots lined up nervously, Zaire looked dandy in their Adidas three-striped warm-up tops.

Zaire versus Scotland, 1974 World Cup

Zaire unsettled Scotland early in the game, Vidinić chain-smoking on the sideline as his team stroked the ball around. The breakthrough came, to considerable Scottish relief, in the 26th minute, a free kick leading to a header by Joe Jordan – marked weakly by Mwanza Nel Mukombo – landing perfectly on the foot of Peter Lorimer, the Scottish striker lashing in a volley from 15 yards out. The second goal came after an awful defensive lapse by Zaire only eight minutes later, as Joe Jordan ran in on goal completely unmarked from a free kick and headed straight at goalkeeper Kazadi Muamba, who could only fumble it ineptly over the line. Zaire, though, held on for the remainder of the game, a 2-0 defeat disheartening but not devastating.

Devastation would come in their next game against Yugoslavia on the 18th of June, with a 9-0 defeat. Yes: Nine, Zero.

As well as the humiliation of conceding nine goals, Zaire suffering the joint worst defeat in the history of the World Cup, there came with it a seemingly inexplicable minute of madness (hit 20:38 on the video above). In a bizarre move, Vidinić replaced Kazadi Muamba in goal with Tubilandu Ndimbi after Yugoslavia’s third goal, even though the goalkeeper himself had done little wrong in the game.

Muambi substituted for Zaire, 1974 World Cup, versus Yugoslavia

Ndimbi conceded a goal within seconds of arriving on the field from a free kick, Vidinić having curiously sent him on as Yugoslavia took their kick adjacent to Zaire’s penalty area, and in the chaos that followed with Zaire’s complaints about a supposed missed offside call, Ndaye Mulamba received a red card.

Sadly for Ndaye, and as an explanation for the vociferous protest that followed his dismissal, it was not him who had kicked the referee, but his teammate, Ilunge Mwepu. Later, Ndaye would say that “You can tell from the referee’s behavor that they can’t tell us apart. And they don’t try to either. I cried terribly when I was sent off. I told the referee that it wasn’t me, and Mwepu said “I did it, not he.” But the referee wasn’t interested. All the referees here are against the black race, and not only the referees. Scotland’s Number 4, the captain [Billy Bremner] shouted at me a couple of times during the match, ‘Nigger, hey nigger!’ He spat at me too, and he spat in Man’s face. Scotland’s number 4 is a wild animal.”

Zaire red card 1974

The game continued with Zaire down to ten men and at 5’4”,  Ndimbi provided an even weaker target for Yugoslavia’s shooting practice. Vidinić’s compatriots scored with almost comic ease, a very valuable result as their qualification to the next round would likely hinge on holding a healthy goal difference.

The Yugoslavian connection immediately raised questions about Vidinić’s decision-making. Why had he removed Muamba?

Vidinić provided a plausible answer that should remove concerns about his supposed collusion with his countrymen the next day. Vidinić explained that a Ministry of Sport official had ordered the goalkeeping substitution, and promised to never again accept such an order. The explanation’s veracity, one supposes, is proven by the fact that Vidinić remained in charge for the remainder of the tournament.

Meanwhile, in the background to the 9-0 defeat, an expensive billboard displayed a message paid for by Mobuto, with a word little associated with his country during the years of bloodshed he had overseen: Zaire-Peace. There would be no peace for the Zaire players following this result, though, and this would have even more memorable consequences.

Zaire - Peace, 1974 World Cup billboard

Mobutu did not enjoy his country’s humiliation on the world stage in front of his billboard. The message was soon conveyed to the army of his officials in West Germany with the team, who had been busy greedily creaming off many of the gifts promised for the players – Vidinić already having had to quell one mutiny as a result.

Now, it was not gifts that Mubutu’s henchmen offered, but bald threats. Facing defending World Cup champions Brazil in their final game, Zaire were not to lose by more than three goals, they were ominously told. They would, at best, not be allowed home should that happen.

3-0 down to Brazil with just a few minutes remaining, panic and protest at the horrible situation the dictator had placed them in manifested itself as Brazil lined up a free-kick 25 yards out.

What followed is one of the most laughed-at moments in World Cup history, guaranteed to show up in the next blooper reel you see.

The context of it was not so amusing for Zaire’s players, pawns in what was no longer a game for them. Mwepu Ilunga’s inexplicable decision to rush from the wall and strike the dead ball down the field has added much to the legend of African naivety. Of course, it’s hugely unlikely a player with Ilunga’s experience would not know the rules on free kicks. Ilunga later told World Football that he kicked the ball as an act of protest: “I did that deliberately, I was aware of football regulations. . .I don’t regret it at all.”

Zaire kept the score down to 3-0 and were able to return home, but most of them faced futures far less grand than Mobutu had promised them before their departure to West Germany.

Vidinić, meanwhile, had been busy repaying his debt to Horst Dassler, with some interest.

On 11 June 1974, two days before the World Cup began, the FIFA Congress held in Frankfurt elected Dr. João Havelange  of Brazil as the first non-European president of FIFA. It was the first time two men had stood for the FIFA presidency, and Havelange’s defeat of incumbent Englishman Sir Stanley Rous dramatically altered the course of the sport’s history.

It was a result that, if it hadn’t been for Vidinić, would have surprised Horst Dassler, who until the day before the election had been backing his old ally Rous, thinking his victory was inevitable, still chagrined that Havelange had previously refused an approach from Adidas to outfit the entirety of Brazilian national sport. Dassler, though, had underestimated the deservedly bitter feelings towards Rous in Africa, and was perhaps unaware of just how successful Havelange’s “little gifts” had been in wooing African votes. The night before the election, Vidinić and Dassler met, and the Zaire coach told Dassler all the African federations had met and agreed to back Havelange. Dassler was backing the wrong horse, an unappetising prospect for Adidas.

“Here’s Havelange’s room number,” Vidinić told his friend. “Tell him you had been backing Stanley Rous but you have been defeated, and from this moment you will be at Havelange’s disposal.”

Dassler took his advice, met Havelange, and came back with champagne for Vidinić.

In fact, according to Andrew Jennings,Vidinić had good reason to be so sure of Havelange’s impending victory based on African votes: “Vidinic was in Frankfurt in 1974 paying cash for votes to elect Joao Havelange President of FIFA,” Jennings writes.

Following Havelange’s victory the next day, Dassler and sports marketing whizkid Patrick McNally quickly met the new FIFA president for dinner, and the multinational transformation of the World Cup was roadmapped for the first time.

The partnership between Dassler and Havelange, between Adidas and FIFA, would transform world football. As Tomlinson puts it in FIFA and the Contest for World Football, Dassler was the pivotal figure “that would catapult sport into a new phase of economically and financially lucrative transnational practice.”

It would not be Vidinić’s last act in what had rapidly become the murky world of FIFA politics. Jennings again: “Sixteen years later, in April 1990, Vidinic was with Havelange in Guatemala City at the CONCACAF Extraordinary Congress to make sure Jack Warner was imposed as President of CONCACAF.”

By that point, Vidinić was working directly for Adidas in Strasbourg with frequent trips back to North America, his final coaching spell with Colombia in the 1970s having come to nothing, and he would stay involved with Adidas until his death in 2006.

Vidinić had moved from enmeshment in one murky world to another during his globe-trotting career, curiously changing the course of sporting history in the process.

Morocco again looked well-drilled by Vidinić in their next game, holding a talented Peru team scoreless for 65 minutes, though a trio of goals quickly coming to end Morocco’s hopes of advancing any further in the competition. They did, at least, earn their first ever World Cup goal and point in their final game against Bulgaria, a 1-1 tie.

The African Women’s Championship and the Curious Case of Equatorial Guinea

I suspect few world fans knew that South Africa’s first post-World Cup chance to host an international soccer event starts this week.  In fact, in trying to track down information about the 2010 African Women’s Championships—which are scheduled to start October 31st and conclude November 14th—I’ve come to suspect that few South Africans themselves know much about the event (though President Jacob Zuma did make a late appeal for national support).  The challenges faced by women’s soccer in achieving support and recognition are nowhere more stark than in Africa.  Fortunately for fans like me, that doesn’t mean there is an absence of good soccer stories.

Though I’ve written previously on Pitch Invasion about women’s soccer in Africa, I don’t claim any special expertise on this specific event—particularly as I write from my distant home office on another continent.  But given all the attention to the men’s World Cup in South Africa last summer, and various vague claims that the event would help develop the game at all levels, I do find myself intrigued by the women’s championship as an opportunity to fulfill that promise.  Also, given the many social, historical, and structural obstacles to the women’s game in Africa, I just admire the pluck of many African women’s players who do succeed.

Nevertheless, although it will determine Africa’s two representatives to the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany, the 2010 African Women’s Championship promises to be a relatively modest endeavor (the eight competitors are South Africa, Tanzania, Nigeria, Mali, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Algeria, and Ghana). Not only are none of the 2010 men’s World Cup stadiums being used, but almost all the games are being held at one 15,000 seat stadium in the far eastern townships of the greater Johannesburg area.  That stadium was refurbished for the men’s World Cup and served as the training base for New Zealand—though it’s most notable World Cup moment may have been when cooking smoke from the nearby township forced the Kiwis to modify their training. (Another small neighboring stadium will be used for two of the last group stage games, presumably to accommodate concurrent kick-offs).

Even these arrangements were only made public last month—a circumstance Peter Alegi rightly identified as an “inexcusable delay [that] makes it more difficult for fans and media to participate in and cover the premier event in women’s football on the continent.”  As if to substantiate that point, as of the week-end before the tournament begins the official tournament page on the Confederation of African Football (CAF) web-site had only been updated once since September—and ironically that update was to announce that the deadline to apply for press credentials had been extended.

CAF does have the excuse of not having much practice in hosting continental championships for women.  Though there were official competitions in 1991 and 1995, those were played on a home and away basis, so the first centrally hosted tournament was played in Nigeria in 1998.  Since that event, the African Women’s Championship has been hosted biannually in either Nigeria or South Africa—with the lone exception of the 2008 tournament hosted in Equatorial Guinea.

Equatorial Guinea also happens to be the only country to win the continental women’s championship besides Nigeria—which had won every African women’s championship prior to 2008, and is the only African team to attend every Women’s World Cup.  In my mind, this raises two interesting questions: why has Nigeria been so good, and how could Equatorial Guinea be their only competition?

The Champions

The reasons Nigeria have tended to be so good is probably at least partially attributable to the simple fact that Nigeria is a populous place with a lot of talented women.  According to a 2003 case study by Martha Saavedra, “women have been playing football on a regular basis in Nigeria only since 1978” but since there have been several iterations of reasonably successful women’s clubs and leagues—which is more than can be said for many African nations.  In addition, Saavedra notes, the relative strength of Nigerian women’s soccer may relate to a more general “history of activism among Nigerian women, especially in the South.”  More recently there has been some concern that the full women’s national team has lost some of its dominance, and that broader problems in Nigerian soccer may hurt further improvements, but there are also signs of hope: as was noted here on Pitch Invasion over the summer, the Nigerian U-20 women were an impressive success ending up as the first African team to reach the final of a FIFA World Cup of any sort.

The case of Equatorial Guinea is harder to figure, partially just because it seems to be a generally curious place.  I’ve never been there, and don’t feel able to fully pass judgment, but in the world of African politics Equatorial Guinea is known mostly for suspicious oddities.  A former Spanish colony comprising a tiny set of islands and land near the coasts of Cameroon and Gabon with only around 600,000 people, it has massive oil income that the United Nations computes to a GDP per capita higher than that of Italy or Bahrain (at $30,627), but a human poverty index worse than Haiti (according to IRIN News, estimates suggest that “60 percent of its population lives on less than US$1 a day”).  This extreme discrepancy is often attributed to massive corruption, particularly among its dictatorial ruling family—whose son Teodoro Obiang is known for buying a $35 million mansion in Malibu and paying $700,000 for a spin on a yacht to impress sometime girlfriend/rapper Eve, and whose patriarch has been in the news for promoting a multi-million dollar UNESCO prize to publicize science and perhaps distract people from his poor human rights record.  The problems of the ruling family even emboldened a group of mercenary South African plotters with few local connections, linked famously to Margaret Thatcher’s son, to attempt a (failed) coup in 2004.

So how did a place like Equatorial Guinea end up hosting a women’s African championship tournament, and becoming the first winner other than Nigeria?  The event generated so little media attention that it is almost impossible to know, but I’d be interested to learn.  I’m particularly intrigued by how a country of only 600,000 people—which wouldn’t even qualify as one of the top ten most-populous cities in Nigeria—manages to produce a continental class football team.

I do know what the Nigerians said: that the Equatorial Guinea women’s team succeeds by not limiting itself to women.  In another curious twist that was mentioned by Jennifer Doyle here on Pitch Invasion, and discussed in a bit more detail on the TransGriot blog, the Nigerians claimed at least two of Equatorial Guinea’s players were men (a claim that doesn’t seem to have any evidence other than appearance).  Sadly, these claims seem to get flung around fairly casually in African women’s soccer—in a 2009 story that TransGriot described as “Nigerian Gender Chickens Coming Home To Roost” a Nigerian women’s player was excluded because “while being given her medical exam for the national team they discovered she was intersex.”  These and other events led to the claim that CAF was going to institute ‘gender testing’ before the 2010 championship—something that I’ve not seen any news of since 2009, and suspect fell prey to the realization that ‘gender testing’ in sports is far from an objective scientific process (something particularly loaded in South Africa after last year’s messy Caster Semenya controversy).

So barring the gender bending argument, my best guess is simply that Equatorial Guinea has actually decided to support women’s soccer—possibly as a part of a larger strategy of soccer diplomacy that includes its status as a co-host of the 2012 men’s African Cup of Nations (with Gabon—another oil rich neighbor).  If you’re rich and dictatorial, what better PR boost than good old-fashioned sport success?  Though this is just a guess, it is supported by the silver medal performance of a youth women’s national team from Equatorial Guinea at last summer’s Youth Olympic Games.  How else could a tiny oil dictatorship whose prior athletic fame derived entirely from mocking ‘Eric the Eel’ have turned itself into a presence in African soccer?  And that is not meant only as a rhetorical question—does anyone out there know the whole story?

Other Stories and Legacies

One other curious story from the 2010 African Women’s Championship that may actually get some documentation is the first appearance of Tanzania’s ‘Twiga Stars.’  In fact, the only two films I know of about women’s soccer in Africa are both set in Tanzania: in addition to an excellent 2007 documentary on women’s soccer in Zanzibar (which combined with Tanganyika in 1964 to form the United Republic of Tanzania), it now seems another film-maker has been following the Tanzanian women’s national team (if you’re curious, check out the goal around 1:02 of the trailer—it’s a cracker).  As part of their reward for qualifying the team earned a sponsored trip to Seattle to train and play local teams—ending up with a mixed record against amateur women’s teams from Washington state.  Given their record against the locals in Seattle, the Twiga Stars may not yet be world class on the field—but the fact that they were there at all, and that Tanzania seems to be starting to take women’s soccer seriously, seems well worth documenting.

Ultimately I suspect that each of the eight women’s teams at the African Women’s Championship in South Africa represents many more fascinating stories that we’ll never see.    Even South Africa, with its relatively developed infrastructure and a history of some support for women’s soccer, is struggling to get Banyana Banyana to an international level (at last summer’s U-17 Women’s World Cup South Africa finished the group stage with 2 goals for and 17 against, including a 10-1 drubbing by Germany).  So, as Peter Alegi notes, beyond its limited press attention perhaps the most important question of this particular tournament is: “what will be the impact of this tournament on the development and growth of South African (and African) women’s football at junior, amateur, and elite levels?  This is a crucial question given that the number of female players — mostly black — continues to grow alongside their ongoing marginalization and exclusion in a male-dominated football world.”

Because if the legacy of the South African World Cup isn’t to develop the game at all levels, we’ll not only miss some good soccer stories—we’ll miss good soccer.

Feel It: Reflections on South Africa 2010 and the Contradictions of Fandom

Though a round-about series of unplanned events, a few weeks ago I ended up watching South Africa play France in an immense and busy fan park in a dusty working class outskirt of Pretoria/Tshwane.  In the fan park, while stumbling around looking for an angle on one of the big-screens, a couple South African fans glommed onto my American friend and me with curiosity: other than some staff running the show, we seemed to be two of the few white people in the place and we obviously didn’t quite know what we were doing.  So, as always seemed to happen during World Cup 2010, the locals took it upon themselves to look out for us.

Settling into tepid beers and a winter’s warm dusk, it only took twenty minutes for South Africa to score.  The fan park erupted.  It was mass paroxysms of joy: leaping, dancing, hugging, and vuvuzelas of all shapes and sizes.  Then, with the game beginning again, our new friends turned to us and screamed in exclamation: “CAN YOU FEEL IT!  IT IS HERE!”

“Feel it!  It is here!”  With each word carefully enunciated, that catch-phrase was everywhere around South Africa 2010.  It was on TV, on the radio, in advertisements, on street banners, incorporated with concerts and stage shows.  It was, as far as I know, a marketing slogan promoted by either the South African Broadcasting Corporation or Brand South Africa to generate enthusiasm for the tournament—so my initial response was to think there was something inauthentic to its parroting.  At least that’s what I thought rationally, intellectually.  Then South Africa scored a second goal on an inchoate France team, and that Hammanskraal fan park erupted anew.  I suddenly realized that despite my intellectual resistance to uncritical branding—yes: I could feel it.

The beauty and the torture of soccer fandom, I came to appreciate during South Africa 2010, is the way the game simultaneously titillates very different parts of the mind.  The rational and the irrational.  The cognitive and the affective.  The intellectual and the emotional.  I loved this World Cup because it allowed me to try and think hard about globalization, culture, urbanity, inequality, nationalism, identity, sports in society, and many other incarnate ideas that have fascinated me at least since I first travelled through South Africa nearly 15 years ago on my way to two years in Peace Corps Malawi.  But I also loved this World Cup because it allowed me to scream from the bellows of my soul when a ball crossed a line in the grass.

This not-particularly-profound realization has been banging at me in this post-World Cup lull as I reflect back on my all too brief trip to South Africa for the group stage.  Two memories stand out.

One was a day touring Johannesburg with a kind stranger who had stumbled upon one of my pre-World Cup posts and was provoked by my surprise “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.”  The idea of us all ‘muddling through’ struck him as funny, and he offered to show me what he could: I rode three mini-bus taxis to make my way from Pretoria to Sandton, where he picked me up at the mall in his Land Rover (he’d never tried the mini-bus taxis himself, and found it quite amusing that I’d figured the route out).

A many generation South African of Indian descent, an engineer / IT professional who used his vacation time to go off-roading, he was about my age—apartheid ended when he was in secondary school, and he became one of the first students to integrate a prestigious (white) public school in Durban.  But he was more interested in talking about soccer, music, economics, cars, his skateboarding phase complete with dyed blue hair, and his daughter.

At the risk of sounding like a stereotype, she was a vivid emblem of the “new South Africa”—her mother of Afrikaner descent, her father a Muslim, herself an angelic four year old with impeccable manners and grace.  As the father, the daughter, and I toured around downtown Johannesburg—partially just to prove that we could—he talked about the pleasure and pride of having attended South Africa’s opening World Cup game (his wife had never before been to a soccer game, and was a bit surprised to learn that unlike rugby it was legal to make a forward pass), about having experienced more racism on trips to the US than when living in South Africa, and about the ubiquitous question for professional-class South Africans: should he consider looking for greener pastures abroad?  For me the very idea of the day, the confluence of stories, questions, meanings, histories, and identities within a coincidental meeting spurred by a soccer tournament, engaged all the intellectual faculties I ever try to exercise.

Several days later it was my emotion’s turn, sitting in the stands at Loftus Versfeld waiting out an increasingly tense 90 minutes between the US and Algeria.  I had bought the tickets through the US Supporters Club, and found myself amidst the American hard-cores: fans in red, white, and blue body suits and Uncle Sam tuxedos.  I’ve never been a particular fan of Landon Donovan, thinking he got too much too easily in his career, but when he stroked that ball into that net 50 yards from my seat I felt a moment of sheer, irrational ecstasy.  Shrieking.  Fist-pumping.  Shaking.  There would be time later to reflect on whether I was swept up in jingoism, whether my subjectivity had fallen victim to corporate sponsored bread and circus, whether I was experiencing reaction-formation to the anomie I feel in most of my life.  At that moment I found myself trembling with unknown joy under a giant American flag unfurling over my head, watching through blurry eyes while strangers hugged as if meeting family members they thought they’d never see again.  It was, as the kids say, raw.

I’m not sure whether I should be proud of these reactions.  My fascination with the lives of others sometimes feels voyeuristic, my joy at watching a ball cross a line often feels misplaced.  But I do know these things are why I am a soccer fan—for me the game is a perfect place for my intellect and my emotions to reach a symbiosis.

It all reminds me that while Freud was not right about many things, he was right that the human mind is fundamentally conflicted.  We are conflicted between intellect and emotion, between prudence and pleasure, between id impulses and superego strictures.  The challenge is not to eliminate those conflicts, but to find ways of negotiating between them in reasonably healthy ways.  Following soccer mostly works for me.

In that sense South Africa 2010 was a personal fandom apotheosis.  It may not have produced the most entertaining soccer, it may not have been the most prudent use of funds for a country facing daunting inequalities, African teams may not have availed themselves of anything like a home continent advantage, South Africa may still be balancing deep internal divisions, but such limitations are only ledger marks in the fascinating and ongoing negotiations of sports and society.  They are counterbalanced by other marks such as the elegance and symbolism in the performances of teams such as Ghana and Germany, the architectural inspirations of stadiums including Soccer City and Moses Mabhida, the clarity with which this World Cup sent the message that Africa can manage the most lofty of challenges, and the fact that South Africa is a country of nearly infinite vibrancy, talent, and potential.

Feeling comfortable with such potentially conflicting marks was subtly endorsed and illuminated for me by a variety of local commentators I read while in South Africa.  Several journalists noted that the nature of life in South Africa, the legacies of apartheid and the reality of inequality, promotes a degree of comfort with paradox and contradiction (explaining, for example, why many South Africans felt no hypocrisy in supporting both Bafana Bafana and Ghana, or Germany, or Brazil, or whoever).  South African author Mark Gevisser went one step further in a recent Guardian essay: “Indeed, there is a manic-depressive streak to the South African psyche; an after-effect, perhaps, of having once been so favoured after the “Mandela Miracle” transition to democracy. If we are not “the Rainbow Nation” – or the successful hosts of the first African mega-event – then we are another African failed state; Zimbabwe-in-waiting.”  But Gevisser himself is cautiously optimistic: “the power of a grand national pageant [such as the World Cup] is its myth-making potential: whether we were in cars on the way down to Bloemfontein or dancing on the side of the highway, we will tell our children and grandchildren about it and it will become the measure, for years to come, of the Rainbow Nation we imagined we were bringing into being in 1994.”

In fact, in defining fandom as born of psychological contradiction and conflict I find it interesting to look back at my own patterns of writing here on Pitch Invasion around South Africa 2010.  After offering tongue-in-cheek predictions about who would advance from each group ‘if there were any justice in the world’ (a method that resulted in me correctly picking 8 of the 16 teams that would advance—exactly what you’d predict on random chance, furthering my suggestion that there is rarely any justice in the world.), the last post I wrote before I left was full of sentimental defensiveness.  I was bothered by the fear and pessimism surrounding much pre-World Cup media, and offered alternative media sources that I hoped might be more sophisticated and real.  Then while in South Africa, in an effort to find a niche, I wrote about topics such as my unease with the security apparatus around the stadiums, about xenophobia, about the under-development of grass-roots soccer, about what Franz Fanon might think of Soccer City.  In other words, I mostly wrote things that were intellectually critical.

I tried to focus any criticisms on global forces victimizing South Africa, but it just became much easier to offer pseudo-intellectual deconstructions rather than emotional effusions.  The irony is that while it may not have come across in my posts, I loved every single day of my trip to South Africa.  Loved it.

So while some of what I wrote was about xenophobia and inequality and misunderstandings, I want to go on record stating that in my mind South Africa 2010 was a grand success.  It was a tournament that allowed us to intellectually engage with South Africa as a place that matters in global society, and it was a tournament that allowed us to emotionally immerse ourselves in a beautiful game.  It was a tournament that allowed me, ever so briefly, to love Landon Donovan with all my heart.  It was a tournament that made me happy to parrot a marketing slogan for the sake of a brand: FEEL IT!

Paving The Way For South Africa 2010: Ydnekatchew Tessema, Forgotten Hero Of African Soccer

National team player, national team coach for his country’s only major international triumph, co-founder of his continent’s FIFA confederation, president of that confederation for 15 years, and in many ways the man who set in motion the whole chain of events that led to South Africa becoming the first African nation to host the World Cup: the late Ethiopian visionary Ydnekatchew Tessema deserves greater prominence in the annals of soccer history than he has received.

Tessema’s remarkable story intertwined with deconolisation, the fight against apartheid in South Africa and the battle for respect and opportunities for African soccer in the face of a Eurocentric FIFA.

Tessema, born in 1921, was a hell of a player (scorer of 318 goals in 365 games for Saint-George SA) and a coach: in the latter role, he took his native Ethiopia to their sole major tournament triumph, at the 1962 Africa Cup of Nations.

But it was as an administrator that Tessema left his true imprint on the sport. In 1953, four African nations attended the FIFA Congress for the first time: Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa and Sudan. At first, FIFA resisted African claims for representation on its Executive Committee; in The Ball Is Round, David Goldblatt says “Initially their efforts had been brusquely rebuffed by FIFA’s European majority on the grounds of a barely disguised and contemptuous racism.”

The African nations, though, found support from the Soviet bloc and South America, and it gained representation on the Executive Committee in 1954 (Engineer Abdelaziz Abdallah Salem of Egypt became the first African to sit on it) and earned the right to set up its own FIFA Confederation.

That confederation, the Confédération Africaine de Football (CAF), was formed at a Constitutional Assembly on 8 February 1957. Tessema (still a player in his mid thirties) was one of the delegates there representing the four countries present: Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan and South Africa. The Statutes of CAF were drawn from those proposed by Tessema and Sudan’s Abdel Rahim Shaddad. Tessema was voted onto the body’s first executive committee, with Engineer Salem the first president.

Immediately, CAF faced a major crisis, with founding member South Africa under its Apartheid regime stating it could only take either an all-white or all-black team to the first Africa Cup of Nations to be held that year; CAF excluded them from the competition and threw South Africa out of CAF altogether in 1961. It was, according to fellow founding CAF delegate Abdel Halim Mohammed, Tessema’s “firm stand” at CAF meetings that South Africa must field a mixed team that had ensured the confederation was the first international organisation to isolate South Africa in the sporting world.


Tessema at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden

In 1963, Tessema became the Vice-President of CAF, and led the move to form Africa’s first continental club competition, the African Cup for Champion Clubs. In 1966, Tessema (fluent in French, English and Spanish) joined FIFA’s Executive Committee, at a critical moment for African football in FIFA’s halls of power. As its membership grew, so would — theoretically — its voting power in the halls of FIFA.

FIFA operated under (and still does) a one member, one vote policy at the FIFA Congress: meaning for every African country taken in, the power of its original European members was weakened. Sir Stanley Rous, head of FIFA, put bluntly the fears this brought up for the existing powerbase:

Many people are convinced that it is unrealistic, for example, that a country like England, where the game started and was first organised, or that experienced countries like Italy and France, who have been pillars of FIFA and influential in its problems and in world football affairs for so many years, should have no more than equal voting rights with any of the newly created countries of Africa and Asia.

Writing in the 1980s as that sentiment lingered on, Tessema had an eloquent response for this:

Although we acknowledge the role played by certain continents in the creation of FIFA, its development and their moral, material and financial contributions, we estimate that democratic rule dictates that all rights and duties that form an international organisation should be the same for all. This is why in the framework of legitimacy, and by following a process consistent with the interests of world football and its unity, a progressive equilibrium of the representation in the heart of FIFA and its competition is required.

CAF’s rise in the 1960s, meanwhile, was tightly linked to the wave of pan-Africanism sweeping the continent. National pride became linked to joining the African community of football in membership of CAF. Politics and football were seen as reflections of each other. And this led to an almighty fight between CAF and FIFA over both politics and football as African demands for more power within FIFA reflected the demands of decolonisation politically in the international arena. And Tessema’s fight against racial discrimination in the African continent became a part of this struggle.

It was at this time that CAF fought its battle with FIFA to gain an automatic place for Africa at the World Cup finals. CAF had 30 members by the mid-1960s, but only half a place at the World Cup finals: the winner of the Africa Cup of Nations faced a playoff against the Asian Cup winner to qualify. The costs of competing and the low likelihood of qualification for the World Cup meant many poorer countries did not enter CAF’s premier competition. And this in turn, in a clever sleight of hand by FIFA’s existing European and South American powerbase, threatened their use of their growing membership in FIFA’s sovereign Congress: FIFA decreed that “National Associations which do not take part in two successive World Cups or Olympic tournaments will be stripped of their right to vote at the Congress until they fulfil their obligations in this respect.”

Tessema and CAF’s leadership, with the global voice of Ghana’s first post-independence leader Kwame Nkrumah supporting them, announced a boycott of the 1966 World Cup unless Africa received one full place at future finals. FIFA’s response was to fine the threadbare boycotting nations 5,000 Swiss Francs each. Tessema wrote a furious letter to FIFA pointing out the absurdity that only one World Cup place was awarded to a total of 65 nations in the continents outside Europe and South America. FIFA relented, and Africa was awarded a full place for the 1970 World Cup finals (Morocco becoming the first African nation to play in the World Cup since Egypt in 1934). This was to the dismay of Brain Glanville (still a World Soccer columnist today), who wrote that “It is quite true that football in countries such as the U.S.A. and Ethiopia would be encouraged by World Cup participation, but only at the expense of cheapening the World Cup, a pretty heavy price to pay when this tournament is, or should be, the very zenith of the International game.”

Not coincidentally, politics as well as World Cup positions were dividing CAF and FIFA: led by Sir Stanley Rous, FIFA secretly supported the establishment of a new, second Confederation in Africa, the Southern African Confederation, a South African puppet clearly aimed at giving the Apartheid regime legitimacy, as South Africa had been suspended from FIFA against Rous’ wishes in 1961 under pressure from CAF (FIFA’s Executive Committee had lifted the suspension in 1963 following a visit by Rous to South Africa, only for the FIFA Congress to reimpose it the next year). Led by Tessema, CAF’s delegation threatened to walk out on the FIFA Congress in London in 1966 if FIFA’s leadership backed the reinstatement of South Africa again.


Meanwhile, internally in CAF, Tessema continued to modernise the organisation and expand its role in Africa, even as he faced challenges in a power struggle for CAF leadership.  He led a key Organising Committee that led to a restructuring of CAF in 1972, and the same year was elected as its president (a position he would hold until his death in 1987). The continent’s first youth competition was soon instituted, as was an African Cup Winners’ Cup tournament. CAF’s revenue grew, with television and marketing rights to the Africa Cup of Nations profitably sold for the first time in 1982, and it became less reliant on outside support and focused on continental development of the game.

Tessema had worked hard to grow Africa’s standing globally, particularly in the face of intransigent European leadership at FIFA. One key strategy he employed was to cement ties between the African continent and South America, with an African select team appearing at the 1972 Brazilian Independence Cup, for example. Tessema then played a key role in the victory of Brazilian João Havelange over the reactionary Sir Stanley Rous for the FIFA presidency in 1974: for all his later corrupt dealings, that victory by Havelange was crucial for orientating FIFA beyond its previous Northern European pole and led to unprecedented opportunities for African teams.

Notably, rather than Havelange manipulating CAF to gain their support to defeat Rous, it was Tessema who had used the leverage of the forthcoming 1974 election to force Havelange to withdraw Brazil from a 1973 multi-sports festival in South Africa aimed at giving the Apartheid regime international credibility. As Rous himself wrote: “The Brazilians withdrew, I am told on good authority, because Tessema, the president of the African confederation threatened that Mr Havelange would lose the support of the African associations in his fight against me for the presidency of FIFA.”

Paul Darby, in his excellent book Africa, football, and FIFA: politics, colonialism, and resistance, explains Tessema’s sophisticated strategy:

The fact that Tessema was in a position to threaten the withdrawal of African support for Havelange’s presidential challenge illustrates that CAF was not only gaining confidence to assert itself within world football politics but was also beginning to recognise the potential that its voting powers offered the African continent. Indeed, it is clear from African accounts of the 1974 FIFA Congress . . . that the African nations did not see themselves merely as pawns in a power struggle for the control of FIFA. Instead, they saw Havelange as the means through which to achieve a realignment of the distribution of power and privilege within world football which would more adequately reflect their growing stature.

At the same FIFA Congress, a motion by Tessema required the automatic expulsion from FIFA of any country that practiced ‘ethnic, racial and/or religious discrimination in its territory’, thus ending — to the chagrin of Rous — the ambiguity that surrounded South Africa: Rous was still pushing to end their suspension. But Havelange’s victory ended that hope, and under his leadership, South Africa were expelled from FIFA in 1976.

In 1978, the number of World Cup places Africa should hold came up again at FIFA, but this time, it was an easier fight for Tessema to win some numerical justice for Africa: their number of places doubled at the 1982 World Cup to two.

As the years went on, some began to question Tessema’s long tenure, and the divisions between African nations hampered the realisation of the Pan-African dreams of the 1960s. But Tessema remained a force for the good of the sport until his death in 1987: he was a lone voice at keeping alcohol and tobacco sponsorship out of African football, and he warned against the growing trend of young African talent leaving for European shores. He spelled out the latter concern clearly in the 1980s:

African football must make a choice! Either we keep our players in Africa with the will power of reaching one day the top of the international competitions and restore African people a dignity that they long for; or we let our best elements leave their countries, thus remaining the eternal suppliers of raw material to the premium countries, and renounce, in this way, to any ambition. When the rich countries take away from us, also by naturalisation, our best elements, we should not expect any chivalrous behaviour on their part to help African football.

One wonders what Tessema would make of African football today: a World Cup host, with numerous world stars, but still struggling for domestic development in the game.

Shortly before his death, Tessema, according to Darby, “reiterated his belief that CAF must continue to struggle to ensure that Africa procured within FIFA, ‘the place which is ours by right and which would allow us to play the role of a real respected partner and not that of a puppet’.”

Few have done more to propel Africa towards its proper place in world soccer than Tessema.

References: Darby, Africa, Football, and FIFA; Goldblatt, The Ball Is Round; Le Sueur, The Decolonization Reader; Mangan, Europe, sport, world: shaping global societies; Rous, Football Worlds. Photos courtesy of The Tessemas website.

Africa, football, and FIFA: politics, colonialism, and resistance

Africa, FIFA and Government Interference: Dealing With Corruption In Soccer

The most important development in African soccer taking place this year might not be the World Cup in South Africa — despite its successful staging (oh, yeah, it seems to have turned out that Cabinda is not in South Africa) — argues Paul Doyle in an excellent Guardian piece on domestic African leagues, specifically, the possibility that Kenya might be leading the way with new leadership in the Kenyan Premier League:

Africa is a football-mad continent but has only ever sent three teams to the World Cup quarter-finals. It had six sides at the 2010 tournament but mustered only four wins – the strong showing of Ghana, a country with a good FA and innovative clubs, cannot mask the general trend of underachievements, including by Cameroon and Nigeria, countries who boast bountiful talent but finished bottom of their groups. When it comes to African football, tales of corruption, incompetence and infighting remain more common than success stories.

“Too many national associations are failing African football,” Nicholas Musonye, general secretary of the Council of East and Central African Football Associations, says. “We cannot have strong national teams without strong leagues but we do not have strong leagues because too often the associations are run by the wrong people, people who get involved for politics or money, not for football. Until we sort ourselves out, we will have the same old circus.”

To tackle this, Doyle explains, the Kenyan Premier League was formed, and significantly, it is owned and run by the 16 Kenyan clubs themselves.

The KPL represents a great example of African football sorting itself out, a successful rebellion by people who genuinely care about football against the powerful people seeking to hijack it for their own ends. Over the past decade the hijacking has at times been so blatant as to be farcical – an investigation into corruption in the Kenya Football Federation (KFF) in 2005 found that from the first eight matches played by the national team following the arrival of a new president “there was not a single penny banked by the treasurer as proceeds from gate receipts”. There were also reports of top KFF officials acting as unregistered agents to sell players abroad and embezzling funds given by Fifa. Even 30 computers donated by Fifa disappeared.

Kenya’s clubs, sick of being hindered rather than helped by their federation, began agitating for reform and, in the face of repeated sabotage and intimidation by the KFF, eventually took over the running of the domestic league, forming, in 2008, the country’s first professional league, the KPL, and only the second one in the continent, after the South African Super League, to be owned entirely by clubs.

“When you have a company that owns the league and the 16 clubs are equal shareholders and equal decision‑makers, then you automatically have three things,” Bob Munro, chairman of Mathare United and a KPL official, says.

“First, you have complete accountability, because you basically have 16 auditors as every shilling that comes in belongs to the clubs together and they sit and decide how best to allocate it – how much goes to the clubs, how much to a common pool for staff, referees, marketing and so on. Secondly, you have complete transparency because there are no secrets when there are 16 owners. And, thirdly, you automatically have fair play – if any official or referee tries to favour one club, the 15 others will fire them. Fair play, financial accountability and democratic transparency, that’s all you need to have good football management.”

At the end of the piece, though, Doyle raises a point that is worth considering further in global terms: when politicians attempt to stamp down on corruption within the national associations that run the sport, should they always automatically be chastised and threatened with a ban from international competition by FIFA?

Doyle raises this point with regard to the much-mocked move by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan two weeks ago to wipe clean the slate in Nigerian soccer by banning the national team from play.

But, as this BBC article explains, this was not simply a populist move by Jonathan; he was attempting to deal with a serious crisis in the institutions of soccer in Nigeria, run not for the good of the game but with a strong whiff of corruption pervading the air.

The actual banning and un-banning of the team is irrelevant,” says Churchill Olise, owner of elite football academy Ebede FC in Shagamu.

“What matters is that at last the powerful have realised the seriousness of our problem.

“Sport is the one area where we can compete internationally – and win. We simply cannot continue to waste our young talent.”

In theory, an abundance of gifted young players ought to make Nigeria a global super-power in the game.

But insiders point to squandered talent, a national sport strangled by poor infrastructure, and football officials obsessed by gaining re-election for themselves. There is also evidence of corruption.

“The sackings just scratch the surface,” says Wilson Ajua, a lawyer and owner of Rainbow FC in Lagos.

“The president should take it further. The structures must be cleaned out and rebuilt.”

He points to problems deeper than corruption.

“Many of these local clubs are like empty shells without good players,” he says.

“I believe the state of football in Nigeria is dead. The clubs are run as political tools, not as businesses.”

Jonathan’s extreme action suddenly made more sense just days ago when it came to light FIFA had been warned the Nigerian team was “at risk” of involvement in match-fixing; and, as Declan Hill discussed, this will continue to be the case when players are not paid for their participation in the World Cup directly, but often see their money disappear into the pockets of corrupt national officials (this, incidentally, doesn’t only happen in Africa). Significantly, Jonathan’s more important action was not the headline-move of banning the national team, but his demand that the Nigerian Football Federation be dissolved and its books opened to anti-fraud police.

Jonathan had to back down from his action when FIFA intervened. But the idea brought up above by Olise that Jonathan did not go far enough as the entire sport’s infrastructure needed cleaning out raises a serious question: who, exactly, is going to be able to clean out a corrupt or incompetent national association of a sport if a national government is not allowed by FIFA to do it?  FIFA, obviously, does not do it. And once entrenched, changing the guard at national association level from the grassroots up is extremely difficult. Isn’t it, indeed, in part the responsibility of national governments to ensure their national associations of their national sports are following good governance principles?

That, at least, is the conclusion of Doyle’s insightful piece. In Kenya, he observes, while the national league appears to have enlightened leadership, no such change has taken place at national league level, with the existing dubious leadership of Football Kenya Limited still in place, despite the urging of reform from the national government:

This week Kenya’s prime minister, Raila Odinga, requested that the FKL step aside and let clubs vote for new officials. It was only a request, mind, because Odinga knows that any more forceful move by him would incur the wrath of Fifa, who are fundamentalists when it comes to upholding their ban on governmental interference in football – sometimes with the effect that they prevent reform.

And as he quotes Elias Makori, sports editor of Kenya’s biggest newspaper The Nation:

“What Fifa needs to do is stop insisting on no government interference and instead insist on good governance,” Makori says. “It needs to help the right people and thwart the opportunists by drawing up a model constitution for all its associations and demanding that it is respected. If the status quo remains, it is hard not to be pessimistic.”

This is a brilliant suggestion by Makori, it seems to me; sure, it wouldn’t necessarily be easy to ensure model constitutions were implemented properly, but their mere existence — and an end to a blanket ban on government “interference” in soccer by FIFA — would set standards for each national association to be held up to by a country’s clubs, players, fans, regional confederation, FIFA and government officials alike. There is simply to much money in world soccer in every country, too many people involved, to simply trust a few officials to run the sport right with no serious system of standard principles and oversight to be in place for national associations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Africa needs more of that kind of spirit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From which statement we infer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger Cohen says:

Africa, take note

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

Hearing (African) Voices: The Twenty Ten Project

Much of what we read about this World Cup comes from a sanitized McWorld that represents one side of globalization: the stadiums, hotels, shopping malls, media hospitality suites, and articles of South Africa are often only slightly different from the same anywhere in the world at any other modern mega-event.  In places such as Johannesburg and Cape Town it is easy to stay in familiar worlds, and sometimes hard to experience anything else: writers at this World Cup for outlets such as Sports Illustrated have to, apparently, sneak away from their “security task force” in order to leave the “compound” for something as simple as a haircut.  The consequent perspectives offer little that an imaginative writer could not produce with a fast internet connection from any airport Hilton.

The other side of globalization, however, is the possibility that hyper-connectivity and piqued curiosity can create opportunities for diverse voices to propagate.  The possibility of stumbling on African perspectives that enlarge and enrich the conversation about soccer and society should be one of the great opportunities of this World Cup.

And while the sanitized big media version of the World Cup (and of globalization) seems to have maintained its hegemony in recent weeks, there are hints of the alternative possibility.  I’ve been interested, for example, to follow dispatches from well-known African writers and intellectuals dispersed across the continent during the World Cup for a project called Pilgrimages, or to read stories from aspiring writers in South Africa exploring the realities of their daily lives through Global Girl Media (as discussed by The People’s Game).  In addition, during my final few days in South Africa last week I was lucky enough to stumble upon “Twenty Ten: African Media on the Road to 2010 (and beyond).”

Described as a joint initiative by World Press Photo, Free Voice, Africa Media Online and lokaalmondiaal, with funding from the Nationale Postcode Loterij in the Netherlands,

“The Twenty Ten project focuses on strengthening the journalistic skills of African reporters in the fields of the printed word, photography, radio, internet and television.  The intentions are to encourage these media professionals to creatively produce reports about football in Africa and to help sell their products throughout the world.  Twenty Ten also aims to create an opportunity for the results of the project to have lasting effects on African journalism far beyond the World Cup.”

I was tipped off to the project by a fellow Oregonian now living in Amsterdam and working as the web editor for Twenty Ten.  She introduced me to some of the young African journalists and senior media professionals being sponsored to work in South Africa during the World Cup, and offered me a copy of the book that makes up one part of their work (a book with selections from pre-World Cup journalism workshops around the continent, available from KIT Publishers in Amsterdam).  They explained that in addition to the book they’ve been working collaboratively to produce journalism available on the web for reading or for purchase by larger media outlets.  While the original intention was to focus on presenting positive visions of Africa, something they do well in many pieces, the reality of South Africa 2010 has also led them to offer local perspectives on critical issues such as FIFA’s treatment of low-level workers and unemployment in South Africa.

The value of having young and promising African journalists engage with this World Cup is evident in the alternative lenses work from the Twenty Ten project offers on familiar issues.  On the diversity of Bafana Bafana, for example, Ugandan journalist Joseph Opio moves beyond the familiar and artificial black/white dichotomy to consider the integration of South Africa’s large population of Indian descent.  Or on prostitution, for another example, Nikki Rixon offers “A day in the life of a sex worker” as a powerful and humanizing photo-essay.

Likewise, the book (fully titled Africa United: The Road to Twenty Ten) offers intriguing local perspectives on stories that would likely be somewhat familiar to followers of African soccer: the role of Didier Drogba and the Cote D’Ivoire national team in national reconciliation (by Selay Marius Kouassi), the tragic plane crash that killed most of the Zambian national team on its way to a World Cup qualifier in 1993 (by Kennedy Gondwe), the inspiration provided by George Weah to war-torn Liberia (by Emmanuel Geeza Williams).  But particularly when the stories are told by journalists from the country at hand (which is not always the case in the book), the pieces offer rich local insights: on Cote D’Ivoire we hear from observers as diverse as Drogba’s mother and government ministers, on Zambia we get the contemporary story of widows struggling to support their families since promises of endowments in tribute to the crash victims have been unfulfilled, from Liberia we learn what it was like to listen to Cameroon’s legendary 1990 World Cup victories on the radio while living in a refugee camp.

There are also stories of African soccer I hadn’t heard before; I particularly enjoyed reading Joe Opio on how Idi Amin, for all the problems he caused in Uganda, managed to convince Pelé to make a three day visit in 1976 that enthralled the nation:

“The Pelé visit is remembered as a landmark event by every Ugandan with a passing interest in football.   But it isn’t the sole reason Amin, despite such an infamous contribution to humanity, holds a treasured place in the hearts of football lovers in Uganda.  Come to think of it, it isn’t even the crowning legacy of Amin’s patronage of local football.  In a success-starved nation, Amin’s reign, for all its faults, is remembered among fans as a golden era of sorts.”

Who knew?

The book is also particularly strong in its photojournalism.  The series by Joseph Moura, for example, on ‘Mother Malou,’ identified as “the first woman referee from Congo to make it to the international level,” makes for a fascinating picture of a parallel Congo where strong women dictate male worlds.  Similarly,  the series by Simone Scholtz titled “Transformations,” showing Ghanaian fans before and after painting themselves with national colors and a black star, offers evocative images of fandom as simultaneously exotic and familiar.

The work does have its limitations—the journalists are often young professionals and they start with many different languages—but the project as a whole strikes me as the type of thing we should hope for more of from this first World Cup on African soil.  “Just imagine,” suggest the book’s editors Stefan Verwer, Marc Broere and Chris de Bode, “what it would mean to the people in Africa if an African team won the World Cup.”  On the field, unfortunately, all we can do for now is to just imagine.  Off the field, hopefully, amidst the limitations and possibilities of globalization we can learn to expect more.

Post-Invictus: South Africa’s Greatest Soccer Moment

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.

Soccer City from fifa.com

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.

The Hosting

Commemorative stamps from the 1996 African Cup of Nations

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.

The Games

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.

Tovey and Mandela celebrating the African Cup of Nations

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.”

The Legacies

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.’”

A few years after 1996 Bafana Bafana stayed multi-racial

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.

Soccer, Passion, Politics and the First World Cup in Africa

Africa United

Ahead of the World Cup in South Africa, a spate of books on African football was to be expected.  Africa, after all, has traditionally been underserved as far as football writing goes.  Until last year, the genre could more or less be summed up in three books: Peter auf der Heyde’s Has Anybody Got a Whistle?, Filippo Ricci’s Elephants, Lions and Eagles, and a brilliant chapter by David Goldblatt in his magisterial The Ball is Round.

Of course the problem with writing about Africa is – well, it’s Africa.   It’s a big complex continent made up of over 50 countries, and in a sense it’s quite patronizing to think of it as a single entity.  But at the same time, given the chaotic and underdeveloped nature of African football it’s almost impossible to think of writing an entire book on a single country in the manner of John Foot’s Calcio or David Wangerin’s Soccer in a Football World – there simply isn’t the raw archival or video material available to do this.  So writers are reduced to trying to fit this impossibly vast continent into the framework of a single tome.

It’s a daunting task – so daunting, in fact that writers typically fall back on some pretty standard tropes when discussing African football.  There’s the nation-specific ones: (e.g. “Roger Milla’s Cameroon 1990”; “The Wasted Talent of the 1994 Super Eagles”; “Plucky Little Senegal 2002”), the financial and capacity-based ones (e.g. “why players always strike before World Cups”, “why African Nations Cups are always a shambles”), cultural ones (e.g. “there’s this thing called juju…”).  Even Ian Hawkey’s excellent Feet of the Chameleon fell prey to some of these.

Probably because he is not actually a sportswriter, Steve Bloomfield avoids the trope trap by simply eschewing any kind of history of the development of football in Africa and  describing how the sport is played and lived in some of the continent’s most dangerous countries in his new book, Africa United: Soccer, Passion, Politics and the First World Cup in Africa.  The choice of locales is a by-product of Bloomfield’s research method; unlike people who travel around specifically trying to write a book about football, Bloomfield rather obviously picked up his material while doing “other” assignments around the continent.  And since the Western media (for which he works) tends to only care about those bits of Africa that are in utter chaos or misery, his book chapters read like a check-list of Africa’s disaster zones.

So, for instance, you get some insight into the Chad-Sudan double-header held in Cairo while the two countries were skirmishing over Darfur, or the Congo-Rwanda CAN qualifier where most of the Rwanda players were actually Tutsis from Congo.  Not about the matches themselves, the players or the tactics; Bloomfield isn’t a sports writer and he doesn’t pretend to be (just as well: matches like this do not actually command much interest as spectacle).  What he’s trying to tease out is what these matches tell us about how Africa works and how Africa is changing.

Thus, we can see the progressive return of disorder and chaos in Somalia through the eyes of its national team and its current league champion Benadir Telecom (well, current since 2007, the last time a league could be played) .   We see the triumph of DR Congo’s TP Mazembe, a kind of mid-continent Chelsea, living on the generosity of a local mineral magnate and political chief who wants to see his local team make it to a World Championship and is prepared to pay near-European wages to players who come play in his remote corner of one of the world’s most dangerous countries.

Continuing the tour of the continent’s nastiest places, Bloomfield takes us to Sierra Leone and Liberia to learn about the role football is playing in national reconciliation and about the national league for the disabled for people who have been maimed by war injuries.  We learn about how football exists in the conflict-torn delta region of Nigeria, and how teams in the rest of Nigeria are occasionally encouraged to throw a game against Warri Warriors so that their fans might have something to celebrate and divert them from armed insurrection.  And we travel to Zimbabwe, where the new MDC Finance Minister Tendai Biti holds forth with some penetrating analysis of English football at the outset of the 2009-10 Premier League season (“Silvestre is crap”,  “Liverpool is crap”, etc.).

This approach naturally means that there are a few countries who are essential to African football, such as Cameroon, Morocco and Algeria, which Bloomfield unfortunately simply passes over in silence.  And the fact that his main focus is culture and politics rather than football per se means that the reader is subjected to a little too much of the “hey, all these kids in refugee camps/armed guards at Sudanese checkpoints/delightful Somali urchins are all wearing Arsenal jerseys/love David Beckham/support Chelsea” stuff than is strictly necessary.

But counter-balancing this is the frankly superb discussions of domestic football in a number of countries, including Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Kenya.  Of all the books so far written on Africa, none has come close to the providing the depth of understanding and analysis to the economics and politics of club football as this one.

Inevitably, this book is going to be compared to Ian Hawkey’s recent book Feet of the Chameleon.  Briefly, the two books are essentially complimentary: Hawkey takes a historical approach, concentrates on the football more than the politics, and covers all the nations that matter from a football point of view.  Bloomfield, on the other hand, is relentlessly in the here and now, provides much more detail on the continent’s history and politics (surely there can be no other book on football that provides serious discussion of World bank projects).  He is also much more proficient at describing the social atmosphere around the sport and its institutions and trying to understand not what Africa means to football, but rather what football means to Africa.

There is no either/or here. Read them both. In their own different but highly complimentary ways, they are both richly rewarding.


Stories of African (and English, and American) Soccer: Steve Zakuani and the Congo

There is a significant degree of chance in the fact that the last two top overall picks in the MLS draft, Steve Zakuani and Danny Mwanga, were both originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Both players took circuitous routes to the league through the unpredictability of immigration and the strange concoction that is American college soccer.  But their success in the US, however random, also says something about a place that is not likely to get much attention in this ‘Year of African Soccer.’

The Democratic Republic of Congo was known as Zaire when it sent an ill-fated team to the 1974 World Cup as the first to represent sub-Saharan Africa.  Since that time both the country and the national team have had mostly hard times, occasionally interspersed with glimpses of the massive potential that makes Congo a complicated but fascinating place for outsiders like me to try to understand.  So in hopes of using soccer as a window to the Congo, and to further explore the way African soccer works in the global mash-up of the modern game, I recently sat down with Steve Zakuani to document one emigrant’s experiences.

Zakuani’s story is plenty complicated in its own right, a winding journey from Kinshasa to London to Akron to the Seattle Sounders, and while little of that story physically takes place in the Congo it does offer some thought-provoking perspectives on Africa, soccer, and fateful role of chance.  Further, the very fact of his success since leaving Congo raises the yet more complicated question about the place—best encapsulated for me by a famous story that can serve as a Rorschach test for thinking about African football.

As relayed by Mark Gleeson, journeyman coach Claude Le Roy was taking the DR Congo team through Johannesburg to a 2005 World Cup qualifier when, as he explained:

“I had a lot of problems with my squad. Some players did not get tickets sent to them in Europe, others did not have visas in time and I arrived with 13 players.  There was a big contingent of Congolese fans waiting to meet us at the airport and I was talking about my problem when they told me there were two good players in the crowd who had also come to say hello.  I told them both to join us and while we flew to Durban, they drove their cars down from Johannesburg (a five-hour journey). They both looked quite good in training and I chose them for the bench.”

One ended up playing as a reserve in the qualifier, both players went on to make the Congo’s roster for the 2006 African Cup of Nations in Egypt, and the story has been regularly employed as emblematic of the “chaos” of African football.

But what exactly does the story mean?

The usual interpretation is that it is a tale of failure and dysfunction.  Congolese football was such a mess that any random players with the necessary passport could have a chance if they were in the right place at the right time.  That interpretation often extends to the Congo itself—a country that is widely considered among the most broken places in the world.  A country that in the last 15 years has suffered through war, conflict, and inequality leading some to claim a death toll unequaled globally since World War II and others to describe it as “the worst place on earth to be a woman.”

But the other interpretation, one which seems to have actually been Le Roy’s intended moral, is that it is a tale of talent and potential.  Congolese football is so fertile that a coach could hardly avoid stumbling across talent with the necessary passport virtually any place and any time (the two players in the airport that day were there because they played with Orlando Pirates, one of the top professional clubs on the continent).  And while I suspect this is not the interpretation most of us outsiders might first think about when we hear the story, it too offers a metaphor for the Congo—a massive and diverse country nearly the size of all Western Europe that is among the most resource-rich in the world.  A country of 68 million people who live and cope despite the legacies of brutal colonial regimes, corrupt dictators, and the strategic indifference of an outside world that relies on the Congo for everything from the coltan that runs our cell phones to the talent that populates our soccer leagues.

In recent years American soccer fans have become the latest beneficiaries of the Congo’s potential—if Claude Le Roy had happened to make it to Seattle of MLS First Kick 2010 (and if he were still coaching Congo, rather than having moved on to Oman), he would have had some support for the latter interpretation in the persons of number 11 for the Seattle Sounders and number 10 for Philadelphia Union.

Of course, the reality is that both interpretations, both sad failures and bountiful potential, underlie some of the complicated story of the Congo.  And in a roundabout way some of those same themes are embodied in the experiences of Steve Zakuani.

From Congo to England

Though his birthplace is usually listed as Congo’s capital city of Kinshasa, Zakuani was actually born in his family’s remote rural village—exactly one week after his father had left for the capital with a prized opportunity to attend University.  I had noticed that his father’s name is Mao, and wondered if that was a tribute to the Congo’s dalliance with communism in the days of the Cold War (a dalliance that many think cost one of Congo’s most promising independence leaders, Patrice Lumumba, his life at the hands of the CIA in 1961).  But in fact, according to Steve, Mao Zakuani’s name derives from a term in local Congolese dialect that means “I’m afflicted for my beliefs”—a gesture symbolizing their family’s frustration with regional politics.

As Steve explains it, however, the Zakuani family left Congo more for opportunity than for politics.  After Mao had his degree in English and linguistics in Kinshasa, he earned a job with Air Zaire that in turn allowed him to make connections in England.  Those connections eventually lead to a job as a translator for asylum cases in the English court system—both Steve and his father speak English, French, Swahili, and Lingala—and the family moved to London in phases.  Steve arrived in London at age four, and now has only vague memories of the Congo; he remembers the joy of playing with friends and siblings, the strict discipline of his grandfather, the natural beauty of the landscape, and the occasional fear that accompanied soldiers patrolling the streets with impunity.

Yet, in Zakuani’s own words: “As much as I’m Congolese and I’m African, home—when I think of home—I think of London.  It’s natural for me.  14 years growing up there, family is still there, two of my younger siblings were born there, all my experiences—good or bad—were there, so London is always home.”  And it was in London where he fell in love with soccer, first playing in the park with his older brother and cousins, with Sunday league kids teams, and by 11-12 with the Arsenal youth set-up.  Determined to become a pro and have fun with friends along the way, school became an after-thought despite his parents’ efforts and his inquisitive disposition.  Then fateful chance intervened for the first time:

“People say, you grow up in London and think—wonderful.  But not the London I grew up in.  I grew up very inner-city.  We call them council estates, I think here you call them housing projects.  A bunch of kids together, you can only play soccer so much, so you get taken up by bad influences.  One day in 2003 I finished school and my friend said—hey I stole a moped this morning, come ride it with us.  There were about six of us and we’re just riding around the neighborhood…but I lost control of the bike, and hit into a car.  It wasn’t the worst crash, but when I got up to walk my leg buckled…It wasn’t until I got to the hospital that night that we realized how serious it was.  My Dad said to the doctor, you know he plays soccer so how long until he can play again.  And the doctor goes ‘Play?  We’re just trying to get him to walk again.’…I didn’t play for 18 months.”

Zakuani seems to think of that time, the crucial period in the English system around 16 years of age, as lost years—still determined to play professionally once his leg healed, he managed to finish his General Certificate of Secondary Education to leave school, but the accident meant no clubs were willing to offer him a contract.  He went on trials in Holland, Spain, joined an independent London academy team, and found himself torn between some of the bad influences in his neighborhood and a charismatic Jamaican teacher from his school who had started a mentoring program “for black kids that were failing their exams…I went there just to play devil’s advocate—he began teaching us on financial management, relationships, how to become men, all this after school hours.  I went there and when he’d say something, I’d say something against him.  But it got to the point where he’d embarrass me every time.  I’d just tuck in my head.  And when I left school we kept in touch.  Then on June 12th 2005 he took me to a leadership seminar where I heard a Bahamanian speaker, and the speaker spoke about life, and leadership, and mentality, and…whoosh, everything opened up.”

Something clicked for Zakuani that day, and while he attributes much of it to the philosophy of that speaker (a part self-help guru / part evangelist named Myles Munroe) it was also another intervention of fateful chance.  Zakuani became devoted to reading and to self-improvement, diving into everything from Malcolm X to Nelson Mandela to Benjamin Franklin.  He was still determined to make it as a soccer player, but he also started to take his own education—both formal and informal—seriously.

From England to America

Fortuitously, around that same time an assistant coach from the University of Akron was in London: “They were scouting a good friend of mine, and after the training session I went to his house, just to watch videos.  And they said—what do you think of this?  And I said no, I’m ok.  But they gave me a DVD to think about it, and I took it to show my parents.  And it was over.  You can play soccer, and get a good education?  For free?  Take it.”  Though he had been an indifferent student, Zakuani’s raw intelligence came through in the form of relatively high SAT scores and he was off to Ohio (according to Zakuani, his friend missed the SAT cut-off for admission to Akron by 20 points and ended up staying in England).

When I asked him about going to school at Akron, Zakuani lit up: “Ah, I loved it.  Just loved it….obviously I took the Gen Ed classes but I also took classes on the black experience, Africans, Americans, government, and it opened up my mind.  As much as I loved training at Akron, I loved my classes just as much.  I loved it… the teachers make you think.  You don’t agree with everything, but you learn about everything.  That was awesome.”

Zakuani also thrived in the Akron soccer program, an environment that allowed him to reestablish his ability and reinforce his sense of purpose: “After my freshman year in July and August 2008 I went and trained with Preston in the Championship in England and I did well.  They wanted to sign me.  But before I left Caleb [Porter, the Akron head coach] made me promise I’d come back for my sophomore year.  And I didn’t want to break my word.  So I came back for my sophomore year, had a very good year, Major League Soccer got involved and Preston was still there.  The offers were almost identical, though there was more immediate growth in the Preston offer if I did well.  But then what swayed it was the MLS thing of going back to school, finishing….just the idea that in the professional contract you can have something that helps you go back to school, I said this is perfect.”

Though it may be perplexing to the many critics of the American college game to imagine that the system can work so well, for Zakuani college made all the difference—and offers an interesting counterpoint to the experiences of his own brother.  Gabriel Zakuani, a year Steve’s senior, is a hardy center-back for Peterborough United who had no moped accident, turned pro at 16, and has known nothing but soccer ever since.  He is a good player who has had a solid career, and Steve speaks of him with respect and affection.  But when I asked Steve if his brother shares his love of reading and curiosity about the world he just laughs: “No, he’s not like that.  I don’t know the last time he read something, no…he turned professional at 16, and that’s been his focus ever since.  Even today, I was in his place when I went back home and we can talk about anything except soccer—our childhoods, our community, whatever—but with him it always goes back to soccer.  Because that is all he knows since he was 16.  But at 16 I couldn’t walk properly.”  While he clearly admires his brother, Steve also appreciates his own fateful, and oddly American, chances to make soccer something more than just a profession.

From America to Congo?

Gabriel Zakuani with a Congo flag (from theposh.com)

Playing in England has, however, provided Gabriel Zakuani the opportunity to do something that Steve, for now, can only dream of: playing internationally for the Congo.  “Congo play a lot of their exhibition games in France or Belgium, so it was easy for Gabriel to go over.  But when they didn’t qualify for the African Nations Cup they kind of put it aside.  My Dad was there and he gets asked a lot of questions [about Steve], and my brother the same….but there are a lot of good players there.  I don’t take it for granted.  It’s not the kind of thing where I could just walk into the team.  I’d have to go there and really play.”

What’s more, there are many good players who don’t play for the Congo but could—including Zakuani’s soon-to-be Sounders teammate Blaise Nkufo, who was born in Congo but raised in Switzerland (which he will represent in this summer’s World Cup).  Other prominent examples of Congo-born pros mentioned by Zakuani include Claude Makélélé, who played 71 times for France, and Portugal outside back José Bosingwa—who Zakuani met when Chelsea played an exhibition in Seattle last summer.

For now, then, Zakuani’s connection to the Congo comes mostly through his family and his imagination.  In fact, he hasn’t been back to Africa since leaving at age four—having missed the last family trip when he was in the midst of his initial contract negotiations with MLS.  His family arrived in Kinshasa on the same day he signed his first professional contract.  But he tries to pay attention to the news, the politics, and the people, and he recently started a non-profit organization called Kingdom Hope as the first step in a long term plan to “build state-of-the-art facilities in London, Seattle, and the Congo where academic/soccer academies will be established.”

Zakuani knows that long term plan will take a while to realize—his goal is to have one facility started by the time he is 30, and a full program by the time he is 50—so for now he is starting with short day camps and a scholarship program named in honor of his mother.  But the idea of the organization gives him a clear sense of purpose: “I took sports management [in college] because I left London with Kingdom Hope in my mind—I knew that was what I was going to do.  I’ve had that dream since I was 17 years old because I knew people would need that in the years to come.”

The idea is to do concentrated work with a small group of 18 or so kids like him—talented players who, for whatever reason, don’t sign professional contracts at age 16 and don’t have the education nor the sense of purpose to realize their potential: “the main goal is to give them a passion in life, give them their own reasons to live.  Because Kingdom Hope is mine.  Find your own after the two year program.  And then you go and you change the world.”

But changing the world, as anyone familiar with the Congo knows well, can be an infinitely frustrating task and I’m still not sure I quite know how to think about it all.  I’m still not sure how to make sense of the Congo as both the dysfunctional state that too many people around the world assume to be iconic of Africa and the talent-laden font of qualities that the continent might yet represent during this ‘Year of African Football.’

I do know that I admire Zakuani’s sense of purpose, his proud identification with a homeland he mostly knows from a distance, and his determination to make soccer more than a game.  And so perhaps I should let him have the last word on the Congo: “First of all, the problems are real.  Very real.  Especially some of the stuff that happens with women being victimized.  And if you grow up in a country where some soldier can just come into your house and take your things that’s going to stick in your mind for a long time.  So I think people have to be made aware that is going on, it is reality.  And at the same time, I look at the Congo and I think it’s a very young nation—it just came in the 60’s from Belgian colonization.  And colonization, what it does it breeds dependency.  You depend on Belgium for everything.  And now they are gone, you have to do this for yourself.  And you don’t have people that are qualified to do this.  It’s very dangerous for them…But for me I’m proud.  I’m very proud to be from there just because to know that I came from there, and where I got to in life…I look back and a lot of the kids, if they could just get into the right environment I think they’d be ok.”

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

The Women’s Game in Africa: ‘Zanzibar Soccer Queens’ and Other Tales

Women Fighters FC from www.zanzibarsoccerqueens.com

An oft repeated trope of Africa is barefoot children playing joyously with a handmade soccer ball on colorful patches of dirt.  There is, however, a reason the children in that image are almost always boys: in many parts of Africa girls don’t play much football.  Why not?

It’s not exactly the case that girls and women in Africa don’t play sports.  In many places it’s just that they only play particular types of sports.  In fact, at the start of my first experience in Africa as a Peace Corps education trainee in Malawi, my group of mostly recent college graduate Americans was consistently confused during our visits to schools where we found girls playing what looked like basketball on what seemed to be poor excuses for hoops.  It turned out, however, that the consistent lack of backboards was not a function of poverty—it was a function of British Empire.

Malawi’s formal school system mostly derived from British colonialism, including the idea that boys should play soccer while girls should play netball (a game most of us Americans had never heard of, but would learn much about).  Over time that gender-typing of sports had become reified—to the point that many a local argued reserving soccer for boys was part of ‘traditional African culture.’  Which, in hindsight, only serves to highlight just how tenuous ‘traditional’ prohibitions are in the world of ‘modern’ sport.

Later, during my own work in Malawi, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to run some training programs for school soccer coaches with a relatively progressive Malawian colleague and the sponsorship of an aid agency that insisted on including girls and women in our programs.  This led to some consternation amongst the teachers and schools we worked with, particularly in rural areas, but they always managed to find more than a few women interested in coaching football—despite having rarely had the chance to play the game themselves.  In fact, one of my favorite workshops included a strong, charismatic, and rotund Malawian nun who led her demonstration practice session in full religious dress—habit and all.

It always felt like an accomplishment to show communities that women could and should be involved with the game, but I was never sure how much difference we actually made.  And my uncertainty was reinforced several years later when I went to a different part of Africa (Angola) for my dissertation research.  The very first day I drove into the refugee camp where I did my work, I came upon a playful, dusty schoolyard scene familiar to anywhere in Africa with one striking difference: the scrum of a football match at the center of everything included both boys and girls playing together—something I had almost never seen in two years working at Malawian schools.

Maybe Angola was different?  Maybe things had changed in the years since my Malawi stint?  Whatever the case, I was impressed.  But it didn’t last.

A few weeks later the school went on a term break, and suddenly the co-ed games disappeared.  It was back to boys playing football, and girls playing other things (in the community where I worked in Angola, instead of netball, the most common female-typed activity was an agility game called garrafinha).  When I asked people about the contrast between the school yard and the back yard, they were matter-of-fact: ‘We know the school is run by outsiders [since the camp was administered by the UN High Commission for Refugees, the school had been organized by donor groups], and they like boys and girls to do everything the same.  So during school time girls play football.  But for us, really, football is for boys—so when school is out, the girls do their own thing.’  In other words, they would play along with the idea that soccer should be for everyone—but they didn’t really buy it.

Documenting the women’s game and its obstacles

These experiences came back to me recently when I finally had a chance to see the documentary film Zanzibar Soccer Queens.  The movie, made by Cameroon-born and Wales-based filmmaker Florence Ayisi, came out in 2007 but has not been in wide circulation.  It is, however, well worth tracking down as a powerful visual document of how the game negotiates between people and society (I saw it at a recent academic conference on sports in Africa, but it does now seem to be available in some libraries).

Clocking in at a quick 55 minutes, the film tells the story of ‘Women Fighters FC’ on Zanzibar Island off the coast of Tanzania.  The name ‘Women Fighters’ is entirely intentional—the women are very conscious of having to fight against not only the familiar argument that football is a men’s game, but also Zanzibar’s predominantly Muslim population and strictures.  Though not a glossy big-budget film, the documentary offers a rich analysis from local perspectives on the issue at hand—the Women Fighters talk about how much the game means to them as a chance to express themselves and their strengths, while the critics (including a female university student and a male teacher) argue that Islam prohibits the display of the body and discourages the female assertiveness inherent to soccer.

The Women Fighters make a much more persuasive case.  Several of the players become visibly emotional when explaining what it is like to see one’s name on the back of a real jersey for the first time, or when describing their sadness at being forced to quit the game by a new husband.  And watching film of their exuberance during games against men (whom they beat) on slippery village fields, or against women (whom they beat) in bumpy city parks, it is hard not to feel that the game is good.  The critics, on the other hand, articulate an argument that mostly serves to highlight its own limits—their concern that showing a bit of knee will throw the whole community into disarray seems more about male fantasies than ‘African culture.’

That does not, however, mean the ‘culture’ argument against women’s football in Africa can be entirely dismissed.  Even if it is untenable intellectually, it matters pragmatically—one of the classic challenges for many development workers is to reconcile conflicting ideas about women’s rights with a respect for local (often patriarchal) value systems.  Fortunately, in this case there is some good evidence that the idea of ‘African culture’ prohibiting women’s soccer is a red herring.

Cal Berkeley scholar Martha Saavedra, for example, wrote case studies of ‘football feminine’ in Senegal, Nigeria, and South Africa finding that the boundaries of who can play and who can’t is always more about power than it is about ‘indigenous culture.’  In Senegal, for example, women’s basketball is among the most popular sports—third only to men’s soccer and wrestling in Dakar.  And the Senegalese whom Saavedra talked to claim that is partially because basketball is a more graceful, feminine sport than the ‘brute’ game of soccer.  Of course, the fact that argument is nearly a complete inversion of how the games are perceived in other cultures (including in the United States) demonstrates clearly that it is less about the sport and more about protecting territory.

But even beyond the ‘traditional culture’ argument, there are a constellation of other challenges to the women’s game in Africa—so much so that when Saavedra went on her research trip to Senegal in 1998-1999 to study women’s football, she never actually got to see a women’s match.  They simply weren’t playing.  Some of the obstacles are relatively obvious: Saavedra points out that men are usually well-embedded in the power structures and national federations that oversee the game, that women in many African communities have less leisure time than men, that there are many other social issues that may necessarily be priorities for African women’s activists more than sports equity (eg, violence against women, HIV, limited access to education, malnutrition).

Other obstacles are more subtle.  Saavedra points out, for example, that female beauty norms in many parts of Africa don’t jibe with the athleticism required of a footballer: “Unlike discussions in the West, a consideration of muscles, femininity and sexuality in Senegal is not (yet) an issue about suspected lesbianism, but about fertility and socio-economic status.  Competing feminitities reflect this: the rural, muscled, toiling agrarian woman versus the more privileged, urban woman who need not labour physically.  In the urban milieu where sport is most common, there exist two idealized femininities that are decidedly non-muscular: the disquette (young, slim, Western-oriented) and the drianke (large, soft, round and economically established).”  [Sadly, the issue of ‘suspected lesbianism’ reared its ugly head last year in South African women’s soccer with the tragic murder of national team player Eudy Simelane.]

I learned of another example of a subtle obstacle to the women’s game in many parts of Africa through a discussion during a visit to Uganda a few years ago with a Brit working on well-established sports and development project.  He was eager to include girls and women in the program, but noted that one of the common challenges to involving girls and women was female hygiene: female players didn’t have access to the types of sanitary napkins or tampons necessary to play soccer all through the month.  So many interested female players simply gave up quietly, embarrassed.  The sports and development program was working on locally available fixes, but it was the kind of challenge that had quite frankly never before crossed my mind.

The future?

Nigeria vs the US in the 2007 Women's World Cup

Despite the many obstacles, things are changing.  The Confederation of African Football (CAF) has only hosted a full continental championship tournament since 1998 (there were competitions in 1991 and 1995—but they were played on a home and away basis, and had no central host).  The men’s championship, in contrast, has been going since 1957.  In addition, the first decade of the African women’s championship was dominated by Nigeria alone—but in 2008’s most recent tournament final South Africa lost to host Equatorial Guinea (which is an interesting story in its own right, but a bit much to address here).  Nigeria lost in the semi-finals—hopefully a sign of increasing parity rather than Nigeria’s decline (though it is interesting to note that WUSA employed several strong Nigerian players in its glory days, while WPS does not—as far as I know—have a single African player on an active roster).

There is also some cause for hope at a grass-roots level.  Global attention to women’s football along with the proliferation of sports and development programs means African communities are increasingly likely to recognize that the game has no inherent gender.  In this vein, scholars such as Peter Alegi argue that one of the potentially positive effects of the ‘privatization’ of football in Africa is increased opportunities for girls and women to play (as I noted in my review of African Soccerscapes).  He cites as one prominent example the Mathare Youth Sports Association, an NGO in Nairobi that has provided opportunities for thousands of girls to play in a context of urban poverty.

Even beyond soccer, much of contemporary development work has come to recognize that empowering women is one of the most powerful routes to positive social change.  Which all means that if the women’s game is to ever thrive in Africa it will depend on greatly on women such as Tanzanian Nassra Juma Mohammed—who in my viewing was the heroine of Zanzibar Soccer Queens.  Nassra was a former badminton player who had a chance to be educated and develop a civil service career.  Inspired by the visit of a Swedish women’s soccer team to Zanzibar in 1988, she created Women Fighters FC and has used her status, resources, and ingenuity to both train the team and make it sustainable (in the movie we see Nassra organize for the team to open a small provision store to help fund its endeavors).

So while outsiders and outside images can help, nothing will do more for the game in Africa than strong women empowered to work in their own communities in their own ways.  This idea was driven home powerfully by the final scene of Zanzibar Soccer Queens—a simple shot panning slowly across the faces of Women Fighters FC as they line up in their crisp white uniforms for a game.  It is a shot familiar to any soccer fan anywhere, the pre-game line up, but amidst the usual mix of intensity and anxiety these faces also vividly convey something more inspiring: potential.

African Soccerscapes: History, Ideas, and the 2010 World Cup

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?

Alegi is a regular contributor to www.footballiscominghome.net

The Books

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.

The Interview

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?

Peter Alegi

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.]

‘Feet of the Chameleon’ and Stories of African Football

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

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

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

The Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sum

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

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

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

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

Questions and Representations in the Year of African Soccer

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

Let me try to explain.

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

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

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

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

If only it were that simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soccer for Good? Sports and Development in Concept and in Africa

A "Football for Hope" Center Illustration from FIFA.com

We like soccer.  They like soccer.  There are huge, life-threatening socio-economic inequalities in the world—occasionally highlighted by the playing of soccer in places such as Angola and South Africa.  Put it all together and you’ve got the basic logic driving the exponential worldwide growth of hundreds of sports and development organizations trying to do some good during this year of African soccer.

Of course these organizations do not only care about soccer, nor only about Africa (the International Platform on Sport and Development lists around 200 organizations ranging from the “Afghan Amputee Bicyclists for Rehabilitation And Recreation” to the “Zambian Chess Foundation”).  But the global popularity of soccer combined with the unfortunate image of Africa as the continent most in need of “development work” makes for a potent combination.  And while the sports and development endeavor is founded on an alluring logic and is full of good intentions, it also turns out to be much more complicated—and interesting—that it first appears.

My own familiarity with the good intentions and complicated reality of trying to use sports for good comes from personal experience.  Starting with a youth soccer program in the hollowed out inner-city of Detroit, to a Peace Corps stint facilitating school sports in Malawi, to youth soccer in Chicago public housing developments, to sports programs for refugees in Angola, to coaching soccer teams of immigrants in both Seattle and Portland, I’ve tried my hand and found it worthwhile despite many frustrations and disappointments.

But lately I’ve shifted my efforts away from practicing sports and development towards analyzing it—evidenced by a recently published academic article about the history and diffusion of development through sports in Africa.  As is the cruel and glacial pace of academia, however, it took nearly two years for that article to go from submission to publication, several previous years of work getting it all together, and now (presumably) I can look forward to years of it wallowing in total obscurity.  But then there is this blog, along with this year where soccer in Africa is on the world’s radar, and hopefully a few thinking fans wondering about whether the game can do any good.

Anecdotes and Parables

One of the ‘ethnographic anecdotes’ I describe in my article comes from arriving in Angola to find a classic example of good intentions gone wrong: the NGO I worked with had tried to start a football league in a refugee camp.  It seemed like such a simple concept, such a simple way to do good: the community loved football, and organizing a league would offer a space for healthy competition and community building.  Right?  So the previous program coordinators, like me imports from North America, had spent considerable time and effort organizing a training course for coaches and a soccer league for young adults.

The not-so-simple things about that concept arose almost immediately.  Most basically, the organization coordinating the sports programs was based on a philosophy of volunteerism.  But the local residents expected to be paid.  The locals could and did, after all, play soccer all they wanted—albeit informally—without the help of an international NGO.  So if the organization wanted the resident to play by their rules, then they should pay.

Much negotiation and frustration ensued.  The message from the program – ‘this is not for profit, it’s for the life skills’ – didn’t work for the resident.  The locals felt they needed jobs more than what seemed like an arbitrary list of ‘life skills,’ things like teamwork, self-esteem, discipline, and determination that either didn’t translate or were redundant to the daily reality of refugee life.

As something of a compromise, the program coordinators agreed to buy new high-quality uniforms for the teams in the league.  The organization had initially resisted the expense as frivolous, but the participants were insistent, so the coordinators relented on the condition that the uniforms be kept in a central location.  The program had a large metal shipping crate that served as a make-shift field office, the participants agreed to store the uniforms in the crate/office, and the league began.

But it didn’t take long before the participants again clamored for compensation that the coordinators didn’t have.  Neither side could understand the other’s ungratefulness.  In protest, a group of the participants broke into the shipping crate late one night and took the prized uniforms hostage.  The league folded—useful for little other than illustrating the complications of trying to actually do development through sports work.

The locals had essentially sabotaged a league intended for their own good, which in many ways seems like a futile gesture.  But in other ways, including those of academic jargon, the sabotage could be construed as an act of ‘agency’ and ‘resistance.’  Rather than just passively accepting a league format in service of ‘life-skills,’ the residents were asserting their priorities—most of which were founded on the idea that international organizations should provide jobs and opportunities rather than dictates about how to recreate.

In my analysis stories like this are parables about the whole international sports and development endeavor—a simple idea and good intentions get waylaid by the complicated realities of socio-economic inequality and cultural diffusion.  In fact, though the modern proliferation of sports and development programs is a relatively recent phenomenon, that basic parable seems to have replayed itself through fairly regular historic cycles.

The example I use in my article is of Olympic Movement efforts to export their philosophy of “Olympism’ to Africa as early as the 1920’s—part of the Olympic charter is to “place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man [sic].”  But early efforts to create an African Games mostly failed until the 1960’s when television money started to make international outreach a more substantial proposition—timing that coincided serendipitously with the rise of ‘international development,’ in place of colonialism, as the modus operandi of global statesmanship.

And while the international outreach in recent decades by groups such as the Olympic Movement has likely done some good, that good is hard to convincingly document.  There are many anecdotes about the power of sport, but also some criticism that large international organizations are better at hosting conferences and promoting their particular values than they are at tangible grass-roots development work.  Sports may indeed facilitate education, health, peace, etc. when done well—but so far those outcomes have proven much easier to promote than to measure.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon touts the ‘juwala’ ball (from streetfootballworld.org)

And now the whole international development game has also begun to shift from large scale nation building to targeted programming and the increasingly popular concept of ‘social entrepreneurship.’  The corresponding explosion of NGO’s and personality driven international charities is a perfect fit for soccer lovers, allowing small groups of committed socially conscious individuals to scheme ways of sharing the love (it is worth noting, however, that even older and bigger organizations have jumped on board—as with the United Nations program on “Sport for Development and Peace” whose head made his name as the General Manger of Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga).  Now the question is whether good intentions and a passion for the game are enough to succeed in the tricky world of international development?

Development and Good Intentions in Africa

Aside from sports, the perplexing reality is that many smart, passionate people (along with billions of dollars) have been devoted to the development of Africa for decades, yet in many ways the overall standards of living on the continent have declined.  And there are ways in which sports people may be particularly ill-suited to confront that reality—as Canadian scholar Bruce Kidd notes in an otherwise sympathetic analysis of international development-through-sports efforts:

“Sadly, the single-minded purpose and confidence that sport instills in champions, a commendable attribute when transferred to many other settings, militates against inter-cultural sensitivity and needs-based programming in development…at every single international conference I have attended, I have heard LMIC [low and middle income countries] representatives, in both coded and explicit language, publicly complain about First World programmes that were highly popular with donors but made little sense to the recipient communities.”

These kinds of constructive and critical analyses have been slowly catching up to the popularity of using sports such as soccer for international development—the academic journal Sports and Society, for example, recently had a special issue devoted to the topic, and the International Platform on Sports and Development recently had an engaging on-line debate about the broader endeavor (in the early days of that web-site I also wrote an analysis for their bulletin—but it seems to no longer be available).  So while there has been a ‘ready, fire, aim’ quality to many entrepreneurial development-through-sports programs, there are smart and motivated people trying hard to figure it out.

But there are also ongoing challenges worth highlighting in the midst of publicity around events such as the Africa Cup of Nations and the World Cup.  The key point here for soccer fans is that good intentions are a necessary but not sufficient condition for using sport for good, and here’s just a few examples:

Let’s give away our used equipment: Most of us who’ve been involved with the game for any length of time have storage closets full of old cleats, socks, shin pads, jerseys, balls, running shoes, and whatever else sporting goods companies have designed for obsolescence.  So when we see inspirational pictures of barefoot street soccer it’s natural to start collecting for a shipment.  And while used equipment often is much appreciated in communities that can’t afford sporting goods, the complication I’ve run into in several different African countries is that sovereign nations have these pesky things called customs duties.  Paying import taxes on shipments of goods often ends up being more expensive than the goods themselves, and a significant burden to the recipients.  Which is frustrating—but also based on a reasonable rationale: importing large quantities of sporting goods, or goods of any sort, is bad for local industry.  Many African countries are awash in second hand stuff from North America and Europe (it was always amusing to travel through rural Malawi and see village elders wearing t-shirts with messages such as “I had a blast at Josh’s Bar Mitzvah”), and while that stuff may help some in the short term there are ways in which it is actually counter-productive to long term development.

Let’s make sure mega-event monies trickle down to development projects: Most major FIFA competitions now include gestures towards the grass-roots game as part of international development, and that imperative is overall a good thing.  FIFA actually has an entire slate of initiatives in considers part of “social responsibility” including the somewhat vague “Win in Africa with Africa” (one of the three major undertakings they list is simply “Touch the world”) and the effort to build “20 Football for Hope Centres for public health, education and football across Africa.”  In concept these endeavors have much potential—I actually prefer when big development through sports programs focus on infrastructure—but in practice the concern is that they become political chits for the rich and powerful.  As Andrew Jennings noted last week, one of Sepp Blatter’s levers of power seems to be the way he “‘looks after’ his voters in the national associations so generously with millions of dollars for unaudited ‘development.’” (a point also noted and discussed by Tom here on Pitch Invasion)

Let’s use sports to teach ‘life skills’: The latest version of “sports builds character,” the basic idea here goes back to the famous, probably apocryphal, quote from the Duke of Wellington claiming that “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.”  Those of us who’ve invested much of ourselves in the game like to imagine that it has all been worth it—that success in sports somehow equates to success in life outside of sports.  Unfortunately the evidence here is decidedly equivocal.  In fact, in measures of moral development athletes seem to score significantly lower than non-athletes.  Further, in the world of international development , the assumption that ‘life skills’ translate from what would be valued in settings such as an American corporation to what would be valued in settings such as an Angolan refugee camp seems naive at best and imperialistic at worst.  My favorite example here is ‘self-esteem’—which American organizations in particular love to trumpet as a crucial benefit of sports participation.  But the notion that one’s abstract self-image should be prioritized over tangible achievement is actually a relatively odd modern invention (as is the idea the unsubstantiated idea that poverty will lead people to low self-esteem, rather than anger towards the world).  When I asked people in Angolan refugee camps about self-esteem they mostly hadn’t heard of it—one coach thought maybe it was “when people spend a lot of time thinking about themselves.”  And when I mentioned to one Angolan parent that many Americans think of self-esteem as a foundation for success in school, relationships, etc. he found the thought bizarre—isn’t it success that crafts self-image, and not the other way around?  He loved his children, but found the idea of promoting self-esteem itself quite pointless: “Where is the fruit?  Where is the future?”

Photo by Michael Mistretta at flickr.com

I could go on (and may indeed do so in future posts if there seems to be any interest in these topics), but the point here is development-through-sports programs are rife with ways for good intentions to go wrong.  Of course, they are also rife with opportunities for things to go right—and whatever analyses I have are ultimately directed towards that end.  So I should be sure to emphasize that there are plenty of development-through-sports organizations doing great work, using the game well.  Two of several examples that come to mind immediately include a Ugandan program called the Kampala Kids League that I had a chance to visit in the summer of 2008, and Grassroots Soccer—which, starting in Zimbabwe, uses the popularity of the game in the service of HIV education.  One thing these types of programs have in common is deep relationships with local partners and a focus on realistic goals that are attentive to local contexts.

So the ultimate challenge, I’ve come to think, is to not be deceived by a love for the game into thinking that international development is simple: you can roll out a soccer ball almost anywhere in Africa and guarantee that smiling children will follow.  But it seems to me that too often those smiles are perceived to be enough—as if children don’t play or experience joy without the intervention of benevolent outsiders.  The problem is not that children in places such as Angola and South Africa don’t play or smile, the problem is that global inequalities too often prohibit opportunities to do much more.

Where Has All the Magic Gone? Juju, Africa, and Superstitions in the Game

Amidst all the tragedy, politics, business, and even bits of sport that have made news from the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations, I’ve been intrigued by something conspicuous primarily in its absence: there have been virtually no stories of the juju / muti / witchcraft commonly used to exoticize the African game.  Confederation of African Football (CAF) administrators must be pleased.

In the midst of several embarrassing incidents during the last decade, most notably the arrest of Cameroonian coaches (one of whom was German) during the 2002 Cup of Nations in Mali for “trying to place a magic charm on the pitch,” CAF has worked hard to “modernize” the image of African soccer.  As a CAF spokesperson noted after the Mali episode: “we are no more willing to see witch doctors on the pitch than cannibals at the concession stands.  Image is everything.”

But with my sympathies to CAF and all due respect to the marketing industry, I find it much more interesting to think of “image” as merely the most obvious thing.  Behind the image is where you find the good stuff: the ways that the local and the global get mashed up into dynamic cultures of the game.  In African soccer stories of witchcraft and black magic are simultaneously fun and controversial, illuminating and misleading.  They are also extraordinarily common.

Among my own favorites from working in Malawi many years ago was one from a school teacher friend whose team was playing a local rival.  The game was delayed by a crucial decision about the game ball: they couldn’t agree on which to use.  Each team was sure that the other had put some type of juju curse on its own ball, and neither would concede the advantage.  Eventually a Solomonesque compromise was reached—they would use one school’s ball, but the other school’s players would be allowed to urinate on that ball in order to dilute any potential curse.  I assumed the first half was mostly short passing.

I was also thoroughly intrigued—why do seemingly rational people believe seemingly irrational things?  How similar is the popularity of juju in a place such as Malawi to the popularity of sports superstitions everywhere in the world?  And now, does the seeming absence of stories about juju at the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations signify meaningful changes in the nature of the African game?

Ivory Coast, 2007. By Michael Hughes on Flickr.

Ivory Coast, 2007. By Michael Hughes on Flickr.

Believing and Questioning

To start, it is important to note that there is no one African experience with what I’m referring to as juju—there are different names, rituals, and degrees of belief both between and within the diverse nations on the continent.  There are also important technical differences between “black magic,” “witchcraft,” “traditional medicine,” and other loosely related concepts which I’m crudely aggregating into a broad colloquial category of practices and beliefs based on supernatural powers.  But as a generalization, from my experience juju in African soccer is mostly strange only when considered from afar.

For one thing, the use of curses and forms of witchcraft is not exclusive to African soccer: it is relatively easy to find examples from other parts of the world, including rumors that in his desperation (and apparent lack of managerial skills) Diego Maradona turned to Argentina’s version of juju before playing Paraguay in their crucial World Cup qualifier.  Maradona is also one of many managers who looks to religion to buoy his team’s prospects—Giovanni Trapattoni, for example, famously brought a bottle of holy water with him to the sidelines of Italy games in the 2002 World Cup.  Such analogies do not go without notice in Africa: as a South African fan noted to the Guardian following up CAF’s response to the 2002 Cup of Nations: “Will they ban Catholic players crossing themselves?  Will they shut the chapel at Barcelona? If you believe, muti makes you stronger.”

For another thing, it is not entirely clear whether calling something juju makes it all that different from the types of superstitions that are prevalent amongst athletes everywhere in the world.  When Tottenham striker Jermaine Defoe replied to a journalist asking about a particularly short haircut by noting “I had to, I only ever seem to get injured when I have longer hair,” was his logic that different from the Rwandan player who planted a ‘magic stick’ in the goal to ward against unlucky bounces?  Or when Raymond Domenech allowed his interest in astrology to mitigate against picking Scorpios such as Robert Pires to play for France, was his decision making any more exotic than Ghanaian fans who carried a “juju pot” in hopes of bringing the Black Stars good luck?  And all this is to say nothing of Robert van Persie’s apparent belief in the powers of horse placenta to heal a bum ankle.

Being fascinated by juju and African soccer may ultimately say as much about outsider perceptions of Africa and how we ourselves define what is “rational” as it says about Africa.  But I admit that it has long provoked my curiosity—so much so that when I spent a season playing in the Malawian Super League in the 90’s, I made an active effort to learn about juju.  It just sounded exotic and fun.  But when I started asking around the reality was considerably more mundane.

Sure, people had stories about juju and football.  But they almost always told those stories with degrees of humor, skepticism, and self-awareness.  The Malawians I played with knew that juju was not science, and it wasn’t something to be taken too seriously.  But, in some situations, it couldn’t hurt to pay it at least a little respect.  As one of my teammates explained to me:

“When I was playing at school, we played up to the finals and we used juju just because everybody was using it then.  We used to go to this guy who would tell you about the game…if we were going to lose he could give us some roots from different trees and tell us what to do, or have a certain person sitting on the bench with a certain thing in the hand pointing toward the goal and squeezing hard.  I can say I no longer believe in that, but at Civo [another Super League club] they used to take water from the mortuary, put in some small roots and put it over your face.  It was so if those guys are using some type of juju where you don’t’ see things clearly, then you could see things and play a normal game…why not?”

The guys I played with were relatively well educated and as such, I was told, we tended to use juju less than other local teams.  But my teammates would point out to me opposing players with small charms around their socks, or note opponents arriving at the pitch one by one after having stopped for individual “blessings” from a “juju man” in the locker room.  And most everyone recognized that juju was only a small part of the equation: “if the players are not dedicated [to training] then the juju does not work…but if you apply juju you try as much as possible to say—if I do this the juju has helped me.”

If anything, the guys I played with took advantage of how much attention other teams paid to juju.  This advantage was facilitated by one of our club officers and part-time bus driver, a jolly fellow named Nasimba, who happened to be one of the “chief supporters” for the Malawian national team.  And who happened to have a national reputation as a juju man.  When I asked him about it he would just laugh—never quite admitting nor denying.  He certainly played the role well, dressing in flowing African gowns and maintaining a mischievous look in his eye.  He also loved to tell the story of a time he had gone to Lusaka for a Malawi v Zambia international and been forced to leave a packed Independence Stadium under guard.  The Zambian authorities had feared that he was a Malawian witchdoctor.

His reputation was also the font for a trick played by my team during one of our biggest games of the year against Bata Bullets—at the time one of the two best teams in the Super League.  Bullets was full of national team regulars, and my UFC team had little chance of matching their skill.  So some of our players organized to conspicuously bring a hand-made rag ball into the stadium for warm-up, a plastic and twine construction mostly used by kids playing on the street or in the country.  I wasn’t playing that game, and from the sideline I first assumed that my teammates were just joking around—until a curious hush came over the crowd.

The fans and the Bullets seemed to watch carefully as the UFC players brought the ball to the middle of a tight circle of bodies.  Nasimba, decked out in a dotted orange outfit of flowing fabric, casually walked from the sideline to meet the team huddle.  After a brief silence, the group parted quickly and dramatically.  A designated player grabbed the ball, sprinted towards the bench, placed it on the touch-line, and cleared the way for Nasimba’s lumbering approach.  He hovered over the ball, methodically raised his arms, lowered his head, and allowed the stadium a moment of strain trying to hear his incantation.

Then, with a quick, shrill yell, Nasimba dropped his hands and joined the rest of us on the bench.  Either a curse had been put on the game, or a lot of people believed a curse had been put on the game.  In some ways it did not matter which.  Bata Bullets still won 1-nil.

In my mind this was how things usually seemed to work: juju might play a small role in Malawian soccer (sometimes relaxing players, sometimes motivating players, and sometimes intimidating players) but ultimately what mattered was still the game on the field.  And, while Malawians gave varying degrees of credence to juju, they mostly understood that.

Ghana, 2008. By malaise creole on Flickr.

Ghana, 2008. By malaise creole on Flickr.

The Business of Superstition

Over time what became most interesting to me in Malawi was the realization that juju had been around a lot longer than football—how was it that football as a European import became the site for what outsiders believe to be a “traditional” African practice?  It seemed to mostly be a matter of entrepreneurship.  As one of the older team officials on my Malawian team told me: “during my time juju was not popular in football.   It was just coming….because the doctors, they put their posters up somewhere there and people started to come…it was just a business opportunity.”  In fact, others told me this was still a problem for club’s accountants: where do you record your expenses for juju?  Under medical?  It didn’t quite fit.

The idea that juju in African soccer is actually an example of a modern entrepreneurial spirit rather than an African “tradition” fits with other analyses of the phenomenon.  In his interesting history of football in South Africa, for example, Peter Alegi argues that applying ritual magic to football was part of a broader “process of Africanisation.”  He notes that in South Africa “the infusion of agrarian beliefs and rituals reveals a way young African men de-colonised football through cultural practice and, in so doing, influence the institutional growth of black soccer.”

Scholars generally tend to be more sympathetic to the use of black magic in Africa than do CAF officials.  In fact, though it has nothing to do with soccer, one of the most famous works in the history of cultural anthropology is E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s classic from the 1930’s: Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande.  Though his analysis of the Azande near the upper-Nile was in many ways a product of the colonial times, it was also distinct in positing that the use of witchcraft was not so much exotic and irrational as it was human: all our definitions of “rationality” are constrained by particular cultural boundaries.  When the Azande relied on oracles to guide their decision making about who they should consider an enemy or about what medicines to take they were operating within a system of philosophical understanding that functioned in their society.

It may not be too far afield to suggest that when the US National Team employs a chiropractor or when Bundesliga teams employ homeopaths, despite questions about the “scientific” base of such practices, they are also operating within particular local ways of understanding the world that are as influenced by the entrepreneurial spirit as by pure rationality.  And I don’t mean to pick on alternative medicine; even more mainstream endeavors such as psychopharmacology depend greatly upon systems of belief—anti-depressants have generally been a boon to mental health care, but the most optimistic evidence suggests they still only significantly reduce depressive symptoms in about 60% of cases compared to reductions for about 40% of cases taking only placebos.

One thing science has learned is that placebo effects are real—in many cases thinking something will help does help.  And that process may partially explain both the persistence of juju in African soccer and superstition in all types of sports.  Just as Michael Jordan perceived a boost to his basketball luck when he wore his college shorts under his professional uniform, a Zimbabwean player explains that before games his team “put some powder in our mouths and had to spit it out as soon as we walked onto the pitch. In the game we would just fly. I will never know if these really worked but I remember some guys really got pumped up.”

Rationalizing the Irrational

Though I’m arguing that juju in African soccer may not be as exotic as it first appears, in the world of sports and superstition it does have some distinct qualities.  For one thing, in African soccer juju is often explicitly used against an opponent rather than just for one’s own benefit.  As such, it can get contentious.  In one scholarly paper arguing that understanding witchcraft in African soccer can help explain broader cultural notions of causality, for example, Wisconsin professor Michael Schatzberg describes violence provoked by manipulative threats of witchcraft in 2003 Uganda v Rwanda qualifiers.  Unlike Jermaine Defoe, whose superstition did no more harm than a bad haircut, one of the Ugandan players ended up with blood gushing from a head wound.

More tragically, a riot during a 2008 match in eastern Congo that killed 13 was reportedly provoked by accusations of witchcraft.  Of course, the real tragedy there is the lack of safety precautions that allow a sports event to become a riot, along with the fact that 13 deaths in Congo does not make much of a blip in the world news unless associated with unsubstantiated claims of the exotic.  In such cases claims of witchcraft implicitly and subtly encourage an ignorant belief that Africa is too “primitive” to take seriously.

But in my mind the best reason to take stories of juju and African soccer seriously is as an example of how all societies approach the game with rationality bounded by culture.  In the US, for example, I often think the assumption that we’ll conquer world soccer when we get a fully professionalized youth system in place is as much about our cultural reverence for “training” children for success from younger and younger ages as it is about the nature of the game.  We “believe” in professionalization.  Yet, a good argument could be made that American youths would become much better players if they just learned to enjoy the game and play for fun.  Unfortunately, such perspectives have only a marginal place in our own bounded rationality.

And if the 2010 Cup of Nations is any indicator, what counts as rational may also be changing in the world of African football.  It seems quite plausible that amidst globalization African players and teams are more likely to position themselves within a “modern” game that accepts belief systems such as those of evangelical Christianity or Islam much more readily than those of “traditional” African societies.  But despite the seeming success of CAF in eliminating stories about witchcraft and black magic, I suspect there are still players and teams at the Cup of Nations using juju more quietly.  Just as there are players and teams praying to their God for victory.  Just as there are players and teams investing in the latest sports science.  Just as there are players, teams, fans, and commentators trying to make sense of it all.

(Note: For anyone interested in other perspectives on this topic, the BBC radio show Heart and Soul recently put out an interesting program on “Faith and Football” that includes discussions of faith, religion, and juju in both British and African football; I’d also recommend the chapter in Ian Hawkey’s book ‘Feet of the Chameleon’ titled ‘Whispering at Pigeons.’)

Photo credits: michael_hughes and malaise creole on Flickr.

Angola Aside from the Cup: A Different Soccer Story

During my brief six months working in Angola between 2002 and 2003, a favorite pastime of mine when driving around Luanda was to try to identify the replica team shirts worn by ubiquitous street soccer teams playing in any available space.  Brazil’s canary yellow was the most popular, but the range was impressive; I saw complete teams kitted out in the reds of Manchester United, the burgundy of Portugal, the green stripes of Sporting Lisbon, the yellow/orange/black on white design of Germany, even the all whites of Real Madrid—a hopelessly futile choice in the face of the city’s red dirt and grimy haze.  I never could quite figure out how Angolan street teams, of both children and adults, managed to procure so many dazzling kits.  But it was clearly important—a small, symbolic, daily attempt to claim membership in the community of a global game.

On Friday, as most fans of the game now well know, a much grander Angolan attempt at that membership went tragically wrong.  The heartbreaking attack on the Togo team bus in rural Cabinda, an Angolan territory geographically separated from the rest of the nation, on the eve of the 2010 African Nations Cup upset me deeply.  Foremost, I’m upset about the dead and wounded; I’m upset that the vile geo-political mix of oil, land, terrorism, and inequality claimed innocent lives and injured the travelling party of a soccer team that was interested in nothing more than a game.  But I’m also upset about the potential for the ambush to detract from what should be a great year for African soccer—and to further distort perceptions of Africa.

As I noted in a comment on one of Tom’s posts regarding the Cabinda tragedy here on Pitch Invasion, Africa is a big, complicated place.  And Cabinda is a small, complicated place.  It is well worth trying to understand the politics of it all, and trying to figure out how to apportion responsibility and consider the implications of the bus ambush.  It seems plausible to me that the Cup of Nations organizers, the Angolan government, and the Togolese federation all have serious questions to answer—to say nothing of the sickness of terrorists willing to massacre innocents for publicity.  But I have no special access or expertise regarding those matters.

What I do have is some personal experience in Angola and an abiding interest in the way soccer can help us understand places, lives, and ways of being.  It now seems as though the Cup of Nations still has a chance to succeed, Angola’s wild tie with Mali in the opener brought a different energy to things, but I still can’t stomach the idea that the only story soccer fans might hear about Angola outside of its stadiums would be about a machine gun ambush in rural Cabinda.  That is only about Angola in the way that a US military doctor’s murdering innocents on a Texas army base is about America.

By way of context, I understand the fears regarding Africa being expressed around the world after the Cabinda bus ambush.  Even though I had spent a few years in another part of Africa before going to Angola, and though I knew to be careful of stereotypes about the continent’s lurking dangers, I was wary when flying into Luanda in 2002.  The country was just emerging from its 27 year civil war (though the somewhat distinct conflict in Cabinda was ongoing) and I had read much about disgruntled ex-combatants, easily available weapons, and the desperation of gaping economic inequality.  But as we drove away from the airport that first day, the Canadian NGO worker who picked me up casually rolled down his windows and we chatted about the coming week-end as if I’d never left Chicago.

The author and friends after an impromptu match in Angola

I did try to be careful when in Angola (where I was primarily working on a piece of my dissertation research), and heard a good few horror stories from other ex-pats, but in six months in and around Luanda I never personally had any problems or perceived any serious threat other than long days without running water.  And on the other side of the ledger, I had several opportunities to experience the sort of luxury an American graduate student usually only dreams of—expeditions to secluded beaches where locals would catch and cook fresh lobster while we had a kick-about on glorious white sand.  This was a long way from rural Cabinda, but actually quite close to where Angola’s Black Antelopes played Mali on Sunday.

In some discussions of the 2010 Cup of Nations I’ve seen Angola described as a poor country—but like all things related to these events that claim too is complicated.  Probably a more accurate description comes from the title of an interesting article in the British version of GQ magazine: “The World’s Richest Poor Country.”  There are pockets of immense wealth in Angola, particularly in and around Cabinda and Luanda where multi-national oil companies maintain gleaming corporate towers and heavily guarded luxury housing compounds.  In Luanda several of these buildings are just off Avenida Lenin and Rua Commandante Che Guevara—hollow tributes to Angola’s dalliance with communism during the cold war.

But while Angola’s rich are indeed very rich, the poor are also very poor.  Less than ten years ago, Angola was ranked by the United Nations Children’s Fund as “the worst place in the world to be a child.”  The combination of landmines, a decimated infrastructure, the unavailability of education, and the rarity of decent health care made for a dismal statistical reality.  But for me as a researcher and aspiring developmental psychologist part of what was fascinating about Angola was the way those decimated external conditions did not necessarily decimate people’s internal experience.  The Angolans I met were often justifiably angry about the conditions of their lives, but they maintained a vitality and a willfulness that is sometimes surprising yet somehow human.  And peace, along with Angola’s wealth of natural resources, had brought hope that the external conditions would improve.

Although I have not been back to Angola since 2003, my sense is that in many parts of the country the external conditions of life have gotten better.  There have been accusations of massive corruption, but at least some investment does seem to be going towards repairing and creating a real infrastructure.  Angola has serious problems and challenges, but there are some good stories and I feel compelled to indulge in at least one that has very little to do with the politics of Cabinda or the glamour of millionaire footballers—but it does have something to say about the place and the game.

My favorite Angola story is about a seven year old soccer fan I’ll call “Diego” who I met through my research in a hard luck refugee camp on the deep outskirts of Luanda.  Diego had spent his whole life in the camp, a dusty set of semi-permanent huts where his family had years ago taken refuge from heavy fighting near their home in rural Angola.  Their hut was among the most haggard in a collection of several hundred that made up one section of camp.  It was sticks, mud, and brightly hued scraps of plastic sheeting printed sporadically with various insignias: the white symbol of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, a dark cartoon “jumbo” on a bag from a store 20 miles distant, an illustrated corn husk on a former sack of food aid from the US Agency for International Development, faded red and white stripes from a cheap mass produced plastic grocery sack.

In the space where Diego slept, a sleeping area shared by several members of the family but no bigger than a department store changing room, yellowing newspapers hung on the wall.  The pages listed the players on Benfica and Sporting Lisbon a few years earlier.  I have no idea how he got those newspapers, but I do know that like most boys in the camp, Diego loved the game.  Unlike most boys in the camp, the muscles of Diego’s legs did not function.

Diego’s legs had been deformed since birth.  When I cautiously inquired as to the cause, the adults I asked were neither sure nor particularly interested (though polio seems like a reasonable guess).  The reality was that his peasant refugee family had no access to high technology hospital care, prosthetics, or wheelchairs.  So Diego had learned to move around the camp by walking with his arms, dragging his thin legs like hinged tent poles while using the thickly scabbed knots of skin on his knees as points on which to rest.

I had seen Diego around the camp at various points during my first few months in Angola, but he had hardly registered with me amidst much that was unfamiliar: the languidness of people whose daily routines involved much waiting, the chattering mix of Portuguese, French, Swahili, Bakongo, among other dialects, the dramatic variety of facial expressions ranging from giddy to sober.  I only started to know Diego personally during a period of weeks when I was administering surveys to children.

To do my research one day I borrowed a school room, a wall-less polished concrete floor covered by dull tin sheets propped up by adobe posts, interviewing children two at a time.  When Diego emerged from a crowd of curious children and sat down to do a survey I became a little nervous.  Among my many questions were several about participation in sport and play activities, and I was anxious to not embarrass Diego.  My instinct was to assume such questions would make him feel badly about not having functional legs, and presumably being unable to participate in the ubiquitous pick-up soccer games among boys his age.  When Diego sat down with me on a concrete step I decided, for the sake of standardizing my research protocol, to ask anyway.

“So, how often do you play sports and games with other kids?” I blurted in rote Portuguese.  “Every day, about three or four days a week, about once or twice a week, or never.  And it’s no problem if you say ‘never.’”

Diego looked at me with puzzlement, and a tinge of pity.

Todos os dias” he said.

“Every day?”

Diego paused, unsure about me.  We sat briefly in a confused silence.

“Well,” he qualified himself, “there were a few days where I was a little sick and couldn’t play.  So almost every day.”

As with almost all the boys in the refugee camp, Diego played soccer nearly every day.  Diego just used his hands to “kick” the ball when others would use their feet, batting it sharply with his calloused fist.  There were no adults that set up special rules for the game, no adapted equipment, and no major modifications of the rules—I was the only one that seemed to find the whole thing interesting.  When asked, some boys explained that they occasionally debated what should happen when the ball hit Diego’s non-functioning legs: should that be the same as a handball for the rest of the players?  While different kids seemed to have different opinions, none seemed to worry much.  Mostly they just played.

The trajectory of Diego’s future life as a disabled refuge in rural Angola was not good, and I do not mean to minimize the problems of Angola—nor the seriousness of what happened in Cabinda last week.  But I do mean to try and offer one small reminder that there are other stories to tell about Angola.  No matter what happens from now with the Cup of Nations, it seems important to me for all of us to keep in mind the small, symbolic, daily ways we claim membership in the community of a global game.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

Carry on Cabinda: Politics, Morality and Safety at the Africa Cup of Nations

CAN 2010 Angola

It looks as if Togo will depart from the Africa Cup of Nations, though games will take place in Cabinda, just days after that region saw that team come under machine gun fire, will three officials dead and one goalkeeper (who had earlier been reported as dead) in intensive care, his life in the balance.

Togo have been under enormous pressure to stay from the tournament organisers, the Angolan authorities and the Confederation of African Football, who have much money and political prestige on the line.

“It is left to you to decide to stay in a competition synonymous with fraternity, brotherhood, friendship and solidarity,” Confederation of African Football president Issa Hayatou told Togo.

Conflicting reports have been coming out frequently over the past 24 hours as the team deals with all of the demands being made of them. This morning, the Guardian reported Togo were leaving:

Adebayor revealed a conversation he held with Gnassingbé Eyadéma, Togo’s head of state, this morning changed the player’s minds after they had previously vowed to play on.

“That’s what made the difference,” he said. “It was also our families and loved ones at home who called us. They told us we could continue if we wished but that it is the authorities who have the information.”Is there going to be another attack? Nobody knows.

If they asked us back [home], maybe they received a call saying that the threat was not passed. We are obliged to respect that. The head of state knows what is good for our careers and our lives.

“The presidential plane will pick us up. He told me that the plane had left Lomé. There are about two hours flying between Lomé and Cabinda. We will leave in two or three hours.”

The BBC’s Piers Edwards quite rightly questioned the pressure being put on the Togo team to stay (he was writing when it was reported they were staying):

It seems wholly inappropriate to put pressure on footballers who survived a near-death experience to play a tournament, which is the least of their concerns when life was flashing before their eyes, but that is what appears to have been happening.

The pressure has – somehow – worked and Togo’s players are now singing a different tune to the one that reverberated around the world in the aftermath of the attack.

“People died for this tournament, others were injured. We can’t abandon them and leave like cowards,” Alaixys Romao told French sports agency L’Equipe.

“If we stay here, it’s for them. But also so as not to give satisfaction to the rebels. Our government doesn’t necessarily agree with us but we are determined to play in this competition.”

Indeed the Togolese government does not want their players to stay in Cabinda, with the West African nation’s prime minister upping the ante by declaring that if the players ‘present themselves under the Togolese flag, it will be a false representation’.

While this story has no clear end at present, it’s revealing to note that there has never been talk by Confederation of African Football officials of scrapping the tournament.

This is a ruling body for whom money talks and with about 80% of Caf’s revenue coming from the Nations Cup, it’s no surprise at all that no political will has been shown to stop the tournament.

Arsene Wenger made the sensible counter-point that we always hear in these situations: you cannot let the terrorists “win” by cancelling the tournament.

“I don’t believe you just can stop a competition as it rewards the people who provoke the incident and means any competition is stoppable at any time. The international federation has to make sure the security is good enough.

This, of course, is an important point, and Wenger makes it well. At the same time, there are some important reservations about continuing the tournament in this case, and in particular, pressuring Togo to participate and holding games in Cabinda:

(1) In my opinion, the political pressure on Togo is disgraceful, given the human tragedy those players have just gone through. They should have been given several days to recover before even being asked to make a decision. The tournament, at the least, should have been delayed for this: even if FIFA had to dip into their coffers to help Angola and CAF financially cover the costs. They can afford it. Who has the appetite to watch the games starting today anyway?

(2) Togo should have been given the assurance that they would not have to play in Cabinda, with their games, at the least, moved to a safer part of Angola from a region that we now all know all too well (and as Angola’s organisers were well aware) is not safe — and I don’t mean not safe in the sense of today’s modern sense of fear of everything, but in the old-fashioned in-the-grips-of-civil-war-still unsafe. The splinter group of FLEC responsible for the attack have promised to strike again.

(3) Does anyone believe that the motivation of the Angolan government is not political in their insistence games should continue in Cabinda, as indeed, the entire staging of games there was seemingly motivated by their desire to present a firm grip on the oil-rich region that still had an armed separatist movement known to target foreigners? FIFA and CAF, by allowing the political motivation of the Angolan government to determine the course of events, are going against their responsibility to the sport first and to the safety of players, fans and officials.

But those are just my opinions. The last words on this should go not to the blogger writing this from thousands of miles away, nor to Togo’s head of state, or to Issa Hayatou, CAF’s chief shuttled around in executive safety and luxury, but to the captain of Togo, who just two days ago said his final prayers, believing he was about to machined gunned to death on a bus trip to a football match.

Togo captain Emmanuel Adebayor has been much maligned in recent times, but his honest thoughts and leadership in this situation has been admirable. Adebayor was speaking before the intervention of the Togolese premier, when the team seemed set on staying. Given his words, I am glad they are leaving.

“If we speak of the dead, the competition should have been cancelled. But CAF (Confederation of African Football) have decided otherwise. We’re going back and we wish good luck to those who will remain, especially to Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Ghana.

“What I have told their leaders is that they may be attacked at any time in Cabinda. I hope they will be cautious.”

Sweeper Special: World Reaction to Togo Tragedy

Togo crisis

There is only one story to cover this morning in a rare Saturday roundup, after waking up this morning and learning three more travelling with the Togo team have reportedly died from yesterday’s terrorist attack in Cabinda, Angola, apparently a reserve goalkeeper, assistant coach and a PR official. Togo have withdrawn from the tournament.

The complexity of the situation is such that we can only scratch at the surface at the politics behind the attack, and the decision to host games in Cabinda in the first place, as we attempted to do yesterday.

And yet, as we said we feared would happen in our initial reaction piece, most journalists are choosing not to try and learn more and appreciate the depth of the issues underlying this incident, but to instead use it to paint broad brushstrokes about Africa and the World Cup.

And so Ralph Ellis in (surprise, surprise) the Daily Mail:

As details emerged last night of the horrific attack on the team bus carrying Togo’s players across the border into Cabinda, a province of Angola, it left growing fears about the future not just of the Africa Cup of Nations but of the World Cup in South Africa itself.The decision to take the game’s most colourful tournaments to a region that was scarred by a bitter civil war was always a gamble.

But the organisers reckoned it a risk worth taking to show the world how the continent was moving into a new era.

Instead last night there were calls from England’s Premier League clubs for their players to come back home as the full shock began to sink in. And the question will be asked: ‘If Angola can’t keep players safe from terrorists, can South Africa protect the world’s biggest stars in the summer?’

Nevermind that “home” for these players is actually in Africa.

Nevermind that South Africa does not plan to host any games in a region with an active armed separatist resistance as Angola decided to do. We would never make the same comparison in Europe between regions far apart and with incredibly distinct histories and political situations. Indeed, even when terrorism strikes in western countries during major sporting events, we go on. Many will recall that in England, an IRA bomb exploded in the city of Manchester on the 15th of June, 1996. The very next day, Russia played Germany in Manchester at Old Trafford in Euro ’96. The very next day (“City shows its defiance by throwing a Euro 96 party”, the Independent headlined after). Obviously, footballers had not been targeted in the Manchester attack; the Olympics, of course, were directly targeted in Atlanta in 1996, and the Games went on. Nobody suggested the entire continent of Europe or North America would be unfit to host the next major sporting tournament to be held there, however near or far it was from the attacks.

The point I’m making is not that the ACN tournament should necessarily go on as those tournaments did (I do believe no more games should be held in Cabinda). It’s just to wish so many did not make lazy generalisations on safety, security, and the entire continent of Africa. Rob Crilly makes this argument well at the Huffington Post: “Once again the continent is treated as a single country. The problems of one place easily transposed to another, whatever the similarities or differences between South Africa and Congo-Brazzaville. South Africa has its security concerns, there’s no doubt. Rebel groups is not one of them. Nor pirates, famine or elephants marauding through stadiums. The attack on the Togo team bus is an horrific tragedy. But let’s forget easy clichés. Let’s get a grip.”

Onto to more misleading comments: perhaps the man under most pressure today should be Angolan government minister Bento Bembe, a former leader of the separatist movement in Cabinda who led the partially recognised peace accord in 2006 and pushed for holding games in Cabinda seemingly to prove the central government’s hold on the oil-rich region. Only a day before the attack, Bembe assured concerned observers that Cabinda was safe, and security was “guaranteed”. Today, he continues to claim that “Cabinda is a province like any other in Angola. And the Nations cup is positive for Angola. It does not represent a threat. There is no reason not to organise the Nations Cup in Cabinda.”  It is patently not true that Cabinda is just like the rest of Angola, as even the most casual observer can learn from the State Department or British Foreign Office’s travel advisories. It’s a shame more press reports have also not realised this reality when drawing their conclusions about Angola and Africa.

There are still many unanswered questions. Why did Togo decide to drive directly from their training base in the Republic of Congo to the city of Cabinda, meaning they had to go through the hinterlands of Cabinda, an obviously dangerous area?  Did their federation know about it? If not, was this because of yet another dispute between the players and the federation?  The ACN organisers have said they did not know the team planned to bus it, apparently believing they had planned to fly to Luanda and from there to Cabinda. But if so, surely they would have had some information about the itinerary to provide security in Luanda? (Not the world’s safest place, either)  Clearly, it was far cheaper to take the bus down from their base than fly past Cabinda to Angola and fly back again (there being no direct flights from the Republic of Congo to Cabinda, as far as I can ascertain). Whose decision was this, though? Did the Angolan authorities really not know about it? Who was providing the security that was travelling with the Togo team? Is anyone asking these questions?

Summing all this up, I’d like to highlight a comment made just now by ursus actos on yesterday’s post. The points he makes are far more pertinent than anything we’ve read in the press today.

Two non-playing members of the Togo delegation (the assistant manager and press attache) have died from their wounds and there are unconfirmed reports on French forums that the reserve keeper has also died (he was reported by L’Equipe this morning to be one of three members of the delegation in critical condition).

Togo have withdrawn from the tournament. Togo players have also been quoted as saying that they have spoken to players on other teams in their group in an attempt to convince them to boycott the matches or insist that they be moved. I still believe that those teams should refuse to play in Cabinda, partly out of respect to their Togolese counterparts.

To follow up on my geographical point of clarification from yesterday. Togo were training in Pointe Noire (on the coast of the Republic of the Congo, and clearly visible in the map above). A quick look at that map shows why taking a bus would have seemed reasonable under normal circumstances. It is also worth keeping in mind that the Togolese FA has a long record of dysfunction (you may recall all of the disputes with the players over promised but unpaid bonuses at the last World Cup).

The Angolans and the CAF continue to maintain that they were unaware of the Togolese travel plans, but the presence of an armed Angolan escort makes that claim very hard to take seriously. Clearly, someone in the Angolan security forces knew what they were planning to do, and the organisers and the CAF clearly should have known.

As to why there were matches in Cabinda to start with, I can only repeat what I have said elsewhere:

The Angolan government’s entire approach to the Cabinda situation in recent years has been to deny that there is an active insurgency, while at the same time engaging in human rights abuses (as documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, among others). Having one of the CAN groups centred in Cabinda (which isn’t even geographically contiguous to the rest of Angola) was a profoundly political statement by the government and part of their campaign to show the world (and the multinational oil companies active there) that they were in full control of the situation and that there was nothing to worry about.

Just how hollow those claims were is now crystal clear to the entire world.

Cabinda, Angola, Togo and the Africa Cup of Nations Tragedy

In the comments to the previous post about today’s attack on Togo’s team bus in Cabinda (reminding Henry Winter that it’s part of Angola, and not South Africa), Andrew Guest suggested we post a map of Cabinda to illustrate its complex relation to Angola. As we can see, Cabinda is an enclave of Angola, with what is called Zaire on the map (the Democratic Republic of the Congo) between it and Angola proper.

Map of Cabinda, Angola

Here is another appropriate photo to illustrate Cabinda, and the reason the separatist conflict there has lasted over three decades, and continued beyond the end of the Angolan civil war in the rest of the country in 2002:


Oil. There is a lot of it in Cabinda; reportedly more than half of Angola’s reserves. Separatists rebels (with over a dozen armed and unarmed groups active at various times in the past three decades) think the central Angolan government takes too much of its revenue; the Angolan government has long tried to crack down and assert control. As globalsecurity.org explains, this has not disappeared in the past decade:

After years of reduced activity, in 2001 a renewed independence movement was again active in the enclave of Cabinda. This movement, which calls itself FLEC-RENOVADA (Renewed Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda) started to target foreigners as it tries to gain international attention for its cause – namely, independence from Angola.

FLEC-RENOVADA reached a peace agreement with the Angolan government in 2006. But not all within FLEC agreed with this move. This is why, in an eerily prescient AFP piece from yesterday, many were still questioning the decision to host ACN matches in Cabinda given that offshoots of FLEC remain active in their armed resistance, actively and openly committed to attacking high-profile targets:

Oil-rich Cabinda, separated from the rest of Angola by the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been embroiled in a long-running independence struggle but will host the seven Nations Cup matches this month.

The conflict officially ended in a 2006 deal with the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC).

FLEC however has made several media claims in recent months about attacks on the military and foreign construction and oil workers based in the province.

According to Agostinho Chicaia of Mapablanda, Cabinda’s only human rights organisation, things have only gotten worse since the deal.

“Cabinda continues to be unstable, there is no peace,” he told AFP, saying the fighting has eased, but human rights abuses and arrests on security charges were increasing.

“The true peace is that which is born first in the hearts of people and in their consciences, and it’s a peace based on justice,” he said.

“The (agreement) has done nothing for justice, so now there is only a heightened tension.”

Mapablanda as well as US-based Human Rights Watch have documented abuses, including the case of Fernando Lelo, a former Voice of America journalist who last year was sentenced to 12 years in prison for national security offences.

Lelo spent two years behind bars but was later acquitted.

“Cabinda is still living in a state of war today,” he told AFP. “The fact that we present ourselves as defenders of human rights… we’ve been targeted for arbitrary detentions and persecutions.”

As Just Football rightly asked, after today’s attack that splinter group Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda – Military Position (FLEC-PM) have now claimed responsibility for, many questions must be raised about the decision of the Angolan Football Federation to host games in Cabinda for the Africa Cup of Nations.

Angola’s government has clearly seen the entire tournament as a showcase for the country in the wake of the terrible, decades long civil war, building shining new stadiums across the country. It promised to be a wonderful story for the country. But did they risk hosting games in Cabinda as a show of power, demonstrating to the multinational oil interests such as Chevron that all was under their control?

There is something of a defense to the decision, despite the state of Cabinda in general. As Andrew also pointed out in the comments to the previous piece, this attack happened outside the capital city of Cabinda, also called Cabinda. The Togo team, for reasons that remain unclear, decided to travel unsafely on bus through the hinterlands instead of flying to the capital. The footballing authorities may not be to blame for that; we do not know the full story yet.

The oil money that has flowed in Cabinda has made the capital city much safer than the rest of the region; the State Department’s travel advisory makes this pretty clear:

Americans located in, or planning to visit, the northern province of Cabinda should be aware of threats to their safety outside of Cabinda city.  In 2008 and 2009 armed groups specifically targeted and attacked expatriates in Cabinda; armed attacks resulted in the rape, robbery or murder of several expatriates working in Cabinda.  Those responsible have declared their intention to continue attacks against expatriates.  Occasional attacks against police and Angolan Armed Forces (FAA) convoys and outposts also continue to be reported.  These incidents, while small in number, occur with little or no warning.  American citizens are, therefore, urged to exercise extreme caution when traveling outside of Cabinda city and limit travel to essential only.

Moreover, it should be pointed out that this attack does not mean the rest of Angola is an unsafe war zone. The British Foreign Office states that “Most visits to Angola are trouble-free. 7 British nationals required consular assistance in Angola in the period 01 April 2008 – 31 March 2009 for the following types of incident; deaths (1 cases); hospitalisations (0 cases); and arrests, for a variety of offences (4 cases).”

But like the State Department, the Foreign Office makes a point of warning against travel in Cabinda outside the capital city: “We advise against all but essential travel to the interior of Cabinda Province.  In 2008 there were reports of violent incidents including rape, murder and kidnappings involving foreigners and Angolans in the Province of Cabinda.  Groups claiming responsibility for these attacks have declared their intention to continue attacks against foreigners.”

Antonio Bento Bembe, a minister in the Angolan government and former FLEC rebel who led the 2006 peace accord, denied there should be such concerns. ”What these people are saying is not true. These people are just using Human Rights Watch to get publicity. It would be good to recognise the efforts being made by the government, not only to speak critically. Cabinda is safe and security there is guaranteed. The Cup of Nations is an opportunity for Cabinda to receive visitors and it will bring money and investment to the province.”

What was supposed to have been a dream showcase for Angola as a country has turned into a nightmare showing its violent instability, at least in that province. Security, obviously, was not guaranteed in Cabinda.

Playing the Francophone Advantage in Africa: A Colonialism Review / Africa Cup of Nations Preview

Number of Cup of Nations championships by country

Part of the brilliance of the Africa Cup of Nations is the way it puts the diverse stories of the continent on vivid display.  Consider, for example, the contrasts in the tournament opener on January 10th when host Angola plays Mali.  Angola’s story is one of hope for the future—having only recently emerged from a 27 year civil war after decades of Portuguese colonialism, Angola is flush with natural resources, one of the fastest growing economies in the world, four glistening new soccer stadiums built by Chinese friends, and immense potential both on and off the pitch.  Mali’s story, in contrast, is more of the past and present—as a descendent of French West Africa ranked as one of the five least developed countries in the world, Mali’s football success depends largely upon players born and/or developed in France.  And while for personal reasons I’ll be rooting for Angola, for purposes of understanding soccer in Africa it strikes me that Mali’s story offers better access to something that has long fascinated me: the ways that historical legacies shape the contemporary African game.

Mali’s Eagles, with only two domestically based players in contrast to 13 playing in France, offer a conspicuous example of a modern football world where global flows combined with the relaxing of FIFA strictures make national team players emblems of history and globalization.  Take Fredi Kanouté, the Sevilla striker who was born in France, played for the French U21 team, made his name in the English Premier League for West Ham and Tottenham, and took advantage of a FIFA rule change in 2004 to represent Mali as the country of his parents.  Or, for American fans, take former Chicago Fire defender Bakary Soumare who was born in Bamako, moved to Paris as a child, then to New York as a teen, played with the Red Storm Arrows of the Super Y League and at the University of Virginia before moving to MLS and then Boulogne of Ligue 1.  Soumare actually wanted to play for the US, but the delay in his citizenship led him to represent Mali—almost certain to be the only Virginia Cavalier on display at the 2010 Cup of Nations.

While these modern soccer stories are decidedly multi-national, they also disproportionately rely on France as a fulcrum.  And although my own experiences in Africa have mostly been in Anglophone and Lusophone countries, the contrasts with Francophone Africa have long provoked the amateur geographer in me.  So as a sort-of 2010 Cup of Nations preview I put together a comparison of the nations that will be on display in Angola this month, which I’ve included as a table at the end of this post.  The results support my suspicions of a noteworthy Francophone advantage—and offer me the chance to speculate about how history and ideology may have put that advantage in play.

The Francophone Advantage

Excluding the hosts as automatic qualifiers, 9 of the 15 teams that qualified for Angola 2010 are from Francophone Africa (or really 8.5 considering that Cameroon is an amalgam of both French and British territories—but for Cup of Nations purposes I’m calling it Francophone because it is my understanding that most of the team is Francophone and the federation web-site is primarily in French).  There are also more French coaches leading teams in the tournament (5) than any other nationality, and most of the highest ranked teams are Francophone—including Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, and Algeria.

Of course, the advantage is not overwhelming; Ghana and Nigeria are both Anglophone and always good, while Egypt is the defending champion relying on primarily domestic players (not coincidently playing in what is arguably Africa’s strongest domestic league).  But particularly with the changing FIFA rules about who players are eligible to represent, it seems plausible to suggest that the current momentum is with the Francophones.  And it seems reasonable to wonder why.

There is, of course, no one answer.  Partially it has to do with the distinctive story of soccer in each country.  Partially it may have to do with the contemporary dominance of the West and the North in African soccer—those parts of the continent happen to be predominantly Francophone.  Partially it may just be the ebb and flow of soccer success—the somewhat random appearance of soccer genius in the persons of a Samuel Eto’o or a Didier Drogba.

But it may also relate to how modern soccer has interacted with the differing versions of colonial (and post-colonial) influence in Africa.  My own introduction to Africa, for example, came through a two year stint in Anglophone Malawi (a third member of Angola and Mali’s Group A in the 2010 Cup of Nations), a densely populated, intensely poor, immensely warm hearted sliver of Southern Africa.  A former British colony, Malawians had adapted many odd Anglophile legacies—the Shakespeare requirement in the secondary school curriculum, the preference for buttoned up three piece suits, the insistence on afternoon tea no matter how hot the equatorial sun, and an obsession with the English Premier League (even in 96-98, exclusively via satellite before the country had its own TV stations).  But I came to think of those as just the idiosyncrasies of post-colonial Africa.

Then several years later I spent my next significant stint in Africa working in Lusophone Angola—where the Portuguese legacy was evident in distinctly different ways including a salacious Carnaval complete with parading transvestites, an affinity for Brazilian telenovelas, and close attention to the Portuguese Liga.  It became somehow normal to visit the huts of desperately poor refugee families on the outskirts of Luanda and find browned newspaper photos of the Benfica or Sporting Lisbon first eleven adorning mud-brick walls.  I was struck bluntly by something that should have been obvious: just as Africa is not just one place, colonialism was not just one thing.

Colonialisms and the Game

While I’m not a historian, my amateur understanding of some contrasts in colonial and post-colonial trajectories—particularly those between the ideologies of France and Britain as the most expansive colonizers—helps me make some sense of soccer in Africa.  As Paul Darby notes in his book Africa, Football, and FIFA: Politics, Colonialism, and Resistance: “Although football developed in a relatively unplanned, haphazard fashion in some of the more remote towns and villages, there can be little doubt that within the larger industrial centres Europeans utilized their hegemonic position to impose Western cultural forms and sports for their own ends.”

The particular ends to which sports were imposed by the French and the British, though inevitably negotiated by Africans themselves, depended on differing ideologies—descendents of which live on in modern policies relevant to the game.  As a generalization, French colonial policy was entwined with the ideology of a “civilizing mission” oriented to assimilation: the idea was “to bring Western civilization to supposedly backwards peoples.”  The French, unlike the British, were more likely to enact direct rule and use French culture as a way to develop colonial citizens—if people adopted the language and the ways of being, they would be French.

Darby argues that football was part of that process: “Given the perceived potential of football in terms of character building and the creation of moral fibre, the French administration was of the opinion that if it could combine such a socializing tool with the European education which many of the local elite had gained then the result would be model French citizens committed to the furtherance of the motherland’s interests in the region.”

A version of that ideology persists in modern France—where immigrants from the former French empire (including many members of Les Blues) are considered officially French without hyphens regardless of race or ethnicity.  In fact, it is difficult to get exact statistics on the proportions of African immigrants and their descendents in modern France because it is illegal for the state to collect census data on ethnicity and race.  While this policy is controversial in that it may tacitly facilitate societal discrimination, at a macro level it may also have facilitated the many opportunities for footballers from Francophone Africa to access the resources and training of the modern European game.

The story of Didier Drogba may be instructive here.  Drogba left his native Abidjan for Paris at the age of five to live with his uncle Michel Goba—travelling around France as Goba played out a middling career in Ligue 2.  Drogba himself was a relatively late-bloomer who fully developed only through opportunities in Ligue 2, not making his big move to Marseille until age 25.  By most accounts Drogba was not the type of precocious talent who would have been signed from the streets of Abidjan at 16—he, like many others, benefitted from the infrastructure of a wealthy country to fully develop his potential.

Didier Drogba

Though I cannot find specific information on how Drogba’s uncle Goba first came to France, it seems quite probable that he benefited from the influence of France’s assimilation ideology on football.  Darby notes that already “by 1938 there were 147 African footballs participating in the French first and second divisions” and that France was long “happy to take players from the colonies on their national team—as with Larbi Ben Barek from Morocco who represented France in the 30’s and 40’s.”  The French “civilizing mission,” while deeply problematic for local cultures, has provided decades of opportunities to footballers such as Michel Goba and Didier Drogba.  It is an amusing post-colonial irony that Drogba would likely not have been leading Chelsea to the Premiership trophy if his family were originally from Anglophone Africa.

The fact that English soccer has only relatively recently embraced African players is also related to particularly British ideologies in its colonial endeavors and its tendency towards indirect rule.  As Darby explains, “Although underpinned by economic objectives almost identical to those of France, the official British administrative approach in Africa was characterized by varying levels of facilitation and supervision within the bounds of pre-colonial authority systems.  This approach…did not deny the autonomy of traditional authority structures or the existence of indigenous social and religious systems, nor did it treat them with the disregard and at times open hostility typical of the Belgian and French colonial administrations.”

This inclination towards separation rather than assimilation, while potentially offering more autonomy for local cultures, meant that any promotion of soccer was done for reasons other than developing British civilization.  Instead, football in British colonies was most often used as part of missionary work promoting “muscular Christianity” and/or in misguided attempts at social control.  Many scholars have noted that football clubs throughout colonial Africa were often key sites for social organization that crafted resistance to colonial rule (see, for example, Alegi’s discussion of the “Africanisation of football” in South Africa in his book Laduma!).  Darby notes this was particularly true in North Africa where “many soccer clubs also acted as centres of anti-colonial sentiment and the promotion of a nationalist tradition” and cites famed Egyptian club El Ahly as a prominent example.

In this light it is worth noting that in contrast to the Francophone representatives in the 2010 Cup of Nations, relatively few of the Anglophone players ply their trade in the UK.  In fact, the non-domestic players on the Malawi and Zambia squads mostly play in South Africa (by my tentative count 10 members of Malawi’s squad play in the South African Premier League along with eight members of the Zambian delegation).

Further, while many players raised and/or trained in France will be representing their African roots (including Kanouté and Drogba), there seem to be few Anglophone equivalents.  In fact, the one potential Malawian example is Tamika Mkandawire—who was born in Malawi to an English mother and Malawian father, but was raised in Warwickshire before playing with Hereford United and Leyton Orient.  But Mkandawire has not been able to play for Malawi because the country does not allow dual citizenship.  (It is also worth noting that the relative absence of British born and/or trained players on African national teams seems less conspicuous for teams from former British colonies in the Caribbean—Trinidad and Tobago along with Jamaica, for example, are often well-stocked with Brits.  I have not researched that contrast—but would be curious to learn more.)

In what could be interpreted as one final insult to the British Empire, there will be no British coaches at Angola 2010 while among the five French coaches one heads Anglophone Zambia.  But then the British did always favor indirect rule—nowadays even for their own national team.

Of course, Francophone Africa has not always dominated the Cup of Nations—defending champion Egypt has the most continental championships with six, followed by Anglophone Ghana with four and kind-of Francophone Cameroon with four.  So the contrasts between French and British colonial / post-colonial ideologies clearly don’t explain everything.  But the nature of the modern game, with its increasingly global labor flows and changing FIFA rules regarding representation, does seem to lend itself to my hypothesis of a contemporary Francophone advantage.  Fortunately, the best test of any footballing hypothesis is still ultimately on the pitch—so let the games begin!

Note: In the below table the FIFA ranking is based on the rankings updated December 16th 2009; the numbers of domestic and non-domestic players is based on the best squad lists I could find as of January 1 – they should be reasonable estimates, but should not be considered exact for the actual players who will be on team rosters during the tournament.

FIFA ranking Population Independence… Coach’s nationality Domestic players Largest non-domestic contingent
Group A
Angola 95 18.5 million from Portugal in 1975 Portuguese 11 4 in Portugal
Mali 47 13 million from France in 1960 Nigerian 2 13 in France
Malawi 99 15 million from the UK in 1964 Malawian 9 10 in South Africa
Algeria 26 35 million from France in 1962 Algerian 9 4 in the UK
Group B
Côte d’Ivoire 16 21 million from France in 1960 Bosnian 1 6 in England
Burkina Faso 49 16 million from France in 1960 Portuguese 2 4 in Germany
Ghana 34 24 million from the UK in 1957 Serbian 3 4 in England
Togo 71 6.6 million from France 1960 French 2 9 in France
Group C
Egypt 24 77 million from the UK in 1922 Egyptian 19 No more than 1 anywhere
Nigeria 22 155 million from the UK in 1960 Nigerian 0 7 in England
Mozambique 72 23 million from Portugual in 1975 Dutch 12 4 in South Africa
Benin 59 9 million from France in 1960 French 7 10 in France
Group D
Cameroon 11 19.5 million from France in 1960 and the UK in 1961 French 0 7 in France
Gabon 48 1.5 million from France in 1960 French 4 10 in France
Zambia 84 13 million from the UK in 1964 French 6 8 in South Africa
Tunisia 53 10.5 million from France in 1956 Tunisian 16 3 in France

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

Gifts for an Angolan Christmas: A Sort-of Soccer Story

Photo by J.Star on Flickr

A note in preface: The story here is a bit of a divergence from my usual weekly post.  With Christmas coming and the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola not far behind (kicking off January 10th) I’ve been thinking about the 2002 Christmas I spent in Angola when working on my dissertation research.  Part of that involved helping to organize coach training programs in refugee camps near the capital of Angola—and while the programs included a variety of sports, ‘futebol’ was what really mattered.  So while this particular story is only tangentially about the game, the game is what offered the connection.

The story itself—mostly true barring the vagaries of memory—is something that started as a Christmas letter.  Now, with the Africa Cup of Nations about to begin, I’ve re-written it in hopes a few fans of the game might be interested in some experiences of Angola outside the stadiums (which I wrote about last month).  If you like your soccer writing witty and cynical, please ignore.  If you can excuse some sentimentality around the holiday season, I hope you enjoy…

For several Christmases they had lived on a soccer field, in front of a crumbling brick schoolhouse, in the deep outskirts of Luanda.  Or, more specifically, a soccer field that had been converted into a temporary refugee camp for Congolese families fleeing violence.  The soccer field was just a reasonably flat space intended to serve the families for a few weeks.  Then a few weeks had turned into a few years.  And it probably wasn’t ever a very good soccer field anyway—the space around the touchlines leaned badly, it had no grass to speak of, and when it rained the red dirt surface segmented into canals of thick mud.  But when I stopped to think about it all, the idea of being condemned to Christmases living on a not very good soccer field, I felt overwhelmed.  Of course, I felt overwhelmed often in Angola—the unfamiliarity and the noise and the confusion of it all.  And, on that particular day, the 23rd of December, the rain.

It had rained a few times in the months I had been in Luanda, living in the central city and commuting daily to various refugee camps outside the capital of Angola, but for the most part the city itself was dry.  That morning it had suddenly become flooded with tumults of water.  Around 6:30 am I looked out the window of my Soviet-style apartment block, wedged into an eclectic downtown mix of dilapidated cement shells, gleaming glass high rises built with money from oil and diamonds, antique Portuguese colonial villas, and shantytowns surrounding the urban core, to find that three hours of pouring rain had turned the drain-less streets into rivers.  Every open space was suddenly a lake.  It was supposed to be our last day working in the camps before Christmas.

Christmas in Luanda was a filtered version of Christmas elsewhere—a day of vaguely religious reflection, a chance for a nice meal, an expectation of gifts to the extent one could afford them.  But being in a place that daily shoved dramatic inequalities in my face—the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor—the gifts piece became more complicated.  I want Christmas to be about something more than material exchange, about celebrating the birth of Christ or engaging in a giving spirit.  But I know gifts matter.  And in the long-term refugee camps where I worked on my research and with volunteer programs promoting play for children, camps where people had lived in forced dependence to Western donors for years, the expectation of gifts was raw.  I was the ‘wealthy’ outsider, the American who showed up periodically in a pock-marked Land Cruiser with balls, cones, papers, and games.  So the refugees had asked matter-of-factly, not awkwardly nor hopefully nor greedily: “what are you getting us for Christmas?”

My Angolan colleague and I had tried to get them something—at least for the ten or so adults who’d volunteered with us for a coach training program.  We’d spent what for us felt like considerable time and expense getting together small Christmas baskets: flour, eggs, powdered milk, and a chicken.  The idea was to give the people we worked with the chance to make a decent meal, maybe a cake if they could work that out on their cooking fire.  My Angolan colleague assured me they could.  And so that morning around 8:00, worried whether we could make it through the storm, we loaded the truck for delivery.


We only worked at the camp on the soccer field on Mondays because it was small and further from town—we hoped maybe it hadn’t rained as much there.  And on our way from the city to the camp, our truck hydroplaning through the crooked streets, the rain did seem to slow just as the usual morning crowds began another day.  Luanda is a city of 5 million originally designed for a few hundred thousand; the roads host hives of people squeezing between the noise of cars, trucks, busses, carts, and the choke of modern life.  On that particular day the storm amplified the masses of emotion: some people shook sadly in their second hand western clothes, some were zestfully dancing and sliding and soaking in the quagmire, many kept on selling their wares with a water logged version of the usual intensity—weaving and wading on foot between disjointed traffic waving plastic bags of soft drinks and beer, fake Christmas trees, bubble gum, sandals, toy cars, popcorn, newspapers, underwear, pictures of sofas (available in a waiting warehouse).  Entrepreneurial youth were charging people a ferry toll to carry them on their backs or shoulders through the deepest mud.

Soon it became obvious that there had not been less rain outside of town.  If anything there had been more.  A mile from the camp, away from urban rush on a road lined by yellowish green hills drifting towards the ocean, we turned off the tarmac to find the road a pit of deep red mud.  We could see our destination in the distance—the school and its field stood on a hill overlooking rolling acres of bristling grass, leaf-less trees, and scattered huts.  But, looking at a long curve around a dangerous bend, driving wasn’t worth the risk.  We were stuck.  It had taken us an hour to go this far.  It was two days before Christmas and we had perishable gifts in our backseat.  We had to walk.

Mud seemed so strange in Angola.  Or maybe mud seems strange everywhere and I just haven’t spent enough time with it.  Whatever, when we stepped out of the truck the mud immediately overwhelmed our shoes—it layered on magnetically like a cross-section diagram of the earth’s core.  Within five steps I was walking on uneven seven inch platform boots, realizing that shoes were of no use.  We returned to the car, left our shoes and socks, and set off again.

When was the last time you walked a long distance through thick mud in your bare feet?  What fun.  Especially when you are in undulating hills outside Luanda, Angola.  When you have Boabob trees dotting the horizon.  When you have glossy little kids cartwheeling through the puddles on the side of the road, stopping briefly just to give you a “Bom dia.”  When you pass a mess of uneven thatch huts with women peering out and shaking their heads in confused amusement.  When mud splays up through your toes and rests on your instep—the whole sensation like a warm bed after a long night.

Passing the crest of the final hill, a stressed hockey bag full of flour and powdered milk digging into my shoulder, the camp seemed empty.  Water was dripping heavily around the 50 or so small huts that occupied just over half the soccer field; small canyons of water weaving between piles of trash and clumps of earth.  Every step I took required an intense focus on the ground, negotiating rusting tin can lids from South African tomato paste, corroded blue Chinese D cell batteries, broken Portuguese beer bottles—a refuse of globalization.  We were soaked, our legs encrusted with dirt, immersed in a soporific din.  It was 10:00 in the morning, still raining, and the camp was asleep.

We went to a house in the near corner of the camp, a mud, stick, and canvas construction little bigger than a backpacking tent that we knew to be the home of a friend—one of our coach training participants.  My Angolan colleague, balancing a large cardboard box of chicken on his head, announced our presence with a sharp hand clap.  There had been no words, we hadn’t spoken since leaving the truck 45 minutes before, and there was no response.   Just rain beading on a dull blue tarp, seeping down my face through a sparse excuse for a beard- a beard that everyone said made me look sad.

After more clapping, there was a slight rustling in the hut.  Our friend emerged, pulling back the maize sack hanging in place of a door.  He was sleepy and confused.  What were we doing there?  Didn’t we know about the rain; about the camp being asleep?  He shook the shadows out of his eyes, invited us in, and made space for us to sit.  One plastic chair, orange and broken, one plank laid across grey scarred tins the size of paint cans.  There was a sickly looking chicken running around the dirt floor, water falling out of its feathers as if it was leaking.

Our friend went to call the other few participants from our coaching course.  Four came, and impractically all were wearing shoes—shoes weighed down by layers of mud from a walk of about 20 yards.  Even though their feet were tough from years of movement, even though it was much easier to negotiate the mud in bare feet, even though they risked ruining their shoes for a 20 yard walk, even though my own feet were bare, the shoes were important.

We explained that we didn’t want to do much today—I wanted them to know I wasn’t so naïve as to think we might work on a day like this.  But we had small gifts.  We emphasized small gifts; on his own my Angolan colleague told them in Portuguese that the gifts were just symbolica.  I wondered what they symbolized—but everyone seemed to understand.   So we unloaded the bags and the cardboard box, we gave them a list of who we intended the things for, we shook still confused hands, and we left.  There were very few words exchanged.  They didn’t complain, but they didn’t express much appreciation either.  They had expected something, though maybe not that day or that way.

The walk back to the truck was downhill and our loads were gone, so we should have gone faster.  But our feet had tired and our bodies were slow.  We still didn’t talk.  I focused less on the road, which seemed familiar now, and more on the vista.  I tried to remember clues our friends might have given about whether they liked what we brought.  I worried that others, for whom we hadn’t brought anything, would be angry with us.  I wondered if I should feel good about what I had done, or if I was just playing a role in a big global act—the privileged outsider trying to salve his broken sense of justice through gifts symbolica.

Then, slowly, my thoughts settled.  My body more easily coped with the gelatinous road.  There were even a few minutes where everything seemed quiet—a few moments during which I watched grass rustle and felt the soft pleasure of earth wrapping through my feet.  With my back to the soccer field, on a muddy red road where my work was done, the world oozed through my toes.  It was a moment of tired happiness, and it was the gift: a few minutes in the warm rain of an Angolan Christmas.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

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

CAN 2010

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

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

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

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

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

Estádio Cidade Universitária, Luanda

The Geo-Politics of Building Stadiums

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Practice of Building Stadiums

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

Benguela, Complexo da Sr. da Graca

Benguela, Complexo da Sr. da Graca

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

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

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

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

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

A Thinking Fan’s Guide to the U-17 World Cup in Nigeria

Nigeria U-17 World Cup

I love a World Cup (any World Cup) for the rare opportunity of putting whole imagined nations on public display.  Though the main event in South Africa is still eight months away, one junior version (U-20) just finished in Egypt and another (U-17) is just about to begin in Nigeria.  The fact that all these events are in Africa is an extra bonus for the inquiring mind; Africa represents so much that is powerful and so much that is perplexing about both soccer and society.

Some of this was on display in last Friday’s U-20 World Cup final from Cairo, where Ghana’s ‘Black Satellites’ defeated Brazil in penalty kicks after playing a man down through 83 scoreless minutes.  Like many things to do with world football, the game was not pretty but it was symbolic.  As the FIFA English commentator proclaimed enthusiastically at the dénouement: “African winners on African soil!”  It was the first time an African team had won a U-20 World Cup.

Ghanaian coach Sellas Tetteh immediately claimed the victory for the continent: “This is a wonderful historic event for Africa.  Now Africans can believe in themselves that they can do it… We’ve shown them the way. Africa will surely have a lot of hope and confidence (at the World Cup) that they can do it like we did here.”

Although Tetteh was referring to next summer’s feature event in South Africa, the general question of whether belief, hope, and confidence are enough to win major tournaments is interesting to consider approaching the start of the U-17 World Cup in Lagos and Abuja on Saturday October 24th.  My own less sanguine suspicion is that talent and resources matter quite a bit more.  Unfortunately, Ghana itself won’t be in Nigeria to find out.  But 24 other teams will be playing in eight different Nigerian cities through the final on November 15th.

As I did last month in an alternative preview of the U-20 World Cup in Egypt, I’m taking advantage of the opportunity of the U-17 World Cup to look at the world through a mix of soccer and armchair geography.  The idea is best encapsulated by Eric Hobsbawn’s eloquent words: “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.”  It also draws inspiration from Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey’s excellent edited collection of essays and miscellany related to the participants in the 2006 World Cup.

So, below I offer impressions of Nigeria and Malawi (the African nation closest to my heart—having been a Peace Corps volunteer there for two years in the 90’s) as examples of two “imagined communities,” and then draw on an idiosyncratic collection of ratings and rankings to create a statistical miscellany on the groups in the tournament.   At the end of this post is a table of the draw with FIFA rankings for the full national teams, population numbers, human development rankings, Gross Domestic Product per capita, per capita alcohol consumption, life expectancy, and infant mortality.  The only system here is to try and raise unlikely questions about soccer and society, and what else is a World Cup good for?

Some Stories

Nigeria map

The Host: In its soccer and its society Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa, represents both the potential and the perils of the continent.  Nigeria has won three of the twelve U-17 World Cups, been a finalist in two others, won the gold medal in the 1996 Olympics, achieved what I believe to be the highest ever FIFA ranking for an African team (5th in 1994), and is the only sub-Saharan African nation to host a FIFA World Cup: the 1999 youth tournament (then called the “FIFA World Youth Championship”).  It has also been the subject of much controversy regarding the “real age” of its youth players, and there have been many questions as to whether it will be ready to adequately host this 2009 U-17 tournament (the 1999 tournament hosted in Nigeria was actually a make-up after FIFA had controversially revoked Nigeria’s hosting the 1995 tournament, taking it to Qatar because of uncertain fears).

Beyond soccer, Nigeria is home to many of Africa’s most brilliant minds, including a stunning collection of writers such as Wole Soylinka, Chinua Achebe, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Ben Okri, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chris Abani, and Uwem Akpan.  But it also has a controversial reputation for corruption, it has struggled to manage vast oil wealth to the benefit of broader development goals (as have many oil-rich nations the world-over), and has suffered dramatic religious violence as it negotiates a national population split nearly equally (and regionally) between Muslims and Christians.

Deserved or not, the reputation of Nigerians across Africa is that they are intense and clever—in ways that can be used for good or for ill.  The recent critically acclaimed movie District 9 was telling in this regard; in a science-fiction version of Johannesburg South Africa aliens are locked into a segregated township where their potentially nefarious interests are catered to primarily by savvy Nigerian gangsters.  In the movie’s disturbing allegory about xenophobia, purposefully set in South Africa, the people most negatively stereotyped are the Nigerians.  This implication was not beyond the notice of the Nigerian government, who asked the makers of the film for an apology as part of their own effort to “rebrand” the nation.

Nigerians are also infamous the world over for internet scams—known as ‘419’ fraud with that number referring to the relevant article of the Nigerian Criminal Code.  Also called “advance fee fraud” the scam has become the brunt of many jokes about Nigerian princes who will share their wealth if only a small advance is sent to the right bank account.  But the not so funny reality is that the scam became popular because it worked: some clever Nigerians bilked some not-so-clever others for a good deal of money.  There is a fine line between the “swindler” and the “entrepreneur.”

If national teams do reflect national culture, then all this must make for some confusing on-field tactics.  Combing immense talent, uncertain motives, and an intense edge would seem to be an explosive brew.  But, in many ways, it also sounds like a lot of fun—and watching Nigeria’s Super Eagles is often just that.  Nigeria is not only the host of this U-17 championship, they are also the defending champion (having won the 2007 title in South Korea over Spain through penalty kicks).  Though their preparations seem to have been somewhat tumultuous, that is often the way the Super Eaglets roll and I wouldn’t be surprised if they still take home advantage.  While there is sure to be some drama and some criticism, as Nigeria Football Federation president Sani Lulu Abdullahi recently responded when questioned about recent Nigerian performances: “I don’t give a damn, because I am serving my God and Nigerians.”

Football in Malawi

The Junior Flames: Malawi’s national team is known as “the Flames”—but you’d have no reason to know that since this U-17 World Cup in Nigeria will be the nation’s first ever FIFA tournament.  In fact, most people have few reasons to know Malawi for much of any reason (though Madonna’s odd interest in the place along with books about windmills have raised its profile some).  The beauty and the tragedy of Malawi is that it’s been a relatively peaceful, stable country with little significant infrastructure and few valuable resources other than its warm hearted people.  In fact, in the statistics I compiled below Malawi only stands out for having the lowest per capita annual income (around $800 per year—which is dramatically little compared to $47,000 per year for group mates the USA) and the second lowest life expectancy at 48 years (second only to hosts Nigeria).  In many ways Malawians have had little of what may be the most undervalued quality in both soccer and national development: luck.

When I lived in Malawi between 1996 and 1998 it was just emerging from 33 years of autocratic rule by “His Excellency the Life President of the Republic of Malaŵi, Ngwazi Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda”—an idiosyncratic dictator and anglophile who kept his people relatively safe and well-fed as long as they did not cause any trouble.  In fine “big man” style Kamuzu had managed to name virtually everything in the country after himself, including the national stadium in Blantyre.  But when “democracy” arrived much of his cult of personality was dismantled and the national stadium was renamed Chichiri for its relatively bland neighborhood.  And then in 2004 it was re-re-named after Kamuzu—a seeming reminder that the more things change the more they stay the same.

In 2009, however, Malawi’s luck—at least in the ways of world football—seems to have changed.  First, the Junior Flames qualified for the U-17 World Cup due to the good fortune of Niger being disqualified for using over-age players.  And now, the senior Flames are on the verge of qualifying for their second ever African Cup of Nations (their only previous appearance was in 1984) based on being positioned third in a group of four.  Though their recent tie with Ivory Coast was mostly noted internationally for securing Ivory Coast’s place in South Africa, Malawians celebrated the fact that Didier Drogba and friends only needed one point.  As it stands, both the junior and senior Flames will have qualified for their respective tournaments after winning a single game in group play (the senior team needs just one point in their final game at the wonderfully alliterative Ouagadougou Burkina Faso on November 11th).

While Malawians have long been passionate about football, these fortuitous circumstances arguably constitute the greatest year in their sporting history.  And when the Junior Flames take the field to play the US U-17’s on October 29th in Nigeria at Kano’s Sani Abacha Stadium (another curious tribute to a former president identified as one of the world’s most corrupt leaders), I hope luck is again on their side.  In fact, I owe a debt to Malawian soccer for reminding me about the importance of luck: in an otherwise unremarkable academic paper I once wrote comparing American and Malawian mentalities towards soccer, among my main conclusions was that Malawians have a much better appreciation for the inevitabilities of the game.  Where Americans tend to have a deeply internalized sense that soccer is about self-improvement and competitive merit, Malawians tend to recognize that sometimes stuff just happens.  Luck matters more than we like to admit, and here’s hoping that Malawi starts getting all it needs and deserves.

Some Statistics

The Group of Death: Apparently the term “group of death,” now ubiquitous in any group based tournament, was originally coined by Uruguay (Group F in Nigeria) manager Omar Borrás to describe his team’s group at the 1986 World Cup.  Borrás went on to get himself banned from a second round match due to his team’s ”ungentlemanly conduct” and reports that ”the referee was molested and even threatened.”  While molesting referees would seem to be quite a damaging habit, Borrás more awkward legacy may be the never-ending debates about which teams actually have to suffer through the “group of death.”

To avoid subjective questions about the quality of U-17 teams from diverse parts of the world, and at the risk of sounding morbid, the sobriquet could be taken literally.  Doing so is admittedly depressing.  Looking at statistics such as life expectancy and infant mortality highlights the injustices of a world where children born in rich countries such as Spain (Group E in Nigeria) and Italy (Group F in Nigeria) can expect to live an average of 80 years (where only 4 out of 1000 children will die before age 5), yet reside on the same planet as children born in poor countries such as Burkina Faso (Group D in Nigeria) and Malawi (Group E in Nigeria) who will be lucky to live past 50 (where approximately 200 out of 1000 children die before age 5).

So for me talking metaphorically about the “group of death” offers a helpful reminder that soccer is just a game—none of the groups in a FIFA tournament are actually a matter of life or death.  And, frankly, I have no idea which group will actually be most competitive on the field.  But I do have some other more lighthearted statistics…

Overachievers and Underachievers: The most basic statistic for any FIFA tournament is a team’s world ranking; despite all the problems with their ranking system, it does offer a standardized gauge of how all the world’s teams compare.  And while much goes into national footballing excellence, the most basic factor I’ve been able to discern for success is disappointingly simple: population.  The more people, the more potential players, and the better chance of putting forth a pretty good eleven.

For me this uninteresting equation becomes more interesting when considering outliers—the countries that seem to do either much better or much worse than their player pool should allow.  Of the countries in Nigeria, the three that stand out as overachievers in this regard are Uruguay (which ranks 132 in population but 25 in FIFA and is in Group F in Nigeria), Switzerland (which ranks 94 in population but 13 in FIFA and is in group B in Nigeria), and the US’s new BFF Honduras (which ranks 96 in population but 35 in FIFA and is in Group A in Nigeria).

On the other side of things, there are few countries in Nigeria with significantly lower FIFA rankings than might be predicted based on population—most of those guys probably didn’t bother to qualify.  The only two that seem to be of any note are Iran (which ranks 17 in population but 62 in FIFA and is in Group C in Nigeria), and Japan (which ranks 10 in population but 40 in FIFA and is in Group B in Nigeria).  If I had to guess I’d say the lesson here is that hard-line Islamic governments and aging populations with long life expectancies and low birth rates are bad for soccer success.  But that’s just a guess.

The Designated Drivers: A World Cup is often described as an international party, which made me curious about the relative popularity of that nearly universal party lubricant: alcohol.  Though the players in Nigeria should be too young to partake, in many parts of the world adult fan culture is defined partially by drinking and carousing—something which is alternately a point of pride and shame.  Just looking at the statistics, it appears fans who like alcohol with their soccer may find good company at this U-17 World Cup: in terms of per capita consumption of alcohol Nigeria slightly edges New Zealand (Group D in Nigeria), only trailing Switzerland, Spain, and grand “champions” Germany.

In fact, the data would suggest that few travelling fans in Group A should plan on driving home or operating any heavy machinery: with the slight exception of Honduras it seems the Nigerians, Germans, and Argentines all like to get their drink on.  In fact, those looking for peace, fellowship, and designated drivers may be best served watching games in the groups with teams from the Islamic world: Algeria and the United Arab Emirates report miniscule amounts of alcohol consumption, while Iran just reports absolute zero.  Come to think of it, maybe that’s why they underachieve in the FIFA rankings?

There is, believe or not, a significant correlation for the teams in the U-17 World Cup: for these 24 nations, the more a country drinks the higher its FIFA ranking.  But there must be some confounding variables—so back to the stats!

The below statistics are from the following sources:
- FIFA rank is based on the “FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking” updated October 16th 2009
- Population and population rank is rounded from estimates drawing on various sources in Wikipedia.
- GDP and GDP per capita is in US dollars and based on 2008 list by the International Monetary Fund “derived from purchasing power parity (PPP) calculations.”
- Life expectancy is based on the 2009 list from the CIA World Factbook for “overall life expectancy at birth.”
- Under-five mortality rate is based on the number of deaths per 1000 live births based on data available through the World Health Organization Statistical Information System.
- Per capita litres of pure alcohol consumed annually is based on consumption among adults based on data available through the World Health Organization Statistical Information System.

FIFA rank


Pop. rank

GDP per capita

GDP per capita rank

Life expectancy

Under-five mortality rate (deaths per 1000 live births)

Per capita litres of pure alcohol consumed annually

Group A



155 mil.




46.9 yrs





82 mil.




79.3 yrs





7.5 mil.




69.4 yrs





40 mil.




75.3 yrs



Group B



192 mil.




72.4 yrs





127.5 mil.




82.1 yrs





107.5 mil.




76.2 yrs





8 mil.




80.9 yrs



Group C



74 mil.




71.1 yrs





1.7 mil.




55.4 yrs





45 mil.




72.8 yrs









79.4 yrs



Group D







71.9 yrs



Burkina Faso


16 mil.




52.9 yrs



Costa Rica


4.6 mil.




78.8 yrs



New Zealand


4 mil.




80.2 yrs



Group E



4.5 mil.




78.7 yrs





15 mil.




48.3 yrs





46 mil.




80.5 yrs





307 mil.




78.1 yrs



Group F



3.4 mil.




76.3 yrs



Korea Republic


48 mil.




78.6 yrs





35 mil.




72.3 yrs





60 mil




80.2 yrs



Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon. Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa. He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

To Go or Not to Go: The World Cup 2010 South Africa Question

South Africa 2010

The US is going to South Africa.  As I followed Grant Wahl’s twitter feed of Saturday’s game from San Pedro Sula, an odd experience of using a 2009 technology to get around the 1980 closed circuit, I was surprised, impressed, and pleased with the fortitude Bob Bradley’s men showed in Honduras.  Having not been able to watch, I imagine the game to have played much like the Confederation’s Cup this summer: the US offering just enough tactical and technical savvy to complement their most distinctive quality of sheer determination.  There are still many questions as to how far that combination can take the US at the World Cup finals, and I’m sure much will be written on that topic between now and next June.  But for me the US victory, along with the crystallizing of all the nations that will be at the finals next summer, raises a more difficult question: will I be in South Africa with them?

As the World Cup qualifiers conclude and the final slate of teams becomes clear, I find myself tormented by the truth and the cliché: going to see the World Cup in South Africa would be a “once in a lifetime experience.”  I consider myself lucky in that I have been to South Africa before, and know it to be a place of much wonder.  But my previous travels were part of other experiences in Africa, and were funded accordingly.  For this World Cup it seems to all be up to me and my “struggling middle class” existence.  And by my count going to South Africa next summer would be a dauntingly expensive endeavor.

I imagine I’m not the only world soccer fan sitting somewhere in the world and trying to work through the mental calculus of what exactly a trip to the World Cup would be worth.  And while there are many personal variables that we all have to take into account, I also put my faith as a social scientist in the idea that there some patterns and trends to help make sense of the value of soccer fandom.

And for me these patterns and trends are complicated by, and more interesting because of, the fact that we are talking about Africa: a continent that is fascinating, diverse, vibrant, and where somewhere around 40% of the population is estimated to live in extreme poverty (defined as less than a dollar per day).  Even if I can figure out a way to afford it, could I enjoy a sundowner at Soccer City or Royal Bafokeng with a clear conscious?  Probably not—but if I can figure out the right rationalizations to assuage my middle class guilt then I might be able to do it anyway.

The Economic Calculation

Though there are many different possible ways to figure the likely costs of a trip to South Africa 2010, for sake of a baseline I’m just going to try and keep things simple.  When I search for a plane ticket from the west coast of the US to South Africa for next June or July the least expensive fare I can find is around $2,300.  When I look at a basic package offered by an official FIFA partner that would allow me to attend at least two games (there are lower price packages are for one game—but going all that way just for one game doesn’t seem right) and stay in the lowest class of shared accommodation the cheapest seems a bit more than $3,000.  Figuring in meal money and other expenses, a low end estimate for a weeklong trip for two games is going to be around $6000.00 for one person.  And since I’d really like to go with my wife, the baseline for us is ultimately around $12,000.

Of course an official package is not likely to be the most cost-efficient way to travel, but I’ll admit to being intimidated by FIFA’s iron grip on ticketing.  For both Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010 I’ve been a good consumer, played by the rules, and entered the official “ticket lottery” with hopes that the allocation process would be fair.  But for all my efforts and credit card numbers I’ve gotten nothing but automatically generated emails informing me that—surprise—I didn’t get any tickets.  I am eternally embittered by the fact that big tour companies and corporate partners seem to have access to infinite numbers of tickets when a non-corporate fan such as myself is merely strung along in a “lottery” implying that this is really about my bad luck.  But that’s capitalism, and I do nothing but occasionally rattle the bars of my personal iron cage from the ivory tower.

And the ivory tower, when you are a junior faculty member at a regional institution where the incentive is “quality of life” and “mission fit” rather than money, doesn’t pay very well.  For the amount of education required the pay at my job is perhaps only undercut by non-profit work with social services—which, of course, is my wife’s job.  I’m not going to get into any more specifics, but suffice it to say that $12,000 would be many months of our combined total take-home pay and years worth of “disposable income.”

Maybe this is the way to go

To dream a dream.

But the voice in my head (the one unconsciously negotiating with travel board marketers and credit card ads) tells me that you can’t put a price on the experience of attending a World Cup.  Watching the US walk out for their match against North Korea (just a prediction for the “random” draw) on the glistening grass of Durban or Polokwane would, I imagine, be “priceless.”  But the trick here is that I could still get some satisfaction from watching that moment on TV—particularly if that TV was a new plasma screen HD model that I purchased with a fraction of the money I could save by not going to South Africa.

This type of calculation also gets tricky because it starts as a rational cost-benefit analysis and quickly becomes a test of one’s life’s philosophy.  There is, for example, a growing body of research looking specifically at what makes people “happy,” the bottom line of which is often that money matters much less than things such as healthy relationships and meaningful experiences.  In Jonathan Haidt’s interesting 2006 book The Happiness Hypothesis, for example, he notes that the pursuit of luxuries is often misguided:

People would be happier and healthier if they took more time off and “spent” it with their family and friends, yet America has long been heading in the opposite direction.  People would be happier if they reduced their commuting time, even if it meant living in smaller houses, yet American trends are toward ever larger houses and ever longer commutes.  People would be happier and healthier if they took longer vacations, even if that meant earning less, yet vacation times are shrinking in the Untied States, and in Europe as well. (p. 99)

I would presume this would include “soccer vacations”—though it is somewhat surprising to me that I haven’t come across much research specifically looking at the personal value of sports fandom.  There is a great deal of research looking at the macro-scale value of mega-sports events such as the World Cup, and some research about what motivates sports fans generally, but it is hard to find much attempting to analyze what fans get for their money.  Hard core fans the world over spend great sums to follow their team and, in effect, subsidize millionaire players—and while we know a lot about the business implications of that process we seem to know little about the personal implications for fans.

One of the few academic analyses I could find laid out a diverse assortment of factors that determine whether people decide to spent money on “sport tourism” including escape, aesthetic players, “tribal connections,” cultural connections, vicarious achievement, tradition, income, alternatives, and more.  But ultimately, Aaron Smith and Bob Smith conclude, it is too much to really put it all together into a single equation: “Modeling the fan-sport relationship and the factors that impel individuals to make consumption decisions that involve travel is monumentally troublesome, since fans are not motivated by individual or psychological needs alone, but by a complex set of social, cultural and economic factors.”  So whether I want to take out a second mortgage for the prospect of watching the US v Bafana Bafana on African soil is more “monumentally troublesome” than just fiscal strategy.

The Philosophical Calculation

With no possibility of a rational economic decision, a fan is left with one’s own perspective on what a personal experience of the World Cup and of South Africa is worth.  And this is where the broader context of Africa becomes particularly relevant.

Since South Africa was awarded the World Cup there has been simmering controversy about perceptions of South Africa, and Africa more generally, as dangerous and dysfunctional.  Though such concerns are often just naive exaggerations of real facts about crime rates and work stoppages, in my mind they should not play a factor in anyone’s decision to go to South Africa.  The simple reality that millions of people both manage and thrive in South Africa everyday suggests that you will too—in my admittedly brief visits to South Africa the people I interacted with were unfailingly decent, interesting, curious, and welcoming.

South Africa 2010

South Africa, at risk of sounding like a travel agent, is truly a vibrant nation diverse and engaging both for its people and its geography.  But with such diversity, and with the type of inequalities that are common in many parts of the world, there are problems.  One of the fascinating things about South Africa is that it encapsulates much of the entire dynamic continent of Africa—its wonders, its potential, and its challenges.  Travelling in South Africa means being careful, but not any more so than in travelling through any unfamiliar place or any big city whether in Africa, North America, or Europe.

South Africa is also worth visiting because of the starkness of its inequality—some of the richest people in the world live across the street from some of the poorest (where in the US we tend to do more spreading out our inequalities).  And this is another interesting question that always strikes me when I think about travelling to Africa.  The expense of getting to Africa does not only take money away from my large screen plasma TV fund—it could equally be spent on doing my small part to rectify the unjust distribution of wealth in the world.

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi we used to have American or European groups travel through on week-long “service” missions to build houses or help schools with projects.  Though the people in these groups were unfailingly good willed, the amount they were able to tangibly accomplish in a week was very little.  But, I couldn’t help but think, the $20,000 a ten person group would have spent on airfare might have been able to accomplish quite a bit in a country where the annual per capita income is around $700.

Peter Singer

Though I realize I’m getting a bit off the soccer topic here, a recent book by philosopher Peter Singer has had me thinking about this even more.  In The Life You Can Save, Singer approaches the injustice of global inequality by noting that spending a relatively small portion of our income on aid efforts can make a big difference in the least developed parts of the world—which, unfortunately, often include Africa.  One of his striking philosophical tricks is to point out that donating a few hundred dollars, the cost of a nice pair of shoes, can cure life-threatening illnesses for children in the developing world.  And if we were walking by a pond where a child was drowning we would not hesitate to dive in—even if it meant ruining our expensive shoes.  Yet in our daily lives we don’t think to sacrifice our luxuries towards the possibility of greater moral goods.

To try and bring this back to soccer, Singer’s parable can be applied in interesting ways to the World Cup question: if I had a precious World Cup ticket in my pocket and on the way to the stadium passed a drowning child, would I hesitate to dive in if it were going to ruin my ticket?  I would hope not.  Then how can I justify giving my money to FIFA and its corporate affiliates rather than to one of the organizations working to make a real difference in African lives?

The Muddled Calculation

So ultimately, despite my faith in social science and the inspiration of Conor Casey in San Pedro Sula, I’m just not sure what to do.  In the global scheme of things I consider myself very lucky to have good food to eat, a decent place to live, and health insurance—but I still can’t help but sometimes envy the luxuries of super-rich soccer fandom.  If I only had an extra $102,000.00 to give to Emirates, for example, I could get in seven games at South Africa 2010 and a month at The Table Bay Hotel.  And life would be good.  I think?

The fact that 2010 will be the first World Cup in Africa is ultimately both a boon and a burden.  It will be a spectacular soccer showcase, and I suspect South Africa will be a brilliant host who will open the world’s eyes to the vibrancy of a continent too often associated only with problems.  But some of those problems are real, and truly confronting those problems means finding ways to cope with and think about the massive inequalities of modern society.

When the US national team lands in South Africa it will be “disadvantaged” on the field compared to some other teams whose players are assured of regular playing time at the top clubs in the world.  But when US fans, and relatively wealthy fans from all countries, land in South Africa they will experience the advantage of the wealth and power required to simply afford such a journey.  I’m finding that it takes some confusing calculations for me to figure out whether I can be part of that experience.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon. Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa. He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

The Timbers, The Gambia, and Futty Danso: Stories from Africa

Futty Danso

Futty Danso

The reason Mamadou “Futty” Danso wore the rather odd number 98 for the Portland Timbers this year says a lot about globalization and soccer.  The story starts in his native Gambia, where he grew up carefully watching African players who found success on the international scene.  Among his favorites was the Cameroonian Marc-Vivien Foé , a classy midfielder for Lens, West Ham, Lyon, Man City, and the Indomitable Lions.  The day of Foé’s tragic death during Cameroon’s 2003 Confederations Cup match in France against Columbia Foé was wearing the number 17.  From that day forward. Futty, at the time playing with top Gambian club Ports Authority and on his way to stops with the Gambian U-23 national team, a club team in Senegal, a college team in Georgia, and a PDL team in North Carolina, always wore 17.

When he arrived in Portland this year, however, 17 was on the back of Timbers stalwart Scot Thompson and as an unproven rookie Futty knew he had no chance at the number.  But he remembered a trick from another of his childhood heroes— when Chilean legend Iván Zamorano had been unable to get his favored number 9 at Inter Milan, Zamorano took 18 with a plus sign in between.  Though Futty’s jersey doesn’t have a plus sign, 9 + 8 does equal 17 and it all adds up to a subtle nod to his African roots, his appreciation for Latin American creativity, his European fandom, and his current reality in the second tier of soccer in the United States.  Number 98 is essentially an inter-continental soccer mash-up.

Futty—whose nickname derives from a Fula honorific that translates approximately to “sir” and has served him in place of Mamadou his enitre life—doesn’t have any definitive explanations for The Gambia’s success, but he was kind enough to sit down with me last week and share his soccer stories.  Though the specifics of his experiences are unique, the patterns offer some rich examples of how the game plays from Africa.

As the 2009 USL season culminates this month, Futty has not necessarily been among the most prominent players on the field (particularly considering that the Timbers, despite having the best record over the course of the league season, were just eliminated from the play-offs by the Vancouver Whitecaps).  He’s an imposing figure, a fast and agile 6’3” 185 pounder with broad shoulders and a sculpted visage, but he’s still learning the professional game and has only figured in slightly more than half of the Timbers games during this rookie season.  So what’s interesting about Futty is his story as a Gambian in America in this year of African soccer.

The Gambia

The Gambia

From an outsider’s perspective, The Gambia offers one of the great mysteries of African soccer.  How is it possible that this former British colony, a nation of 1.7 million people (significantly fewer than the Portland metropolitan area) with the smallest landmass of any country in Africa, has produced teams of “Baby Scorpions” (the nickname for Gambia’s senior team is “The Scorpions”) that are among the most successful sides in world youth soccer?

Gambia announced itself by beating Brazil during the group stage of the 2005 U-17 World Cup in Peru, advanced to the knockout stage of the 2007 U-20 World Cup in Canada, won the African U-17 Championship in both 2005 and 2009, and will be an intriguing presence at the upcoming U-17 World Cup in Nigeria.  Gambia also has the surprising distinction of being home to more MLS players than any other country outside the Americas (there are currently 5 Gambian players in MLS—not including Mac Kandji whose mother is Gambian and father Senegalese—which by my tentative count is only bettered by Argentina with 11, Brazil with 10, Columbia with 9, and Costa Rica with 9).

Growing up with the game

Like most Gambian boys, Futty grew up playing the game informally with friends in streets, vacant lots, and anywhere else that could serve as an improvised field.  But in Futty’s family, education always came first: “when I was going to school, my dad wouldn’t let me play soccer.  I had to hide, tell him that I would have to stay at school for extra help so I could slip in time to play.”

His father was a headmaster at a local secondary school, and took it upon himself to ensure the whole extended family prioritized developing the mind over the body.  Mamadou Danso senior had been a distance runner in his day, and did not tend to think much of soccer.  During adolescence, when most talented Gambians joined organized teams either through their schools or through youth clubs, Futty played on the sly—locking himself in his room to “study” and climbing out his second story window to escape for a day with the game.

According to Futty, high school soccer in Gambia is kind of a big deal—and when good players in “the cities” (Banjul and Serrekunda are neighboring cities that comprise the primary urban area in The Gambia) make their decisions about where to attend 10th grade for the start of senior secondary, they are often the subject of intense recruiting battles: “the coaches will call you all night; it’s like here [in America] for high school basketball players going to college.”

Partially to make things competitive, and partly to be a little further away from his father’s cautious eye, Futty and some friends went to “Gambia High” in Banjul—some 15 miles from his home in Serrekunda and right down the street from the other main option for talented youth: “Saints” (St. Augustine’s Senior Secondary School).  According to Futty, games between Gambia High and Saints were among the biggest events in the Gambian soccer scene.  When they played in big tournaments “almost everyone in Banjul that’s interested in soccer will come out—we play in the national stadium, and 15,000 to 20,000 people will be there.”  The games are such events that the crowds can get aggressive: “It’s a good thing people don’t drink that much…[being a 90% Muslim country] I never saw many people getting drunk…yeah, maybe some of the British tourists coming for a beach holiday, but with them most Gambians don’t actually know if they are drunk or just acting strange.”

In contrast, the biggest derby between the top local club teams might draw 8000 to smaller venues in town.  According to Futty, “even for track and field, everyone wants to see the inter-schools competitions—that will draw much more than a game like Wallidan v Real De Banjul.”  The top Gambian league is technically still an amateur affair where players get a few perks from team sponsors but not enough to make a living.  Unlike other leagues in west Africa such as those in Senegal or Nigeria, the Gambian league necessarily depends on youth.

Emphasizing youth

In thinking about the success of Gambian youth international teams, it seems significant that Gambians love their school sports.  In places like the Gambia, with an absence of extensive professional systems, schools offer a convenient opportunity to organize players and competitions that matter.  They also provide easy opportunities for coaches to scout young talent, and with such a small population there is a good chance that the best players will be seen.

In Futty’s case, top local club “Ports” (representing the Gambian Ports Authority) trained just behind Gambia High, saw him playing for his school, and invited him to join them.  Though this required a bit more subterfuge with his father, he signed on for a small monthly student allowance and expected to play with the rest of the youth players for Ports reserve team.  Early in his tenure with the club, however, one of the team’s main center backs took a knock and Futty’s size and speed made him the choice as a replacement.  The coach talked to him on a Tuesday, and on Saturday Ports took on their main rival Hawks.

Such opportunities for youth players to feature in senior games is, according to Futty, another key to the success of Gambian youth players.  Because the Gambian league is an amateur affair with only modest allowances or part-time jobs on offer, older players unable to go abroad often give up on soccer and move on to “real” jobs which they perceive as more likely to provide a living.  So the league itself, unlike more professional leagues in neighboring countries such as Senegal, includes mostly youth players trying to break-through.

Futty himself, after some success with Ports, had the opportunity to go on loan to a Senegalese team in Kaolack—just north of the Gambian border.  But he found the players there to be much more mature, and the game much more physical: “I was 18 and I think I only ended up playing the second half of one game, but that felt like I had played for 10 days non-stop; I mean after that I just went home and slept I was so tired.”  According to Futty, in Senegal the standard of the training facilities, the  stadiums, and the money was all higher than in Gambia—but that meant it was much more difficult for youth players to break in because in Senegal older players stick around.

Back in Gambia, Futty’s success with Ports and Gambia High led to some opportunities with the U-23 national youth team, including a nationally televised game against the senior team—a game organized in celebration of the Scorpions having tied Senegal in Banjul and barely lost on a late penalty kick in Dakar.  There is nothing Gambians enjoy more than competing with Senegal—their much bigger neighbor that literally encompasses The Gambia like a smothering glove.  Though Futty considers himself a fan of most African teams and hopes one might contend for the World Cup title in 2010, he emphasizes “as long as it’s not Senegal—if Senegal ever won the World Cup I’d have to commit suicide.”  I think he was kidding.

But that celebratory game between the U-23’s and the senior team finally blew Futty’s cover with his father: “I guess other people told my dad I was going to play; I mean I didn’t tell him.  I guess he was happy but he didn’t want to show me he was happy—he was like ‘I know you’ve been doing it for a long time’—and I said no, they just saw me playing outside.  But he said ‘the newspaper says you played for Ports Authority,’ so I said yeah I kind of played maybe a couple of games.  So he said ‘well, whatever you do be careful and don’t let soccer get in the way of school.”

Coming to America

Relatively soon thereafter Futty had a serendipitous encounter with an American college soccer coach travelling through Gambia looking for players with some academic credentials.  Like most young players in the Gambia, Futty had been thinking about trying to get overseas.  Because his father was worried about him neglecting academics, American college soccer seemed like the perfect compromise.  So he shipped off to a place I imagine to be about as far from Serrekunda as is humanly possible: Rocky Mount North Carolina, North Carolina Wesleyan College, and the less than elite world of NCAA Division III.

North Carolina Wesleyan College

North Carolina Wesleyan College campus

He arrived a week after school started and had to sit out most of the North Carolina Wesleyan games because of complications with his NCAA paperwork.  He did enjoy his classes, earn some credits, and meet some good people in Rocky Mount—but financial aid got complicated and an opportunity arose to get an athletic scholarship with a brand new men’s soccer program at Southern Polytechnic in Atlanta.  After a year at Southern Poly he spent part of the summer back in North Carolina with Cary in the USL’s summer developmental league and ended up having a strong match against Burnley as they traveled through North Carolina during their 2008 pre-season.

In another of Futty’s happenstance experiences with random soccer outposts, he ended up being invited to join Burnley for the part of their training camp that took place in North Carolina: “It was good, it gave me some knowledge of how professionals go day by day.  I mean I thought I was in shape when I went to play with them, but man—I told my friend, these people earn their money; everything they do is 100 miles an hour.  It’s like they want to kill you.  You train twice a day, you don’t go anywhere, you don’t leave the stadium.”

There was some talk of him signing with Burnley and being loaned out for seasoning with a club team in a European country with less restrictive immigration requirements.  But it didn’t seem likely, and Futty went back for one more year at Southern Poly before finally committing to the professional game—first during a brief spell with DC United that was foiled by more administrative issues, a trial with the Minnesota Thunder that wasn’t too pleasing to either side, and finally signing with the Timbers for at least one season in Portland.

By the time he signed with Portland, Futty had been in the US for almost four years but he had never heard of Portland.  When he looked it up on the map and found a version near Boston he thought that would work fine; imagine his surprise when he got a plane ticket taking him to Oregon.

It’s worked out reasonably well; the Timbers have had a good season, Futty feels like he’s learned from the experience, and he appreciates the atmosphere both within and around the team.  But the outlines of what he describes as his life as a pro are less than glorious; he shares a team-provided apartment near the train station, plays soccer, and watches a lot of Fox Soccer Channel (though he may have been being a bit modest in talking with me considering he was recently named the Timbers “Community Player of the Year“).  He doesn’t have many impressions of Portland as a town—going out primarily for team functions or the occasional meet-up with a Gambian friend living in town with an American wife.

It turns out that particular Gambian was once a crafty left-back for the senior Gambian national team—but he left home to go to school “in Alabama or somewhere,” dropped out, married an American women, moved to Portland, and now “does some kind of work around town—I don’t even know what…It’s a good example actually of what used to happen to the best Gambian players—once they get to a certain age, they just stop playing.”  Some of the best Gambian players just sort of disappear.

Futty notes that many such players are on display every year in a 4th of July tournament held as a sort of Gambian reunion in Atlanta.  One year he thought he recognized one of the heroes of his youth playing for the Gambian team from Washington DC, but couldn’t be sure because “I mean the guy is bigger now—he put on a lot of weight.”  But that was just because a player once considered among the best midfielders in all of West Africa no longer has anything to do with the game—Futty notes with a friendly laugh, “he just working in DC, living his American dream.”

The best place?

Futty himself is somewhat ambivalent about his American experience: “Most people in Gambia, they don’t know much about America.  They think what you see in movies, you’re going to live like that…but I mean it’s very different, people don’t know that but you try to tell them.  They say I want to come to America—but for myself if I had the option, like I had before, I don’t know if I would come to America.  I might try somewhere else.  And people are like ‘yeah, now that you’re in America you’re tired of that,’ but it’s not that.  I mean, it’s not that I don’t like America—it’s nice.  But you have to work really hard for anything.  It’s not like Gambia where you just sit down all day, food is not a problem, everything is cheap.  I mean here you have to work so hard for everything…I had an American friend that was travelling in Africa and first went to South Africa where everything is moving 1000 miles an hour.  Then he went to Gambia and everyone was just going at their own pace.  No one is in a rush, even the way they walk…if you have money, then Gambia is the best place…”

Such ambivalence is a familiar part of the American immigrant experience, and is probably enhanced by coming to play soccer.  The game itself is basically the same, but the world around the game is strange.  Futty knows most of the other Gambian players in MLS, having played with the Nyassi brothers at Ports back in Banjul, and while Kenny Mansally and Sainey Nyassi have now been around long enough to enjoy New England, Futty notes that for Sanna Nyassi coming to Seattle “I think it was a little tough for him—at first he was like ‘everything in America is just big;’ in Gambia its extra-small, but in America it’s just so big…”

In talking with Futty it struck me that Gambia’s “extra-smallness” may in fact be part of the secret to their success in world youth football.  Futty claims that it all started in The Gambia after watching France win the 1998 World Cup.  Perhaps due to the success of so many African immigrants, Gambians started to take soccer more seriously.  Then, a few years later, new leadership in the Gambian FA started to realize that “if you just focus on the senior players we will never get there—we didn’t have the quality, and we didn’t have enough players going abroad…so they said why don’t we start on the grass-roots level.  Since with the senior team it’s 90% that we’re not going to make any tournament, let’s start sending coaches out around the country looking for the youths.”

They didn’t have far to go—most of the successful players in Gambia come from the more urban areas around Banjul, Serrekunda, and Brikama.  Futty refers to the rest of the country as “the provinces” and notes that to play seriously you have to get to “the cities.”  Combining that with the prominence of inter-school competitions, and what seems to be a reasonably well organized system of “Nawettan” youth tournaments, and finding the best youth players would seem to be a relatively easy task.

In addition, as in many African countries the number of semi-formal “youth academies” has exploded—including one funded by Gambian born former England youth international Cherno Samba: Samger FC or “the academy boys.” Despite its focus on youth, Samger has been competitive in the top Gambian league and already counts an MLS player as an alum—Emmanuel Gomez at Toronto FC (even informal “training matches” for TFC have thus become news in the Gambia).

Yahya Jammeh

Yahya Jammeh

Youth sports in the Gambia also benefit from the patronage of the Gambian president Yahya Jammeh.  Jammeh seems to fit the mold of the stereotypical African autocrat, known internationally for his seeming obsession with witchcraft and fear of a free press.  But, Futty notes, the President really likes sports and has spent money on tournaments, competitions, and rewards—including plots of land for senior players involved in noble performances against Senegal, and a prize of 1,000,000 Dalasis (about $30,000) to each of the U-17 players from their last championship.

The future

Futty’s younger cousin Saihou Gassama is one of those U-17’s, and is a player Futty thinks has a chance “to be one of the best Gambian players ever.”  Whether or not that comes to fruition will likely depend greatly on how he and the Baby Scorpions perform in the upcoming U-17 World Cup in Nigeria.  As a child Gassama would tag along with Futty to trainings for Ports, and now features for the first team himself, but being almost 10 years younger he will likely have more lucrative options for the future than a liberal arts education in Rocky Mount North Carolina.

As for Futty, he’s not sure where his own journey will end.  He loves the game, and is sure that he wants to see how far he can go.  But he also recognizes that he’s not quite there yet.  When he talks about his various experiences with the Timbers, with Burnley, in Senegal, the consistent theme is a recognition that professional soccer involves an intensity and on-field savvy that he has yet to fully develop.  He’s big, fast, coachable, and improving—certainly worthy of a chance.  But he also plans to finish the 20 credits he needs for his computer science degree from Southern Poly, and hopes to go on for a Masters before too long.

Likewise, it will be interesting to watch what happens over time with the story of soccer in The Gambia.  Being “extra-small” combined with an intense emphasis on youth soccer seems to have helped The Gambia at the youth level, but those same qualities may prohibit senior success.  It may be, however, that for a place such as The Gambia the successful niche they’ve found is enough: despite valid fears that African soccer players are at risk of exploitation in our unequal world system, Gambians such as Futty seem to be leveraging the game towards what end up being worthwhile opportunities and pretty interesting stories.  Whatever happens with the Timbers, whether or not the Baby Scorpions challenge for the U-17 World Cup next month in Nigeria, such stories will go on—just as Futty will continue his own journey through the inter-continental mash-up that is the global game.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon. Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa. He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

A Thinking Fan’s Guide to the U-20 World Cup in Egypt

U-20 World Cup in Egypt

The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.
- Eric Hobsbawn

One of the many intriguing things about a World Cup is the rare but vivid display of nationhood.  When else do countries from all corners of the world have the chance to present themselves as one coherent entity?  Maybe at the United Nations—but the general assembly is usually not much fun to watch, even in high definition.  And maybe in some other “international” sports competitions—but many Olympic sports are actually fairly exclusive (does anyone in the southern hemisphere really Luge?), while North American leagues such as the NBA or MLB tend to host “world” championships without actually bothering to invite the rest of the world.  So when the FIFA U-20 World Cup kicks off this week in Egypt it offers a fun and infrequent opportunity to compare countries both on and off the pitch.

This edition of the U-20 World Cup should be particularly interesting because it is the first of an elite series of tournaments that will be held in Africa during the next 10 months.  After decades of neglect, FIFA seems to have suddenly realized that it might be nice to acknowledge African nations as part of the world system; in addition to the U-20 World Cup in Egypt and the main event that will be South Africa 2010, Nigeria is scheduled to host the U-17 World Cup starting in October (to be fair, there have been several other youth World Cup’s in Africa, including the inaugural youth tournament in Tunisia in 1977, the 1997 U-17 tournament in Egypt, and the 1999 U-20 tournament in Nigeria).  The three major FIFA tournaments will also be played around the Confederation of African Football’s (CAF) biennial African Nations Cup in Angola in January.  Though it is not exactly a calendar year, and though the African Union already declared 2007 as the “International Year of African Football,” perhaps I can take advantage of my crude Americanisms and endorse these 12 months as the Year of African Soccer.

For each of these tournaments I’m hoping to do a sort of “thinking fan’s guide,” with reference to Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey’s excellent edited collection of essays and miscellany related to the participants in the 2006 World Cup.  Their goal in that book: “to use soccer as a lens and an excuse to learn something about the wider world.”  I very much hope there is another real “thinking fan’s guide” in store for South Africa 2010, but in the meantime I’m stuck at home with an armchair geographer’s access to the people and places that will be represented over the next few weeks in Egypt.  In what follows I’ve tried to cull out a few potentially interesting stories, along with some statistical comparisons that offer an alternative perspective on global competition.

Relying primarily on my imagination (along with an unhealthy dependence on Google and a fascination with statistical rankings) may be appropriate to interpreting the versions of nationhood on display at any World Cup.  As Benedict Anderson famously observed, nations are ultimately “imagined communities”—places where people interact more as part of abstract political and economic systems rather than as part of direct personal relationships.  Our communities are where we live and work, but our countries are what we imagine—and there is no greater font for those imaginings than a World Cup.

Some Stories

The host: Oddly, the official FIFA web-site promoting the U-20 tournament notes that “Egyptians are generally not big sports fans.”  Yet, Egypt has a legitimate argument to be considered the dominant soccer nation in Africa: the senior Pharaohs have won three of the last five African Cup of Nations, while Cairo club teams Zamalek SC and Al-Ahly have won the CAF Champions League 11 times in the last 30 years (Al-Ahly has actually won three of the last four, and was the losing finalist in the other.  Strangely, it also seems to be the current home for MLS reject Francis “Grandpa” Doe).  In general the Egyptian league is considered more professional than many on the African continent, and it tends to be relatively insular (allowing, for example, only three non-Egyptians per team).

Roger Milla

Roger Milla

Partially as a result of its relatively insular nature, when many fans of world soccer think of African teams I suspect Egypt is not the first to come to mind.  That honor more often goes to teams such as Roger Milla’s Cameroon, Nwankwo Kanu’s Nigeria, Michael Essien’s Ghana, or Didier Drogba’s Ivory Coast.  Those examples also emphasize that few Egyptian players have achieved the international profile of many sub-Saharan stars and that Egypt has not qualified for a senior World Cup since 1990.  But the other factor may be that many people don’t really think of Egypt as Africa.

Of course, Egypt is in Africa geographically—and the headquarters of CAF is in Cairo.  But politically they often identify with the Middle East, and are active members of the Arab League.  Because of these associations, at some level the distinction between North Africa and sub-Saharan African tends to feel like something more than just the size of the desert.  In fact, in 2005 Egypt joined Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia to form a fledgling Union of North African Federations in an effort to promote distinct regional competitions (something that Central, West, East, and Southern African nations have also attempted).  All of these regional associations seem to have had some success organizing small tournaments, but none seem to have thrived.

The host cities for the U-20 tournament are, like the vast majority of Egypt’s population, all within a few hundred miles of Cairo and the Nile Valley (in addition to Cairo, games will be in Alexandria, Ismailia, Port Said, and Suez).  Outside that narrow range of fertile land, Egypt is pretty desolate and desertified.  Perhaps such desolation would be a boon to keeping things quiet for Egypt after the tawdry rumors of their senior players being robbed by prostitutes at last summer’s Confederation’s Cup.  But the area around Cairo is, for better and worse, among the most densely populated on earth.

The outsiders: How is it possible for tiny Tahiti, with a population of 178,000 and a FIFA ranking of 189, to be playing in Egypt when global youth powers such as Argentina and Holland are not?  The general answer is that when Australia left Oceania for Asia (and a chance at guaranteed World Cup births rather than play-in games) funny things had to start happening in Oceania.  The FIFA version of Oceania is really quite an odd construction of 16 federations, primarily comprised of tiny island nations (among whom only Vanuatu considers “football its national sport”—otherwise its mostly rugby).  Only Papua New Guinea and New Zealand have more than a million people, and while New Zealand sometimes tries neither is much for soccer.  A Tahiti was bound to come along at some point.  The more specific answer is that this particular U-20 team from Tahiti had the advantage of hosting the regional qualifying tournament, and seems to have snuck past New Zealand when the Kiwis drew a first half red card.

I guess for the sake of global representation it is fair to say that Oceania should still get some automatic qualifiers for some FIFA tournaments.  But that is only a guess—the thing is that the entire population of Oceania (sans Australia) could fit into one major city in India, and no one would think it reasonable to give the Mohun Bagan AC Junior Mariners automatic entry to any youth World Cups.  So it does raise interesting questions about what is fair global representation at a World Cup.  It is convenient to allocate based on numbers of nation states, but as noted above nation states are relatively artificial constructions (in fact, Tahiti is technically only one part of French Polynesia, which itself is a “French overseas collectivity” that is for most global organizations simply classified as part of France).  But if the alternative is to allocate spaces based on population then China and India would throw everything off: all the countries of Africa combined have fewer people than either China or India independently.

Tahiti Football Federation

So I suppose it is best to just enjoy the diversity Tahiti will offer.  Their coach is Frenchman Lionel Charbonnier, a former Rangers man and reserve goalkeeper for Les Blues in 1998,  who claims that he is coaching the team purely out of the goodness of his heart: “I just wanted to give back what amateur football gave me,” said the man himself. “I must thank the FA because people thought I was mad to come here. It was a risky move.”  Maybe that’s true in the sense that Tahiti is likely to get soundly beaten by group mates Spain, Nigeria, and Venezuela—but quite frankly coaching a national team in a South Pacific paradise with low expectations and a relatively easy path to qualification does not exactly sound like hardship duty to me.

The college boys: the US representatives in Egypt have generated some attention for the proportion of college players in the team—the roster of 21 has 9 college players, 7 MLS players, 3 European pros, one USL player, and one listed as “unattached” (Sheanon Williams, who was at some point enrolled at the University of North Carolina).   American soccer followers might have expected that increased professionalization would mean the national team would by now be well-beyond college kids.  Though I realize having more pros might make for more on-field savvy, I kind of like the idea of having some educated players who can read, write, and think for themselves off the field.

It actually may be that having a range of paths to national teams beyond just adolescent professionals is appropriate for US teams—though admittedly odd in the world system.  It would be interesting to know whether players on any of the other teams in Egypt have any choices if they want to keep their options open for anything other than professional soccer?  Of course, it will also be interesting to see if this mixed version of the US U-20’s can win any games.

Some Statistics

In lieu of going through storylines about each of the 24 countries playing in Egypt, in our information age there are an increasing number of both practical and esoteric statistics by which to rank and classify nations.  At the end of this post I offer the U-20 group table with a statistical miscellany on the imagined communities each team represents: FIFA rankings for the full national teams, population numbers, human development rankings, Gross Domestic Product per capita, something approximately called “happiness,” corruption, and environmental impact.  There is little logic to the collection, other than that the statistics might raise interesting questions.

For soccer fans the most obvious statistic is the FIFA system of world rankings—which we all know has problems, but is still kind of fun to consider.  While those rankings are exclusive to full national teams, rather than youth teams, the competitors in Egypt range from current world one and two (Brazil and Spain) down to 123 and 189 (United Arab Emirates and Tahiti).  It turns out that the national statistic that correlates most strongly with these rankings is rather boring: population.  Thus, besides being ranked behind Mongolia by FIFA, Tahiti’s population of around 178000 hearty souls is dwarfed by the next smallest country in the tournament—Trinidad and Tobago (which is the 152nd largest country in the world with around 1.3 million people).  Just to emphasize the smallness of Tahiti, its team represents about the same number of people as live in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois or the greater Milton Keynes area.

While on the population topic, only three of the world’s ten largest countries qualified for Egypt: the USA (number three in the world with about 307 million), Brazil (number five with 192 million), and Nigeria (number eight with 155 million).  For all the pride in soccer as “the global game” it is interesting to note that one out of every four people on the planet lives in India, Indonesia, Pakistan, or Bangladesh—yet those nations almost never have representation at FIFA world championships.


In looking at the numbers it also strikes me that of all the various explanations proffered for Brazil’s footballing excellence, it may simply be a matter of having the largest player pool to select from: Brazil is the most populous country in the world where soccer is clearly king (the other more populous nations are China, India, the US, and Indonesia).

From that perspective it is all the more impressive to consider the success of a country such as Uruguay (a member of group D in Egypt); for every one Uruguayan there are 56 Brazilians (or, if you prefer, for every one Diego Forlán there are 56 Freds—or maybe it just sees that way if you try to keep track of which Fred is which).  In fact, of all the nations competing in Egypt, Uruguay has the greatest disparity between its FIFA ranking (28th) and its population ranking (132nd).  The opposite distinction, the country competing in Egypt with a FIFA ranking furthest below its population, belongs to South Africa (73rd in FIFA, 25th in population)—which could be interpreted as getting the least out of a big player pool.

At the same time, there are ways in which the [(large population + a national soccer obsession) = large player pool = success in world competitions] equation could help explain some of the disparities in African soccer.  Nigeria has a good argument for the most consistent success of any African teams across age groups, and it also has a massive population – there are more Nigerians (~155 million) than Cameroonians (~19.5 million: group C), Hondurans (~7.5 million: group F), Czechs (~10.5 million: group E), Hungarians (~10 million: group F), Paraguayans (~6.3 million: group A), Australians (~22 million: group E), Venezuelans (~28.5 million: group B), and South Africans (~49 million: group F) combined.


And then there is that other great divider in modern world football: money.  The range of Gross Domestic Product per capita of those playing in Egypt ranges from the US at ~$47,000 per person and the United Arab Emirates at ~$39,000 per person to Ghana at ~$1520 per person and Uzbekistan at ~$2600 per person.  But the United Nations is aware that income alone does not tell the story of national development, and has been publishing a Human Development Index (HDI) for several decades combining life expectancy, literacy and education ratios, and economic standard of living data to try to get away from strictly income based ratings.  By those criteria the only nation competing in Egypt that is among the ten most developed in the world will be Australia (which was 4th in the most recent HDI; the US and Italy also make the top 20 at 15 and 19 respectively).

Icelandic money

Given the dearth of “most developed” nations competing in Egypt, is it possible that the countries where the living is good don’t feel any need to bother with soccer?  The single “most developed” nation by HDI criteria is Iceland, so unless you count the contributions of Eiður Guðjohnsen as a footballing triumph the evidence mounts (Iceland obviously failed to qualify for Egypt, along with most every other FIFA championship ever held).   On the other hand, as fodder for a discussion of national priorities, the nation travelling to Egypt whose FIFA ranking is furthest above its HDI index is Cameroon (with a FIFA ranking of 29th and a HDI of 150th) while Tahiti comes through with the most dramatic difference in the other direction (a FIFA ranking of 189th and a HDI equivalent to 42nd).

And what of other ways to measure national well-being?  In recent years there has been much attention in my world of social science to trying to measure “happiness” as an emotional state.  Bhutan, and its FIFA ranking of 195, has even tried to switch from measuring Gross Domestic Product to measuring “Gross Domestic Happiness” (a process discussed some in the worthwhile soccer documentary “The Other Final”).  Unfortunately it turns out happiness is pretty difficult to measure well, and there are some wild inconsistencies in the ranking systems I’ve come across.  But one effort that seems to have done a reasonable job offers the interesting fact that only one of the 20 happiest countries in the world qualified for Egypt (Costa Rica comes in at 13th).  Maybe all those implicit hopes that the success of our heroes on the football pitch will translate into happiness are also mis-directed?

Finally, in what might seem to be a bad omen, the country ranked as least happy among the U-20 competitors is the host: Egypt comes in as a dismal 151st.  Combing their relative unhappiness with the aforementioned fact that Egyptians are “not big sports fans,” Egypt’s version of the U-20 World Cup may not prove to be a festival of joy and goodwill.  But it should be interesting.

The below statistics are from the following sources:

- FIFA rank is based on the “FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking” updated September 2nd 2009

- Population and population rank is rounded from estimates drawing on various sources in Wikipedia.

- HDI is based on the Human Development Index rank compiled by the United Nations Development Program (the most recent data is from 2006).

- GDP and GDP per capita is in US dollars and based on 2008 list by the International Monetary Fund.

- The “happiness” rank is based on aggregates from research described here and reported here.

- Corruption is based on the “corruption perceptions index” by Transparency International, which uses survey rankings of perceived corruption.

- The Happy Planet Index “reveals the ecological efficiency with which human well-being is delivered” and is produced by the New Economics Foundation (nef).

**Note that the data for England and Tahiti are not always from the same sources—in many world statistics England is included with the United Kingdom and Tahiti is included with either French Polynesia or France.

FIFA rank Pop. Pop. rank HDI
GDP per capita GDP per capita rank “Happiness”
Corruption rank Happy Planet Index rank (sustainability)
Group A
Egypt 32 77 mil. 16 116 6000 101 151 115 12
Trinidad and Tobago 63 1.3 mil. 152 57 21000 42 55 72 30
Paraguay 23 6.3 mil. 103 98 5000 112 75 138 55
Italy 4 60 mil. 23 19 31000 27 50 55 69
FIFA rank Pop. Pop. rank HDI
GDP per capita GDP per capita rank “Happiness”
Corruption rank Happy Planet Index rank (sustainability)
Group B
Nigeria 34 155 mil. 8 154 2100 140 120 121 115
Venezuela 51 28.5 mil. 42 61 13000 64 25 158 36
Spain 2 46 mil. 28 16 31000 26 46 28 76
Tahiti 189 178, 000 181 42 18000 50 NA NA NA
FIFA rank Pop. Pop. rank HDI
GDP per capita GDP per capita rank “Happiness”
Corruption rank Happy Planet Index rank (sustainability)
Group C
USA 11 307 mil. 3 15 47000 6 23 18 114
Germany 4 82 mil. 14 23 35000 21 35 14 51
Cameroon 29 19.5 mil. 58 150 2200 139 138 141 126
Korea Republic 49 48 mil. 26 25 28000 32 103 40 68
FIFA rank Pop. Pop. rank HDI
GDP per capita GDP per capita rank “Happiness”
Corruption rank Happy Planet Index rank (sustainability)
Group D
Ghana 32 24 mil. 48 142 1520 152 89 67 100
Uzbekistan 85 27.5 mil. 44 119 2600 132 80 166 45
England 7 51.5 mil. 24 21 37000 18 41 16 74
Uruguay 28 3.4 mil. 132 47 13000 61 87 23 99
FIFA rank Pop. Pop. rank HDI
GDP per capita GDP per capita rank “Happiness”
Corruption rank Happy Planet Index rank (sustainability)
Group E
Brazil 1 192 mil. 5 70 10000 77 81 80 9
Costa Rica 39 4.6 mil. 118 50 11000 76 13 47 1
Czech Republic 18 10.5 mil. 78 35 25000 35 77 45 92
Australia 14 22 mil. 52 4 37000 15 26 9 102
FIFA rank Pop. Pop. rank HDI
GDP per capita GDP per capita rank “Happiness”
Corruption rank Happy Planet Index rank (sustainability)
Group F
U.A.E. 123 4.5 mil. 117 31 39000 14 22 35 123
South Africa 73 49 mil. 25 125 10000 79 109 54 118
Honduras 42 7.5 mil. 96 117 4000 117 37 126 10
Hungary 47 10 mil. 83 38 19000 45 107 47 90

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon. Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa. He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

Africa and the English Premier League: A Love Story

“Who do you support?”  For your average American that question, particularly without any context, is almost impossible to make sense of.  But as I learned on a tour of Uganda and Kenya with a group of American educators in the summer of 2008, for a surprising number of Africans (particularly the teenage students we met) it is among the first questions a Western visitor will be asked.  And, to the further confusion of American visitors, the right answer is almost always one of the “big four”: Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, or Arsenal.

Part of the confusion was that many of the African students assumed all English speaking visitors were, in one way or another “Englishmen” (in the same way many Americans assume “Africa” is all one place).  But mostly it was just a matter of one of the odd and interesting effects of globalization: in many parts of Africa pieces of one’s identity are wrapped up in the English Premier League.  With the start of the new EPL season and the countdown to South Africa 2010 I was reminded of those exchanges, and inspired to think a bit about the ways that European soccer and African soccer get wrapped up in the dynamic flows of globalization (a topic that has been previously raised on Pitch Invasion).

The phenomenon of Premier League fandom in Africa is not the only interesting example of soccer and globalization, and I hope to write some future posts about issues such as European teams that set up youth academies in Africa and related issues of labor immigration.  I also recognize that the popularity of the Premiership in contrast to other elite leagues varies significantly between African nations, often due to different histories and languages (when I lived in Angola I saw more knock-off versions of Benfica jerseys than I had previously assumed to exist in the world—related both to an interest in the Portuguese league and a local version of the club).

But for no other reason than entertainment value, the strange presence of the Premier League in the many parts of African consciousness is a fun place to start.  When I was travelling in Uganda and Kenya I found it greatly amusing to observe the markers of Premiership fandom in all sorts of odd places—from graffiti on rural huts to logos on urban minibuses.  And throughout I’ve found it interesting to reflect a bit on what it all means.

Seeing the Premiership in the most unexpected places

African passions for European soccer have exploded with the increasing availability of television and satellite broadcasts.  I saw an example of this process during my first stint in Africa when I lived in Malawi between 1996 and 1998.  At the time, I was told, Malawi was the most populous country in the world still without any television stations.  But they were working on it, and South African satellite television was starting to become widely available in urban areas.  When the Institute where I worked obtained one of the first satellite televisions in the area, it immediately became a week-end gathering place for soccer fans and Saturdays with the EPL became a major local happening.

In the ten years between those Saturdays and my trip to east Africa last summer the infusion of media technology (including television, internet, and cell phones) has been the single most obvious change in African life.  Though most households still do not have televisions of their own, televisions are available at various points in most communities and budding entrepreneurs regularly charge token admission for coming together to watch soccer.  The improvisational effort is often impressive—in an electricity-less Angolan refugee camp where I worked in 2002-2003 the local televisions were hooked up to car batteries for the important matches.

Interest in watching the EPL has also grown with the increasing presence of African players in the Premiership; last year the BBC published an account of the EPL’s popularity in Nigeria, tying interest there to the 1997 signing of Celestine Babayaro by Chelsea.  That account (along with a similarly themed article on soccer in Kenya) also highlights one of the major concerns about the EPL fandom in Africa—that it is taking fans and resources away from already tenuous national leagues within African nations.  While I take up that concern below, the pervasive interest in the Premiership is beyond question.


Among my examples, for me that most striking came when I was on a boat in western Uganda, far from any major urban center and not many miles from the quiet tragedy that is the Democratic Republic of Congo.  While on a wildlife cruise we passed a fishing village where some of the locals had taken to marking their canoes with favorite tags.  One, apparently, was a fan of Manchester United and to my great dismay had turned his two man fishing vessel into a moving billboard for that icon of the ills of global capitalism—the American Insurance Group.  I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to cry.

This habit of tagging one’s life with the monikers of EPL clubs proved to be surprisingly popular across the communities I visited.  In one village outside of Jinja, Uganda houses had been marked with tributes to Arsenal and Chelsea:

Arsenal decorated huts in Africa

Likewise, at a school near Kyarusozi, a Ugandan student had used chalk to pay tribute to Patrice Evra of Man United, and to document Liverpool’s triumph over Arsenal on the chalkboard that served as the school’s official timetable:


And then there was the business side of things; In Dandora Kenya (an area in Nairobi) local businesses both identified themselves with their favorite teams and set up small businesses by creating improvised home theaters to show Premier League soccer:


Finally, when I was travelling through Kampala, Barclays Bank (which has a large presence in Uganda and a few other African countries) sponsored a visit by the Premier League trophy sans players or teams:



Beyond conveying the power of branding, I think such scenes fascinate me because they highlight what seems initially to be an incongruity.  When outsiders think about Africa we often think of poverty and under-development; in service of rationalizing the value of our relative wealth we imagine life in Africa to consist largely of desperation and necessity.  Seeing passionate fandom for distant and ultimately frivolous endeavors such as the Premiership seems counter to what we imagine of Africa.

I always think of this fallacy as akin to the subtly pernicious popularity of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—we like the idea (despite much evidence to the contrary) that life is a pyramidal progression that makes for simple and logical paths up from the “basics” like food and shelter to the really good stuff like love and aesthetic pleasure.  But human needs are more complex than that, and it is possible to simultaneously suffer from global inequalities and genuinely enjoy a good London derby.  But that still leaves the question of whether the global reach of the Premier League is ultimately a good or bad thing for Africa.

Soccer as neo-imperialism?

When academics and intellectuals talk about globalization they usually talk about bad things.  A 2007 Economist article about the popularity of the Premier League in Africa, for example, was titled “Neo-imperialism at the point of a boot: The English premiership sweeps all before it.” The charge of “neo-imperialism” is a common theme of fears about globalization, the idea being that modern global power dynamics allow Western influences to overrun local cultures.  Certainly the popularity of the EPL does logically suggest that even beyond competing with local leagues for business (which is a real problem—but one I also worry about in the US and MLS with the increasing availability of the EPL on outlets such as ESPN), former colonial masters still unduly define the parameters for how to organize, present, and maybe even play soccer.

At least one African graduate student (whose work I stumbled across in researching this post) has analyzed the influence of the EPL as a form of “media imperialism.” Looking at the case of Premiership fans in Zambia, Leah Komakoma notes the widespread popularity of the Premier League in Lusaka and recognizes the potential that popularity creates for Zambians to come under the sway of European marketing and ideals.  But ultimately that potentiality depends upon the people themselves—and Komakoma argues that the Zambian Premiership fans she interviewed were competent enough to decide for themselves what they want to take from their soccer consumption.

Franklin Foer made a similar point in an article he wrote for Foreign Policy about globalization and soccer titled “Soccer vs. McWorld” (written before the publication of his interesting book on similar topics How Soccer Explains the World).  Arguing that Sven Goran Eriksson’s tenure with the English national team was more a matter of the Swede adapting to a stereotypically English style than imposing his own continental ambitions, Foer claims

When Eriksson succumbed to Englishness, he upended one of the great clichés of the antiglobalization movement: that a consequence of free markets is Hollywood, Nike, and KFC steamrolling indigenous cultures.  It is ironic that the defenders of indigenous cultures so often underestimate their formidable ability to withstand the market’s assault.

So do African communities possess this “formidable ability” or is this just an excuse for unfettered corporate capitalism to steamroll the soccer world?  In my opinion it is probably a little bit of both.  As most soccer fans of any nationality can attest, the EPL is a masterpiece of entertainment marketing that provides pleasures similar to any addictive (potentially dangerous) drug.  The telecasts brim with energy and atmosphere, while the storylines and allegiances create an unending stream of drama and conversation. Despite my most virulent resentments of economic systems that allow for insane concentrations of wealth among Premier League owners, I can’t seem to stop myself from getting up at ungodly early hours (at least for a Saturday) to catch Fox Soccer Channel’s west coast presentation of Manchester City v Wolverhampton (Man City of all teams!).

What’s more, part of the appeal of the EPL in Africa is what appeals about being a sports fan anywhere—it’s enthralling to identify with teams that offer a sense of community, aesthetic pleasure, and emotional engagement.  The recent enthusiasm over American sports writer Bill Simmons seeming conversion to soccer fandom through his gushing about watching the US play Mexico at Azteca, for example, was preceded by his own intentional effort to find an EPL team to support (likely to the confusion of many Africans he chose Tottenham—not a team I ever saw mentioned in Uganda or Kenya).  Is Bill Simmons just another victim of neo-imperialism?

If we grant that EPL fandom is an enthralling endeavor, and that African soccer fans have every right to share, then the most interesting question here may not be whether the globalization of the Premiership is a neo-imperialist endeavor but whether African fans can find additional spaces in their hearts (and their pocketbooks) for local leagues?  Unfortunately, the reality is that many African nations have neither the infrastructure, population base, nor the expendable income to support high level leagues.  There are, however, some gradations within that generalization—and a recent piece by Mark Gleeson offers some optimistic projections about South Africa’s Premier Soccer League.

It may then be the case that leagues in smaller and poorer nations will continue to struggle—those Ugandan schoolboys will likely continue to attend more carefully to the travails of “Liverpol” than the latest Ugandan Super League showdown between Kinyara Sugar Works FC and Uganda Revenue Authority (known locally as the “Taxmen”).  But those struggles likely have more to do with the widespread challenges of underdevelopment than with loving the EPL.  As with so many things in Africa, there is a disconnect between human experience and global systems of inequality—and soccer gives us all a chance to think about that fundamental question: Who do you support?

Football Age, Real Age, and the Meanings of Age in Africa

Nigeria's U-17s

A gnawing and suspicious paradox lies at the heart of African national team experiences in world competition: African teams tend to do much better at the youth level than they do at the senior level.  Take the fact, for example, that African teams have won 5 of the 12 FIFA U17 World Cups (with the 2009 version scheduled to be hosted by Nigeria in October and November), but not a single African team has ever made it as far as the semi-finals of a full World Cup.  There are many possible explanations for this seeming paradox, including the unfortunately reality that player development in many African nations is hindered by weak national leagues and the poaching of players by wealthy European clubs.  Among the most common explanations, however, is simple: cheating.

The claim is that many African youth players are not really youth players at all because African nations freely send overage players to age-group competitions and are rewarded by the benefits of additional physical maturity and experience.  This claim is so pervasive that Nigerian blogger George Onmonya calls the use of a false age in African soccer “overage syndrome,” claiming (along with other African bloggers) that it is widely accepted among African players to have two ages: a “football age” and a “real age.”   Onmonya writes it is not uncommon in Nigeria for players to have as many as ten years difference between their football age and their real age: “A friend of mine who once played in the Nigerian league with Jigawa Stars told me his real age was thirty four two years ago but his football age was twenty one. He is still actively playing. He should be thirty six now and his football age twenty three.”

As such, Nigeria’s decision this summer “to eliminate age cheats” by using MRI scanning to test the age of their under-17 players was celebrated by a Reuters blogger as “the first step in ridding African soccer of a long-standing blight.” While it may be fair to describe speculation about the age of African soccer players as “blight,” the story of age in Africa is more interesting than a simple matter of cheating.  Though it may well be the case that “football age” is not the same as “real age,” both types of age are actually problematic in the soccer world.  While one might assume that science such as MRI scans could eliminate those problems, such an assumption fails when considering carefully the complicated meanings of age.

Football Age

The idea that African players and administrators manipulate age, valid or not, is a nearly constant presence in African soccer.  This summer, for example, a Zimbabwean news source announced that the reason their under 17 team had been selected for the 2010 youth Olympics in Singapore was because “Zimbabwe made history as the only country which was represented by players with the correct age group at the African Junior Championships held in March this year.” Though that particular claim may be an exaggeration (despite much speculation, Niger seems to have been the only team officially disqualified from the 2009 African under 17 championships), there is no question that many successful African youth teams have been accused of cheating by using over-age players.

Sanna Nyassi

Sanna Nyassi

Recent Gambian success in youth internationals (a phenomenon that has helped stock MLS with Gambian players such as the Nyassi brothers, Amadou Sanyang, Emmanuel Gomez, and Abdoulie Mansally), for example, has led to much speculation about the age of their players. The thinking boils down to the admittedly perplexing question of how The Gambia, a desperately poor country of 1.7 million people with a senior team currently ranked 99th in the world (having never qualified for the World Cup), could be the African under 17 champion in both 2005 and 2009?

Even beyond the circumstantial evidence, in my own experiences with African soccer age claims proved dubious at best.  When my Malawian team would travel to week-end road games a favorite pastime involved evaluating the age claims made by the national newspaper’s weekly player profile.  Each week the sports section interviewed one of the Super League’s star players, and each week that player’s listed “age” provoked laughter and incredulity amongst my Malawian teammates: “Ok, this guy claims he’s 20 years old—but I watched him play for the national team when I was in primary school.  So that would mean he started making national team appearances at 12!?!?  Not possible.”  But everyone understood what they were doing.  For Malawian players youth meant opportunity—the ultimate dream of getting picked up by a European club, or if not that, maybe a contract for real money with  South African club or at the least an extended life span in the Malawian national player pool.

In responding to a similar problem in South African soccer, University of Johannesburg sport sociologist Cora Burnett argues that the fundamental issue here is poverty: “Given the [nature] of poverty in a society where dishonesty often pays — high criminality, dubious ethical standards and ‘contaminated’ values — and a sports fraternity with pressures to succeed, overage participation needs to be unpacked.”  Though I agree poverty may play some role, this assessment to me sounds unnecessarily harsh.  While it is hard to argue that creating a football age is not a significant issue in African soccer, I would suggest that “unpacking” the issue also requires some critical inquiry about the meaning of “real” age.

“Real” Age

Establishing a “real” age for purposes of age grading youth sports is necessary as part of efforts to promote reasonable competition, but in many ways it is as problematic as creating a football age.  The first problem should be familiar to anyone who has ever been involved with youth soccer, or anyone who has been to a junior high school dance: kids mature at different rates.  Remember the dance in seventh grade where a fully mature 5’8” girl was dancing with your squeaky voiced 4’10” guy friend, while the early maturing tough guy in the class was biding his time in the corner stroking his goatee?  They were all the same chronological age, but very different biologically and, partially as a consequence, often very different socially.

Freddy Adu

Freddy Adu

Likewise, regardless of various speculations about Freddy Adu’s “real” age there is no question that when he joined DC United he was more physically mature than most 14 year olds.  That may well have been a simple matter of random biological chance, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is now clear he was well past his growth spurt.  It’s not Freddy’s fault, but it does raise perennial questions about whether it is prudent to invest millions in very young athletes who may well have peaked when other young athletes at the same “real” age have years of growth to come.  And when you go to Africa the questions start to get even more complicated.

One of the historical challenges of documenting age in Africa is that in many communities across the continent exact chronological age is not all that important.  This is not just a problem for soccer tournaments, but also for demographers and those interested in population trends.  According to one scholarly analysis by David Cleveland “Africa is probably the most difficult region of the world for which to obtain good estimates of numerical age” for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it is often more functional to sort people by biological and social maturity rather than by the exact date of their birth.

Though this is changing some with the expansion of Western health care systems and their dependence on chronological age, historically many African societies thought of people in “age sets” defined by their abilities, capacities, and social roles rather than by their exact birth date.  An 18 year old who is married with children would be treated as of a different age than an 18 year old finishing school and playing soccer.  In other words, the fact that Freddy Adu identified as a full professional at 14 would have more significance than the fact that he was born in 1989.  Cleveland notes “in terms of reflecting biological and social reality they may, in fact, be more meaningful than Westerner’s numerical ages.”

The fact that many African societies are more interested in biological and social reality than chronological reality is compounded by the fact that many African children are born without official birth certificates.  Again, this is changing with the spread of modern health care systems and literacy (most urban, and even many rural, Africans today would be born with some documentation), but the fact that not having a birth certificate is relatively common does create some space for negotiation.  I know when I was in Malawi the rumors were that the European coach running one of the national youth teams (working through the German national aid agency, which had a whole program devoted to sending soccer coaches to developing nations—a story for another day) was sending the players he wanted to take for a summer European tournament to the passport agency with ages he assigned them for his own convenience.

This trick is also much rumored across Africa, a rumor encouraged by claims of corruption in some of the African bureaucracies assigned to issue official papers.  George Onmonya, the Nigerian blogger, explains that “You can walk into any immigration office in Nigeria today, forge documents at the nearby business centre, change your name, place of birth, date of birth, pay seven to ten thousand naira instead of the official price of about five thousand five hundred naira for international passport and within hours you have completed the whole process.”  The bottom line in all this is that although numerical age might initially seem to be a straightforward matter, for reasons both natural and nefarious “real” age is a questionable concept.

Is Science the Answer?

Based on my questions about the nature of “real” age, it should come as no surprise that I am skeptical of claims that science such as MRI bone scanning is “the first step in ridding African soccer of a long-standing blight.”  In fact, with a little research it becomes clear that MRI bone scanning also raises as many questions as it answers.


The basics of the bone scanning technique proposed for use on Nigerian U17 players involves creating a Magnetic Resonance Image (MRI) of player wrists to be evaluated by radiologists who would ostensibly determine “skeletal age.”  One problem here is that “skeletal age” is really just a measure of biological maturity, and people mature at different rates (think again about that junior high dance).  Another problem is that the scanning techniques require approximate interpretations that are inevitably imprecise.

One group of scientists from the University of Cape Town in South Africa, for example, specifically investigated the applications of the tests to sport and found that when nine radiologists evaluated the wrist scans of males between 14 and 18 years of age (chronologically) they could not accurately establish age: “In 1 subject the difference between the chronological age was underestimated by 2.4 years.  Clearly the method lacks the level of precision required for the purpose of screening players at age-group tournaments where a player 1 day older than the defined age is regarded as ‘too old’ for the competition.”  In fact, while the Nigerian source claims that the tests are accurate 90% of the time, other sources say the scanning has an error margin of plus or minus one year—which would make them functionally useless for FIFA competitions.

The South African scientists also note that the standardized measures used for the most common wrist scanning technique are based on samples of white English children and may not be directly comparable for children of other ethnicities.  In less scientific terms, the point is that such tests quickly trigger delicate questions about race, ethnicity, and bias.  As one Ghanaian-American commentator noted in 2005:

The intention of FIFA to using such imperfect technology points to the fact that nineteenth-century, Western scientific-thinking may still be right here with the rest of us in the twenty-first century. And this pretty much, unfortunately, reminds those of us avid students of Western scientific history of the racist science of Craniometry, or Craniology, which invidiously sought to “objectively” establish the relative intellectual inferiority of the non-white or non-European species of humanity – particularly continental Africans and their direct descendants around the globe – vis-à-vis the purported super-intellectual Aryan species of Western Europe and the European diaspora.

It is also quite striking to observe that the threatened use of MRI technology comes at a time that non-European nations appear to dominate the championship echelons of the Under-17 World Cup soccer tournaments. And so it may not be entirely gratuitous to factor in the question of race as a significant motivating element in FIFA’s intention of using MRIs to ascertaining the exact biological ages of players.

My own humble opinion is that this is less an issue of race than of the convenient delusion that age is a simple matter of science and birthdays.  I understand that youth international tournaments need to establish cut-off points and try to enforce them, but it is also important to recognize that those cut-offs are really just arbitrary markers based on our own cultural ways of thinking about age.  As such, while acknowledging that using “over-age” players can be problematic for player development within a country, it is also worth thinking carefully about whether African youth teams that “cheat” by using players of uncertain chronological ages are really doing anything worse than making up for having to play by someone else’s definition of “real” age.

Booth, Fish, and Me: Playing While White in Africa

Matthew Booth

Matthew Booth

You don’t run into a lot of Irish folks in Africa.  Lots of Canadians, Norwegians, Japanese, and Australians but very few Irish.  Maybe that helps to explain why Sport Against Racism Ireland was among the groups who, during June’s Confederations Cup in South Africa, were quick to assume that predominantly black crowds were booing the lone white player on the South African national team Matthew Booth.*  In fact, the crowd was celebrating Booth by enunciating and elongating his name: “BOOOOTH.” The sounds are certainly easy to confuse.  But the meanings could only be confused by anyone who hasn’t spent much time in Africa.

During the June Confederations Cup I was actually surprised, and I suppose pleased, by how little race came up as a major issue.  As the first African World Cup approaches, it seems as though the rightful focus is more on poverty and economic justice—the challenges and expenses of creating a massive sport spectacle when there are so many other needs raises complex questions about global inequality.  But issues of race bring their own complexities, often wrapped up with issues of economic inequality, and the relationship between race and soccer is one of many interesting issues I suspect will get much attention in the run-up to World Cup 2010.

Azungu in Malawi

Beyond general intellectual curiosity, my amateur interest in race and African soccer is decidedly personal.  During a two year Peace Corps stint between 1996 and 1998 I spent a season as the only white player in Malawi’s 400,000 Kwacha Lifebuoy Super League.  Prior to Peace Corps I had been a decent college soccer player, and played two years in the USL (then called the “USISL”) with some moderate success.  But I was always a step too slow to think realistically about anything more.  So when I joined Peace Corps I was mostly ready to accept the end of my playing days.  But in joining Peace Corps I ended up with something of a choice between an assignment in Tonga and an assignment in Malawi, and the fact that Tongans prefer rugby helped me make my decision.  In the back of my mind I hoped I might find a way to tap Africa’s passion for soccer.

After settling into my work assignment at the Malawi Institute of Education I stumbled into a connection with the University Football Club (UFC), a mediocre team in the top Malawian league comprised of a mix of students and affiliates.  When I approached the team with an interest in trying out, I made it a priority to try and moderate any expectations: having watched some ‘Super League’ games I thought I was a good enough player to contribute, but knew I was not good enough to be a star.  Unfortunately, being an Azungu (the ubiquitous term in Malawi referring primarily to “Europeans”) in Malawi almost inevitably meant confronting expectations, often having to do with wealth and ability, that arose from a challenging mix of colonialism, satellite TV, and global economics. Though such expectations are infinitely problematic and frustrating, on average they tend to be excessively generous to the Azungu.  Far from experiencing derogatory racism, I suffered from people thinking too much of me.

Though I don’t know much about Matthew Booth, I suspect he has also had more of people thinking too much than of people thinking too little in his experiences as a white man playing soccer in Africa.  With a bit of on-line searching you get the idea that Booth has led a pretty interesting life: raised in Cape Town, coming of age during the end of Apartheid, working with a human rights lawyer to challenge an early contract with Cape Town Spurs (according to the career history on his own web-site), representing South Africa everywhere from Malawi to Georgia to Trinidad and Tobago to Burkina Faso, marrying a stunningly beautiful (black) South African model, spending the bulk of this decade in the Russian Premier League, back in South Africa for the run-up to the World Cup.  I suspect the man has some good stories.  But not having access to those stories, the only thing I really know is that most (though certainly not all) South African soccer fans seem to enjoy watching Matthew Booth play.

My own experience was a bit less certain.  The Malawian Super League was an officially amateur affair—the type of league where all the teams are sponsored by companies (Bata Bullets were sponsored by the shoe company) or government agencies (Telecom Wanderers were sponsored by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications) that provide cushy jobs for really talented players, and some meal money for everyone else.  It was, however, the only league in the country of any significance and had a regular place of prominence in the sports news.  My UFC team was a minor club and though my appearance on their roster did garner a vague article or two about an American training for the Super League season, I mostly came as a surprise to the few hundred fans attending most of our games.

Our home field, the Zomba Community Center Ground, was a dusty brick and tin job with a few concrete benches and most seating on a hillside.  In my first few games I caused a bit of a stir—playful jibes and excited laughter met my lumbering attempts to join in the team’s rhythmic warm-up runs.  After kick-off, the first minutes set the tone for the rest of the day; during one or two games I held my ground defensively and made smart decisions with the ball—the hillside would come alive with cheers.  More often, however, my lack of pace would get exposed and the hill would turn on me—a rollicking four beat chant of “Azungu out!  Azungu out!” was more than enough to send the coach scurrying for a halftime substitution.

The team overall had more downs than ups.  My Malawian teammates were good guys, but the season was frustrating for everyone and they never quite knew what to make of me.  If anything, they gave me too much respect.  As the frustrations mounted, it turned into a lonely time for me.  Being Azungu brought curiosity and deference, but it also brought a sense of isolation that was the hardest thing about my time in Africa.

The New Mark Fish?

A year later, still trying to make sense of it all, I sat down with my Malawian teammates to get their perspectives (and to try my hand at the type of field research I was planning to pursue in graduate school).  I mostly asked them about their own experiences with soccer, but I also slipped in a few questions about what had happened to me.  I was reminded of some of these conversations when reading about Matthew Booth.  My teammates reinforced for me that among many Malawians, “People always think that, just because he is a white player, and everywhere you see that, for example, major leagues of the world are always dominated by white people…hey, we have a savior here.”

The point is that in my experiences with soccer in Africa white players are much more likely to be the targets of undue admiration rather than undue derision.  Though this may have been particularly true in Malawi (during a more recent stint in Angola I found much less deference to “Europeans” and a good reminder that Africa is not just one place), I’ve been around enough to know race-based resentments among black Africans are much less likely to turn into personal vendettas than you might think.  In my case, even when I proved something of a disappointment on the field, Malawians loved to watch me play and some even cheered me with the approving moniker “Fish!” – a reference to the South African center back Mark Fish who was his generation’s Matthew Booth.  Fish was a tall and flamboyant center back who made 62 appearances for his country during a career that included professional stops with Jomo Cosmos, Orlando Pirates, Lazio, Bolton Wanderers, and Charlton Athletic.

Mark Fish

Mark Fish

In fact one of my favorite moments during my playing days in Malawi came nowhere near the field—riding in a car stopped at a somewhat frightening police check point when travelling through a small Malawian town an hour from my home, a group of boys playing on the side of the road recognized me and starting chanting “Fish!  Fish!  Fish!”  The police waved me through.  It may be relevant to note here that I look absolutely nothing like Mark Fish.  He has the swarthy look of a Mediterranean sea captain, while I look more like a pasty Minnesota farm boy.  But we were both white guys playing soccer in Africa, and for the Malawians that was close enough.  It was also cause for celebration.

Of course, my own minor version of celebrity during my season in the Malawian Super League was nothing in comparison to Mark Fish in South Africa.  His story, along with that of his 1998 World Cup partner in the central defense of Bafana Bafana Lucas Radebe, was framed by at least one book as the story of the new South Africa (Madiba’s boys: the stories of Lucas Radebe and Mark Fish).  He has also been the subject of a 2007 academic analysis by Chris Bolsmann and Andrew Parker titled Soccer, South Africa and Celebrity Status: Mark Fish, Popular Culture and the Post-Apartheid State.

Bolsmann and Parker argue that Fish generated an enthusiastic following in South Africa at least in part as a reaction against racism: black soccer fans appreciated Fish both for his talent and for his willingness to counter the racial norms of apartheid that artificially segregated blacks to soccer and whites to rugby and cricket.  Ironically, due to his being a white soccer player Fish represented the possibility of a new South Africa that did not depend on racial categories.

Watching the Confederations Cup from a distance it seems to me that Matthew Booth has taken up this mantle and symbolic importance.  South Africa certainly struggles with issues of race and racism, as do most countries in the world, but South Africans also take well-deserved pride in the possibility of being a true “Rainbow Nation.” The soccer field offers one of many symbolic spaces towards this possibility, allowing white players to be appreciated and celebrated because of how they contribute to an admirable ideal.

Of course, South Africans along with Africans of all nationalities also just appreciate good soccer.  On a trip through Uganda and Kenya in the summer of 2008 I was endlessly amused by tributes to teams such as Manchester United and Chelsea in the most unlikely places.  The fishing boat painted with the Man Utdlogo in rural western Uganda had little to do with race and much to do with the satellite TV access to Premier League highlight packages.  The shanty-town school chalkboard in Nairobi covered with homage to Frank Lampard and John Terry seemed mostly to be honoring the best talent money can buy.

This ultimate appreciation for the game itself is what finally proved my own downfall during my time in the Malawian Super League.  The pace of the games was frenetic—there was much skill and quickness to admire.  But the tactics were what you might expect of a country where most players learn the game on their own without access to much coaching. My robotic American style of play was a poor match, and being white just confused the matter.  As some of my teammates reflected:

People were just expecting too much, because the greatest players from Europe, America—that is how they were rating you, they were expecting that.  They didn’t know you.  When people don’t get what they are expecting, they take away.

The mere fact that you are Azungu, I was noticing players on the other teams, when they get the ball, they want to actually dribble the Azungu so they can go back and say—Jack, I dribbled the Azungu.  The feeling of most Malawians is that the Azungu is superior, so if they get to dribble an Azungu, yeah!”

Despite the confusion I persisted for months, hoping that I might adapt while my teammates and fans adjusted their expectations.  But things mostly just got worse.  I finally gave up on a bright November day.  We were playing the Blue Eagles (sponsored by the Malawian Police) at the Lilongwe Stadium, a crumbling hulk of cement risers filled with a few hundred fans.  The pitch, though among the best in the league, was pock-marked and rough.  Both teams were in the bottom half of the table, and my presence seemed to offer the only small flutter of enthusiasm among the fans and the Blue Eagles.  But after a poorly timed tackle in the second half, I came up with a bloody knee that caught the eye of a Blue Eagles player.  He froze briefly with a look of uncertainty.  Then, with great enthusiasm, began excitedly pointing and cackling.  Look everyone, the Azungu bleeds!  Suddenly flesh and blood, a mere moral who can’t even make a clean tackle, I somehow knew I was done.

I stuck around UFC for the rest of the season, helping out with practices and games however I could.  But in retrospect I imagine the most important thing I did that season was to offer a different type of Azungu footballer to Malawians familiar primarily with Mark Fish and the EPL: the not very good Azungu.  In the context of June’s Confederations Cup, I offer this as a reminder that there are some white players that deserve to get booed.  But Matthew Booth isn’t one of them.  Fortunately, African soccer fans are smart enough to figure that out on their own.

* The Sport Against Racism Ireland claim was described by Jere Longman in a June 27th, 2009 New York Times article (“Scrutiny for South Africa Year Before World Cup”), and notes the “group later acknowledged its mistake.”  It seems that several other reporters and observers seemed to make the same mistake.

Author’s note: This brief essay is the first of what I hope can be an occasional series on soccer in Africa in anticipation of the 2010 World Cup.  I hope to draw on a combination of contemporary issues, pop culture, academic concepts, and personal experience to provide a distinct, American perspective on football culture and the World Cup.

Empty Seats in Ghana

Most reports from Ghana at the African Nations Cup are effusive about the tournament, the country, and the fans enthusiasm at most games. Yet yesterday, it was a shame to read two separate stories lamenting the empty seats at many matches.

In the Guardian, Paul Doyle wrote:

I’ve been to two matches so far and though neither featured the hosts, Ghanaians have been generous in their support for the other teams. If the organisers had been equally generous in their ticket pricing (the cheapest is four cedis, or over US$4), the stadiums would have been packed. As it was, Accra’s Ohene Djan Stadium was little over half-full for Tuesday’s bout between a regal Ivory Coast side and the disappointingly tame Eagles of Mali. But still the noise was incredible.

And Reuters explains the difficulties for local fans, and offers a creative solution:

Tunisia coach Roger Lemerre believes that the empty stadiums are part of the African reality. Few locals can afford tickets, he says, and those who can are unlikely to want to spend hard-earned cash to watch two teams from distant countries.

The huge distances and lack of cheap flights make it almost impossible for ordinary fans from other countries to be present, apart from those who are flown in at the expense of their own governments or team sponsors.

“You just don’t get the travelling fans,” said Lemerre. “It’s a long way to come from South Africa and Morocco and, even if the supporters could get here, there is still the problem of accommodation.”

But could organisers try to find more creative solutions?

When the new stadium in Tamale, venue for the Group D matches, was officially inaugurated, fans were allowed in for free and the arena was so packed that all those under the age of 15 were asked to leave.

Allowing locals in for free instead of charging them up to a month’s salary for a seat seems an obvious option. After all, most of the flag-waving, drum-beating visiting fans you see at the Nations Cup are on all-expenses paid trips, while the media areas are also full on hangers-on. It would hardly be unfair to them.

As the knockout phase begins, one hopes we’ll see full stadiums enjoying what so far has been an extremely exciting tournament.

Football in colonial Africa

The common image of African football is of a dusty field, a rag ball, rickety wooden goalposts, and a bunch of shoeless kids playing for fun. There is an element of truth to this cliché because Africa’s uneven poverty does not facilitate great equipment and, as in the rest of the world, people are prepared to improvise to get a game going. But the early history of the game suggests that African football is more complex and sophisticated. It is a history of money, racism, tactics and magic. In Africa, in fact, the story of football is not just a game: encoded within it is all the complexity of Africa’s colonial experience.

Football, Africa, Colonial


Like many other colonial imports, football was a European invention, but one popularized through the grassroots enthusiasm and organization of Africans. Some missionaries promoted the game because they believed it would instil the values of sobriety, obedience, selflessness and co-operation. Other teams were founded to satisfy the demand from Africans who had seen, and imitated, Europeans playing the game. In any case, Africans soon gained effective control of these teams or, after chafing against European interference, set up independent alternatives.

Teams were followed by local football associations. South African towns had associations by the 1910s, other colonies developed them later. These associations administered various competitions, paid dues to the municipal authorities for their services, and hired bands to entertain matchday crowds. Their rise was linked to another colonial import, literacy, because associations had to arrange matches and arbitrate disputes in writing, and file their accounts with the government.

As this level of organization suggests, Africans did not simply take to football for the sheer joy of the game. There were also more hard-nosed reasons for football’s success. Football was rapidly monetised and provided a useful supplementary income for players. Teams negotiated hard over appearance fees, transport allowances and prize money. In friendly matches it was common for the winning side to take 60% of the prize fund, and the losers 40%.

This commercialization was often frowned upon by Europeans. In the late-1930s, a missionary in Northern Rhodesia complained that “all the star teams play for money”. The same missionary also witnessed a match in which the visitors bet on themselves to win and confidently spent their stake in the local beer hall: “unfortunately they lost and the match ended in a free fight in which spectators joined”. In urban areas, football clubs were often combined with mutual aid societies and played a valuable social role. Migrant workers, for example, used football clubs to replace the material and social support they had left behind in their rural homes.

Obuasi Kotoko Football Club

The style of football played in colonial Africa shifted with fashion, experience and external influence. There is a common belief that Africans excelled at stylish, attacking football, and relied on ostentatious displays of individual skill. There is some truth to this, but there was a definite tension between this kind of showy, individualistic football, and the discipline and teamwork of a winning formula.

Africans were not completely isolated from wider trends in football, and were quick to adopt new techniques and strategies. Tours of South Africa by Motherwell in the 1930s were a popular sensation, and their tight passing game and collective ethos inspired a tactical revolution among local teams. In 1950s Brazzaville, a French coach rebelled against the prevailing British style, and his team dominated the league with short passes and man-marking. And an upstart team in Ghana during WWII promised more vaguely that its ‘tactics’ would defeat the ‘dribbling’ of their rivals. African football was itself a symbol of modernity, and Africans strove to keep the game up to date – but there was a distinctly African twist.


The organizers of Ghana 2008 are keen to project the modernity of African football: sponsorship by a booming mobile phone network; the multinational advertising billboards; and the interior shots of gleaming stadia as the players wait for kick-off. But there is nonetheless a historical truth behind older media sensationalism about chicken sacrifice and witchdoctors in African international football. The game was rapidly assimilated into local religious practices, and the practical business of winning matches often given a supernatural boost. Talismans, prayers and medicines were a valid – and expensive – part of match preparations. Team names like the Cape Coast Mighty Dwarves reflected aspects of local mythology. In Northern Rhodesia, dead ancestors continued to influence the world of the living, and football skills apparently transferred into the afterlife.

One Copperbelt team was reported in the 1950s to be making midnight pleas at the grave of a famous player: “Pump this football for us we beg you and make it light for our goalkeeper and heavy for theirs”. The resort to spiritual tactics appalled some Europeans. Missionaries were especially keen to promote their more saintly teams, but the popularity of the game forced them to compromise with local beliefs. Priests in Congo-Brazzaville were outraged at the decision of a Catholic mission team to intimidate its opponents by renaming itself The Black Devils, and agreed to the name change only after players and fans began to boycott mass.

Ivory Coast Witchdoctor


This outline of the early history of football in Africa is perhaps too positive. The game had a darker side: football reflected both the injustices of colonialism, and the internal divisions of African societies. Football in Africa first reflected the fundamental racial divide of colonialism. In settler societies like South Africa teams and associations were strictly segregated on colour lines. And because football was a popular childhood game, it exposed Africans to inequality from an early age. It was a revelation for Ahmed Ben Bella, the first president of independent Algeria, that his new school had two football teams: one French, one Arab. But it is also true that football transcended some racial barriers, if only temporarily and for small numbers of people. In Northern Rhodesia, for example, white spectators were a common presence at African matches.

But the barrier between black and white was not the only division in African societies, or in African football. Teams often reflected identities based on religion and class. In Obuasi, Ghana, Muslims played in a separate Mahommedans team. In Congo Brazzaville, there were separate football teams for the clerks and manual workers of colonial enterprises. And football also reflected growing ethnic rivalries within multi-ethnic states.

For example, in 1942 the New Britons, a team from Tarkwa in SW Ghana, resolved at their AGM “to crush down in this year all the Kotoko Teams”. Kotoko, a common team name, meant porcupine and was also symbol of Asante nationhood. The club motto of Asante Kotoko was “Thousand Killed, Thousand Comes”. This referred to the military strength of the defeated Asante Empire, now a constituent part of Britain’s Gold Coast colony. But the motto was also a measure of Asante’s political tenacity and was later associated with the National Liberation Movement – an Asante rival to the multi-ethnic nationalist party that led Ghana to independence. By September 1942, the Mighty Britons had defeated four Kotokos, scoring 14 goals and conceding just four. Football, then, was a very public and ritualised expression of divided African loyalties: and such divisions would play a significant role in Africa’s post-colonial instability.

Asante Kotoko Football Club

Colonial Society

African football was also affected by the structural inequalities of colonial society, and African football associations encountered the same constraints as non-sporting organizations. Europeans were suspicious of activities and organizations they did not control, and often sought to restrict their activities or co-opt their leadership. Missionaries were hostile to the perceived immorality of players and boisterous fans in independent teams. And efforts by Africans to retain and extend their footballing autonomy were ultimately limited by their political and economic weakness. Teams often relied on grants for equipment and uniforms. Stadia and playing fields were normally owned by the municipal authorities – and these were under European control.

African footballers and organizers thus had limited leeway to promote their own interests. One Ghanaian team from a mining town complained that it was impossible to fulfil their fixtures on days when the mines team played, and poached their players. And in Congo-Brazzaville, Catholic missionaries took so much of the gate receipts that the players lamented that they “did not even have lemonade money”. The lack of political power also precluded wider pan-African organisation. The first international club championship in 1950, between teams from Belgian Congo and South Africa, was organised by European officials to generate favourable propaganda for colonialism.

Football was also used to achieve and display social status in competitive colonial society. This could be the prestige of personal skill, as for the Ghanaian Ekow Glenland, who told the FA he was “commonly known as Kimpo the Devil Boy”. Zulu players were given praise-names previously reserved for warriors and chiefs.

Other nicknames were drawn from the movies (Fu Manchu) or consumer culture (Buick), and demonstrate the extent to which colonial social status had become inseparable from symbols of western affluence. Football also bestowed prestige by association. The patron of Asante Kotoko was none other than Agyeman Prempeh II – Prempeh was the Asantehene (the Asante king), an office abolished then later reinstated by the British. A financial patron of a football team could also transfer his loyalties into local political support, and often interfered in tactical matters.

The early history of African football is complex and fascinating, and much of the story has yet to be uncovered. But the more historians discover, the more certain it becomes that in colonial Africa, football was never just a game.

Phyllis Martin, Leisure and Society in Colonial Brazzaville
Peter Alegi, ‘Playing to the Gallery’, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 35, 2002

Full references for this article are available at http://historyofafrica.blogspot.com

Photo credits: adritzz; Lord…Jack Lord; michael_hughes

Africa Cup of Nations: Open Thread

African Nations’ Cup 2008 LogoI’ve read all the previews. I’ve gaped at the ongoing controversy stirred by Blatter’s big mouth declaration that the Cup should be moved to summer. I’m impressed by the determination of fans to make it to Ghana and cheer on their teams despite the obstacles. And there’s something particularly attractive about an international tournament without all those familiar European teams clogging it up. Frankly, I’m excited for it to begin today.

Of course, many of the players from African nations are more and more familiar to those of us who watch European football religiously. Is this why there seems to be more interest in the Cup than even two years ago amongst your average world football fan? Or is it due to the internet, shrinking our horizons just enough this time?

This is the place to put any thoughts you have about the tournament as it kicks off today in Ghana. Or will you be boycotting it, because you think Sepp Blatter is right that the priority should be the needs of club football?

And perhaps most importantly, have you picked a team to root for? For me, it’s the Super Eagles of Nigeria. This goes all the way back to USA ’94 which, you might recall, is the last time England failed to qualify for the World Cup.

As soon as I saw Nigeria play, they won me over. I don’t want to offer awful cliches about African football, but there was something refreshing about them, particularly in contrast to Graham Taylor’s godawful England team at the time (Taylor being Steve McClaren crossed with the boss from The Office, convinced the future of football lay in the 70 yard hit and hope).

When Italy came back to knock Nigeria out in the second round, quite unjustly I thought, it was a minor tragedy in my footballing life. So I will be cheering on the Super Eagles, as soon as I can figure out how to watch the games on the internet here in America. . .

Day One

The opener, Ghana vs. Guinea, has begun. Even though I purchased a subscription to the group stage on jumptv.com, it’s not working so I’m watching pixellated figures on Sopcast instead. Daryl is doing a fine job liveblogging over at the World Cup Blog right now telling me what’s actually happening, so join us there if you’re interested. I’ll also add some observations in the comments below, and you should, too. 0-0 at half-time, despite Ghana’s absolute dominance.

1-0: Ghana score from the spot, with a somewhat dubious penalty, but it’s hard to argue with the scoreline.

1-1!: Guinea score, a powerful header tying it up. Unfair on Ghana, but the sight of Guinea’s fans dancing deleriously in the stands with joy was a heart-warming moment.

2-1 Ghana: Muntari, from thirty yards out in the 90th minute, rips off an absolute cliched belter, screamer, or whatever else you want to call it, into the top corner. Ghana goes wild.

Morocco beat a poor Namibia side in the opening day’s other game, in front of a disappointingly empty stadium. View the goals here.

Day Two

Ivory Coast-Nigeria: Perhaps the most glamorous clash of the first round is going on as I type — Ivory Coast, starring the likes of Didier Drogba, against my favourites, Nigeria’s Super Eagles. It’s 0-0 in the first half, with Yobo doing a fine job containing Drogba. Join Daryl at the World Cup Blog for liveblogging action right now.

An hour later, and Ivory Coast have edged a solid win. The two teams were both so powerful and athletic — who knew Obi Mikel could be made to look normal — they cancelled each other out for large portions of the game. But a magic dribble by Kalou was enough for the Elephants to sneak it, and deservedly so.

Ghana kicked out of their hotel

Ghana - USA 2-1Talk about a country getting behind its football team on the eve of a major tournament — African Cup of Nations hosts Ghana have been kicked out of their hotel, as price gouging mounts ahead of the opener in a few days. Kickoff.com reports:

According to reports emanating from Kenya, the Black Stars had been booked to stay at the luxury Labadia Beach Hotel, at a reduced rate negotiated months ago.

But when the team returned home from their training camp in Abu Dhabi, they found their booking from Wednesday had been cancelled so that the hotel could free up the rooms and make more money.

Some hotels in Accra are charging up to R2000 a night as they seek to profit from the visitors arriving for the tournament. Rates are in some case triple the normal prices charged.

On the plus side of this is that unprecedented numbers of travelling fans are expected from the competing nations.

Also worth reading — Some People Are On the Pitch has an excellent Cup preview, as does The Offside, and Road to 2010 World Cup continues to round-up all the news brilliantly.

Photo credit: Stig Nygaard

Exploring the Africa Cup of Nations

African Nations’ Cup 2008 LogoWith the Africa Cup of Nations just a matter of thirteen days from opening in Ghana, I’m hoping to put together a chunky Pitch Invasion feature on African football to coincide with the event. As usual, we’re looking for writing and photography that explores things not covered by the mainstream football media.

So if you’d like to contribute in any way, drop me a line at tom@pitchinvasion.net or leave a note in the comments.

Of course, we have covered African football here before, my favourite post being this first-hand account of the growth of ultras culture in Egypt. And I’d like to recommend the World Cup Blog for their excellent coverage of African football, including a very helpful set of team previews. Also worth noting is the Road to 2010 World Cup blog, where the excitement is amping up ahead of the event.

If you have any other recommendations for good blogs or websites exploring African football in general or the Africa Cup of Nations in particular, leave them in the comments.

Update: There was a problem with my email address listed above yesterday, so please resend me your message if it got bounced back to you. It should work fine now.

First Person Ultra: Ultras Ahlawy, Egypt

Al-AhlyIn the second of our series on ultras in unusual places (see the first on a group of English ultras here), we look at the first ultras group in Egypt, founded just this year but already responsible for a series of remarkable choreographed displays. They support Al-Ahly, the side from Cairo, Egypt who are perhaps Africa’s most successful ever team.

We present here a first person multimedia-essay from one of the founders of Egypt’s first ultras group, who we will call “A” to retain his anonymity. Being an ultra in Egypt is not an approved activity by the authorities, and his group have caused something of a stir.

Continue reading

Fears Over 2010, 2014 Safety Rise, Unfounded?

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.