Will the World Cup benefit Africa?

A giant soccer shirt of participating teams of the FIFA World Cup is displayed at the official opening of the Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg on Saturday.

A giant soccer shirt of participating teams of the FIFA World Cup is displayed at the official opening of the Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg on Saturday.

The arrival of the World Cup — the showpiece for the world’s most lucrative pastime — in Africa, the world’s poorest continent, is clearly an event of deep symbolism. But symbolic of what? For Thabo Mbeki, who as South African president was at the forefront of the bid to host the tournament, this is the moment when Africa finally arrives on the global stage. In African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World’s Game (Ohio University Press), one of a number of recent books celebrating “Africa’s” World Cup, Peter Alegi quotes the letter Mr. Mbeki sent to Fifa’s president, Sepp Blatter, setting out his country’s ambitions: “We want, on behalf of our continent, to stage an event that will send ripples of confidence from the Cape to Cairo . . . We want to ensure that one day historians will reflect upon the 2010 World Cup as a moment when Africa stood tall and resolutely turned the tide on centuries of poverty and conflict.” Even by the standards of the hyperbolic guff that always surrounds major sports events, this is setting the bar pretty high. In reality, sports tournaments rarely do much to transform the fortunes of the countries that host them — at least not for the better — let alone change the fate of whole continents. But they can tell us a lot about where power really lies.

What the 2010 World Cup clearly shows is that Africa is now a serious player in the world of football. This represents a remarkable turnaround in a relatively short period of time. Africa had no real presence at the World Cup until 1974, when Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) became the first black African team to take part in the finals. (South Africa had planned to send an all-black team to Mexico in 1970, but that was vetoed on the same grounds as the plan to send an all-white team to England in 1966.) Zaire lost all three of their games, scoring no goals and conceding 14. In Brian Glanville’s The Story of the World Cup (Faber & Faber), now in its fifth edition for 2010, Zaire barely get a mention, apart from Glanville noting that Scotland should have beaten them by more than 2-0, but the Scots wilted in the heat. Yet the African team’s real mark on the tournament was made during their match against Brazil, when the Zairean defender Mwepu Ilunga ran out of a defensive wall at the sound of the referee’s whistle to boot away the ball that had been placed for a Brazil free-kick, while the opposing players looked on with a mixture of amusement and horror.

This became a defining moment for that long-standing cliche of western football commentary: the charming “naivety” of African football. The players were assumed to be skilful, but hopelessly ill-disciplined and childish. When it was subsequently rumoured that Ilunga might have panicked because the Zairean dictator Mobutu had warned the team that if they lost to Brazil by 4-0 or worse he could not guarantee their personal safety (it was 3-0 at the time), this hardly helped the world to take African football seriously. Naivety, it was assumed, went along with deep and sometimes terrifying political consequences.

These lazy assumptions persisted through the 80s and 90s, even as African teams started to win games and to suggest that they might one day even win the tournament. In 1990 Cameroon came within a few minutes of knocking England out at the quarter-final stage (in which case there would have been no tears from Gazza and perhaps no football boom on the back of them), before losing to two late penalties. David Goldblatt, whose superb The Ball Is Round (Viking) remains the one indispensable guide to global football, simply records that “in cup football the better team does not necessarily win . . . Cameroon were still the better team”. But for the British pundit Ron Atkinson, commentating on television at the time, the match confirmed that African teams were always likely to fall short at the highest level for all the traditional reasons — too excitable, not enough discipline. Lovely fellas, though.

The fact that it is impossible to imagine someone like Atkinson commentating on this year’s World Cup — especially not Atkinson himself, whose racist comments caught on an open mic a few years ago all but finished his career — is a sign of how far we have come. No one in their right mind would now dare to patronise African football or footballers, who include some of the best players to be seen anywhere (Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto’o, Michael Essien). On planet football, Africa has become a force to be reckoned with, and South Africa 2010 is the ultimate symbol of this changing order.

But still, the football world is not the same as the real world. For a tournament that is meant to signal how much has changed, there is still something curiously old-fashioned about the make-up of this year’s World Cup finals. There will be six African teams taking part — Algeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and the hosts, South Africa — but the rest of the world’s rising powers will almost all be absent. There is no China, who somewhat surprisingly failed to qualify, and no India, who as usual did not even come close. Indeed, of the BRIC countries, only Brazil will be there (Brazil are always there); Russia also missed out, in a play-off to little Slovenia. But nor will there be teams from many other of the world’s most populous nations: no Indonesia, no Philippines, no Pakistan, no Bangladesh, no Vietnam, no Iran, no Iraq. If you add them all up, that’s over half the world’s population who will have to be supporting someone else’s national team.

Yet it is China’s absence that is really noteworthy. This is an African tournament taking place without the continent’s dominating force. Ironically, China had a much bigger presence at the Africa Cup of Nations, which took place in Angola earlier this year, than it will have at the World Cup. In Angola, it was the Chinese who provided the infrastructure (including building four new stadiums).

By contrast, Fifa’s showpiece still conjures up a vanished world in which Europe is at the heart of everything. This is not just because half of all the teams taking part are European. It’s also because many of the leading South American players, and almost all the leading African ones, play in Europe. The fact is that the decaying powers of Europe remain the driving force behind the global game. Countries that are watching their real economies totter — Spain, Italy, England — are still sustaining vast, bloated football economies that fuel the planet’s appetite for the sport. Africa is now a part of this money machine, but it has little or no control over it.

As a result, this is a tournament shaped by, and for, the interests of the European elite. Having it in Africa means it’s in the right time zone for European TV audiences. Having it in South Africa means that it’s also got the right climate for European teams to thrive. Africa’s first World Cup will also be the coldest on record — a genuine winter tournament for the winter game. The Europeans will be playing in conditions they feel comfortable in, staying in hotels they feel comfortable in, travelling to stadiums they feel comfortable in. Normally, home advantage, or at least continental advantage, is decisive in World Cup finals: Brazil is the only country ever to have won the tournament outside of its home continent (in Sweden in 1958 and South Korea in 2002). Therefore this should be Africa’s moment, not just to host it but to win it. But that seems unlikely. Ivory Coast are currently the leading African fancies according to the bookmakers. But ahead of them are Portugal, France, Italy, Holland, Germany, Argentina, England, Brazil and Spain. Everything is being done to ensure that these teams will feel at home.

However, the real obstacle to South Africa 2010’s delivering on home advantage is the state of South African football itself. Were the tournament being held in, say, Nigeria, it’s easy to imagine the home side romping to victory on a wave of local support and with the help of local conditions, as all the better-fancied sides wilted in their alienating surroundings. But those surroundings are one of the reasons why Fifa would never dream of holding a World Cup in Nigeria. South Africa will have passionate local support, but the comfortable setting means that the national team needs to be good to take advantage. Unfortunately, the team is not very good at all. The bookmakers rank Uruguay, Denmark and Serbia as more likely to win than the home nation. Instead, they risk becoming the first home side ever to fail to make it out of the group stages.

Why has the hosting of the World Cup not done more to galvanise South African football? The answer, which is touched on by Steve Bloomfield in his entertaining travelogue Africa United: How Football Explains Africa (Canongate Books), says a lot about why the transformative dreams of Thabo Mbeki are likely to be disappointed. During the apartheid years, South African football was treated as a “black” sport (though many whites played), in contrast to the exclusively “white” sports of cricket and rugby. That meant it was starved of resources, but it also meant that it had a great deal of autonomy, because the South African government was happy to let it organise itself. It’s the autonomy that has subsequently been the problem. The South African Football Association (Safa) got used to treating itself as a state within a state. “It’s jobs for life at Safa,” Bloomfield is told. “There is no accountability — it’s nonexistent.” The prospect of hosting the World Cup hasn’t sorted this problem out. It’s just made it worse.

The great hope behind holding big sporting events in developing countries is that the glare of international publicity will drive the process of reform. But it doesn’t work like that, because the incentive structure is all wrong. Everyone knows that only two things are certain: first, there will be plenty of money washing around, and second, everything will have to be finished on time, come what may. So rather than reform, the local organisers hold out for short-term injections of funds, often to bail them out of crises of their own making. The Athens Olympics of 2004, which may in the long run have helped to bring the global financial system to its knees, is the role model here. The Greek economy wasn’t bankrupted by the cost of hosting the games. But Greece’s promises to reform its way of doing business, to meet the criteria of euro membership, had to be put on hold in the desperate rush to get the facilities built on time.

The 2010 World Cup is unlikely to shake global capitalism to its foundations, but it is following a familiar pattern. Very recently Fifa injected an emergency $100m into Safa, to ensure training facilities are ready on time. The stadiums are magnificent, but as Alegi shows, most of the employment generated to build them has been short-term contract labour. There is little evidence of what their lasting legacy will be: so far, all that an event that has generated $3.3bn in revenue for Fifa has produced for grassroots football in South Africa is 27 artificial pitches. The stadiums themselves will probably have to revert to rugby or cricket to pay their way. A lot of people are going to become very rich as a result of the tournament. But once it is over, it’s going to be hard for most South Africans to know where all the money has gone.

In Why England Lose, and Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained (HarperSport), Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski describe why big sports tournaments rarely give the host country the economic boost that the organisers always promise — all those extra tourist dollars and investment benefits simply don’t materialise. What these events do achieve is a short-term boost in national happiness — for a few months, people are cheered up by having something to distract them. Is that what South Africa needs? “About a third of all South Africans live on less than $2 per day,” Kuper and Szymanski drily note. “These people need houses, electricity, holidays, doctors.” Yet the perennial problems of spreading the wealth of vastly lucrative sporting events does not, by itself, explain why South Africa hasn’t got a better national team. In 1996, in the first flush of the post-apartheid era, the country hosted and won the Africa Cup of Nations, which seemed to promise glory days ahead. The game began to prosper at the local level. But the problem is that South African football prospered too much at the local level, at least relative to the rest of the continent. It now represents one possible model of football development: the corporate model, where home-sponsored teams support a functioning league system, and home-grown players have an opportunity to make a living in their own country. The majority of the South African squad play in their own Premier League, for teams such as Kaizer Chiefs and Mamelodi Sundowns. The league is competitive but also almost certainly corrupt — there was a major match-fixing scandal in 2004, which led to plenty of arrests but very few convictions. It has produced almost no internationally recognised players. South Africa now has a good enough league system to maintain the national game, but not a good enough one to improve it.

The other model is the one that holds in the rest of Africa, including in more successful footballing nations such as Ivory Coast and Ghana. This is the raw free-market system of human trafficking, where entrepreneurs set up football academies to train up young African players and then trade them on to clubs in Europe. As Bloomfield describes, there are now hundreds of these academies scattered across Africa, and governments in weak or failing states often welcome their presence since they offer facilities and opportunities that the states can no longer provide themselves. They also offer players the prospect of serious riches if they can find their way to the top European sides. This is the route that most members of the Ghanaian and Ivorian national teams have taken. Both squads consist of players who play almost exclusively in Europe. The superstars — Drogba, Essien, the Toure brothers, Kolo and Yaya — make very considerable fortunes by European standards, and unimaginably vast ones by African standards.

The fruits of this system will be on display at the World Cup, but so will its pitfalls. The best African teams have to be put together from players who are scattered more or less at random across Europe and often have few links back home. Some places get lucky and produce a small nexus of superstars: this is often because the arrival of one outstanding player breeds interest from agents sniffing around for the next big thing. But success also breeds greed and corruption, and leads the caravan to move on to look for untapped (and cheaper) sources of talent. Almost nothing gets put back into the infrastructure of the African game, so no country can plan for the future. Ghana could win this World Cup if the team had any halfway decent strikers, but Ghana has become known for its midfielders, so that’s what the system has produced. African countries have to make do with what the rich world wants to extract from them.

But there is another side to this system that will not be on display in South Africa. The vast majority of African players do not end up as superstars at Chelsea or Barcelona. They arrive in far-flung corners of Europe and then move around, traded for small sums by cash-strapped clubs looking for value. They are what Alegi, in African Soccerscapes, calls the lumpenproletariat of professional football, with few rights, fewer privileges and no security. Many arrive very young (in 2003 the average age of African imports to European leagues was 19, compared with 24.5 for imports from elsewhere in Europe) and wind up in deeply unfamiliar places where racism is still rife and the climate is often uncongenial. African footballers now make up the majority of professionals in Romania, and more than a third in countries such as Switzerland and Ukraine. In 2006, over a fifth of all transfers between European clubs were of African players. Cheap African labour is the now the staple diet of the lower reaches of the European game.

Some of the more responsible clubs have tried to buck this trend. Ajax of Amsterdam have set up a feeder club in South Africa to try to produce players for their own first team in a more responsible and less exploitative way. But so far it does not appear to have worked — the general mediocrity of the South African league seems to be holding them back. Instead, the more exploitative system practised elsewhere on the continent suits the trend in world football, which is towards an ever greater focus on the tiny elite of superstars and super-rich clubs at the expense of the rest. Football is an increasingly individualistic game, in which clubs can make vast sums out of the image rights and merchandising of their best-known players (it is said that Ronaldo has already earned back the ₤80m Real Madrid paid Manchester United for him in just this way), much of it from Asia. Africa offers the possibility of finding such stars for next to nothing. It is treated as a potential goldmine, which suggests that not so much has changed after all.

All this is hard to square with Mbeki’s hopes for a South African World Cup. Fifa is determined to put on a good show, and the expectation is that we will see the best of Africa, or at least Fifa’s definition of it: an efficient, well-organised event that need frighten none of the sponsors or merchandisers or money-men for whom the game now exists. The facilities will be ready on time, the contractors will have been paid off, the corruption will have been swept under the carpet. There will be plenty of local colour and no doubt lots of attractive football. New superstars will be born, some of them African, maybe even some of them South African, whom the European clubs will snap up once the tournament is over. There will be a vast audience in Asia for the matches, among fans whose interest is not in any particular country but in seeing the stars of the European leagues, the Ronaldos, the Rooneys, the Drogbas.

In the African countries that have a chance of doing well in the tournament there will be huge excitement and scenes of euphoria, which Fifa and the world’s media will milk for all they are worth. Then, when it is over, Fifa will feel it has done its bit for Africa.

No one will be left in any doubt that the world now takes African football seriously. But the real power lies elsewhere. On the rotation policy, the tournament is due to come back to the continent in 2026. But there is already talk that by then India will be ready to make a bid.

Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2010

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Printable version | May 16, 2022 11:57:30 am |