First: serious warning for those who think that the media is already full of football. So is this posting. It is mostly about football, but also about attitudes – and the lack of faith and national effort in African football. Stay tuned or alternatively stop reading and wait for another posting. Yet, there is a high likelihood that the next posting is also about football, as the World Cup 2014 has only just begun.
In fact, I am actually taking a big risk now by throwing my faith behind African football after only a few Group Stage matches. No one knows how this world’s biggest sporting event will end, and who takes the trophy home. All can still go sour also for the currently high-flying African teams of which three – Ghana, Nigeria and Algeria – have had great two past days. However, the performances of these three African countries have already made the continent proud. First the Black Stars of Ghana challenged Germany by ending with a draw, then Nigeria’s Super Eagles took their first victory in the World Cup level in 16 years, and finally Algeria’s Fennec Foxes won South Korea 4-2. Right now, it’s time for Africa and everything seems possible.
But can this hype continue? How could it continue as football in Africa is believed to have just problems? Before the games the ‘This is Africa’-website, among many others, analyzed why African teams never win in big international tournaments. The triple burden of backwardness, class suicide and lack of sporting culture are all convincing arguments, and seemingly widely shared in the social and conventional media in the continent. So not a surprise, if the same doubtful attitude is mimicked by football analysts in the Nordics where I have followed the recent games. In fact, according to many sport commentators, it is almost given that no African team can ever fare well, and if they do, it is a ‘super surprise’, ‘just poor luck’ or, most often, a bad day for the contesting (European) team.
These attitudes and analysis carry again also a great deal of eurocentrism. When Ghana was playing against Germany, the Finnish commentators concentrated almost entirely on how German team was playing or rather not playing, ignoring the fact that Ghanians had long ago taken the control of the game. Silence or ignorance was shown when Ghanian defense once again blocked German attempts or advanced to make yet another great goal. What a relief for the commentators when Klose finally ‘normalized’ the game and prevented Ghana’s victory. The world order of European commentators and audience a like was about to shaken had the Ghana managed to win the game. It just does not happen in the Eurocentric world of football.
Football is a great sport but also a lot of politics – global and domestic. African continent of one billion people and 55 countries is represented by only 5 countries in the World Cup while Europe has 13 slots. The number of slots allocated per continent is widely debated. Main arguments circle around the difference in criteria to which slots should be allocated to regions – whether it is based on number of population or country ranking based on talent. Whichever criteria used, African football federations have rightfully demanded a bigger quota. Being so few compared to the other continent’s teams, the few five African teams – this time Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria – have the double burden of not only representing their own country but also ‘ the Africa’ .
Although many are rightfully content of flying the pan African flag when any African team plays, there are also disadvantages. Once again, Africa is lumped as one homogenous continent, and its performance in football is analyzed with no nuances or country specifics, as if there were no differences between the regions, countries, governments and their approach to football and culture of sport. And in that analysis the continent’s usual evils such as lack of national team spirit, weak discipline and low respect, corruption in the sport (and public) administration, shortage of human and financial resources, absence of long term vision in identifying and developing sports and young talent, as well as overall weakness in general institutional capacity are always named as the culprits for no success. The analysis of African football is more of analysis of continent’s bad politics than actual performance of the different national teams and players.
In comparison, have you ever heard anyone accusing the British Conservative party for England’s poor performance or EU’s austerity measures for recent Portuguese loss and draw? Yet, Africa cannot succeed in sports, as Africa is ever the continent of trouble. And the countries and their teams are all the same anyway. According to this logic, the Nordic countries with their globally praised successful governments, well managed public finances as well as systematic and well resourced youth and sport administration should be on the top of the World Cup every time. Yet, no Nordic country has ever won World Cup and this time none of the countries are even represented – and we blame rightfully our weakness in sports, not politics.
African soccer fans and their global supporters would better now, in this hype of early success, start scoring some own goals, and change the tune on African football. And make some drastic decisions. In fact, any continent with so much football talent and many success stories both inside and outside its borders could be really proud of and supportive to those who despite all the well known challenges do make it. In fact, we ought to congratulate all African players, coaches and support personnel who do actually make the African football world famous. Committing oneself to playing, coaching or providing any other support to national football in many African countries is still a tough choice to make and would scare away many well resourced youngsters in other continents. Football career for an African youngster often costs his/her home, family and fatherland, as the opportunities to nurture one’s talent and survive by playing lay outside the continent. In her book ‘ Belly of the Atlantic’ Fatou Diome describes how Champions League, League 1 and Serie A are any Senegalese boy’s ultimate football dream and how there is only one direction to advance: across the Mediterranean. But very few African talents score big; most do not even get to the bench to wait for their turn. Returning home empty handed and consumed is often bitter, and there is no local or national league where to use the skills acquired. Many organized local soccer teams are actually just scouting platforms for foreign teams.
So African football decision makers: bring the talent home and concentrate playing your own game in the ‘New Africa’. The continent keeps on importing all kinds of raw materials to enrich the rest of the world – so the same applies to football where body and brain drain is allowed in the expense of the continent’s own success. Follow Algeria’s example that has paid off in these games so far. The country has allocated a great deal of time and resources to attract its players from all over the world to its national team which is now turning into success. Yes, football is an international game and we Nordics do not mind to have some African vibe in our teams as well. But a hat trick of fairer representation for the continent, more resources for national sport federations and youth development as well as a great deal of good old patriotism would give African football the boost it deserves. And kiss those Nordic and other Eurocentric and sarcastic football commentators a very good night and good luck.