Team of Destiny

Zambia won the African Cup of Nations.  By all accounts, this is one of the best AfCoN tournaments in recent years in terms of quality, and it had an absolute fairy tale ending–even for cold-hearted cynics like myself.  Zambia’s new golden generation has done what even the previous one (the one tragically killed in the plane crash) did not–win the AfCoN.  It’s a beautiful story, and following on the heels of the heels of Japan’s victory at the Women’s World Cup last year, one can only assume that from now on only teams that have overcome tragedy will win international football tournaments.

Well played to Zambia.  I was rooting for them as was most everyone around the world.  From their very first match against Senegal they proved they were something to behold and they never let up.  Their victory was well-deserved, and they did it with a team that had almost no European-based players.  Hopefully they will be able to maintain this success and get to the next World Cup in Brazil, but AfCoN success is not guarantee of qualification.  Look at Egypt.

From the beginning the pundits were saying this would be a Ghana/Ivory Coast final.  Given the way both teams played throughout the tournament, I suspected at least one would not make it.  Ghana, who played the worse of the two throughout, turned out to be the goat.

Spare a thought for Ivory Coast though.  So much has been expected from this team, and each time they have come up short.  They didn’t lose the match against Zambia, they were edged out in penalty kicks (after squandering a chance to win).  This is the second time that this happened to Ivory Coast (Egypt beat them out in penalty kicks in 2006).  They have one more chance next year in South Africa when AfCoN (mercifully) moves to odd-numbered years, but really this was it.  The Ivorian Golden Generation will probably fade into history trophy-less.  One of the greatest also-rans of African history.

Let me also promote Jonathan Wilson’s coverage of the tournament which has been excellent.

Waka Waka (This Time For Africa)

(I know I said I probably wouldn’t write much about the African Cup of Nations, but I just couldn’t stop myself.)  

As befits a tournament held in a brutal, repressive, oil-rich dictatorship, the African Cup of Nations got started with a bang.  The bang, that is, of police firing tear gas on a crowd trying to get into the stadium to watch the tournament’s first match.

Equatorial Guinea is one of the most repressive countries in the world.  I alluded to this the other day, and I wrote about it before when discussing the Equatoguinean Women’s National Team at last year’s World Cup.  Like with the dictatorships of the Arabian Gulf however, the world is willing to overlook this tiny flaw because of the nation’s vast petroleum reserves.  Let me make my biases completely clear–repressive dictatorships should not be allowed to hold international athletic competitions.  It was wrong that Nazi Germany held both Olympic Games in 1936, it was wrong that Italy and Argentina held the 1934 and 1978 World Cups, and it is wrong that Russia and Qatar will be holding the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.  (This is by no means an exhaustive list.)  While the pageantry is great, and perhaps the trains really do run on time, the human cost and the moral cost outweigh any potential enjoyment.

FIFA is eternally at the vanguard of paying lip-service to anti-racism efforts, but when confronted with real moral dilemmas, Sepp Blatter & Co. fall back on their favored “sports should be independent of politics” canard.  History has shown over and over again that this is blatantly false.  Of course sports and politics mix; they mix all the time.  Repressive dictators like nothing better than an extravagant showing of sports supremacy to reaffirm their own positions.  They throw the best parties, and making trains run on time is an effective way of using efficiency to mask cruelty.  The mix of politics and sports is how international football has gotten itself into the mess it finds itself in now.  Because FIFA’s former President Stanley Rous held fast to the misguided belief that sports and politics should be segregated (his particularly blind spots being South Africa and Chile) he lost the presidency to João Havelange who ushered in an era of corruption, theft, and cozying up to repressive dictators that has yet to end.

Even before the tear gas started, the Equatoguinean government got heavily involved in the tournament and the national team.  The son of the Equatoguinean President Teodoro Obiang offered the national team a million dollars to win its first match and $20,000 for each goal.  Equatorial Guinea did indeed win its first match, a 1-0 victory over Libya, a country that until recently suffered under its own ruthless dictator.  By all appearances, from the way the teams played the result of the match was fair, although I wonder if Libya would have been allowed to win had they been the better side.

On the other hand, Equatorial Guinea did cheat, even if the cheating went unacknowledged and will be unpunished.  According to Reuters:

[The Equatorial Guinea National Team] starting line-up consisted of five players born in Spain, two in Ivory Coast and one each born in Cameroon, Cape Verde, Brazil and Liberia.  Some players qualified through their parents but there are doubts over whether the naturalised players have lived in the country for five years as required by FIFA rules.

This was the exact same problem that the women’s team had.  Well, one of the problems–no one is accusing the players of the men’s team of not being men.  The entire Equatoguinean men’s starting lineup was born outside of Equatorial Guinea, which is not true of the women’s team.  Coincidentally, the women were disqualified from the 2012 Olympics for fielding an ineligible player (nationality issues, not gender).

(As an aside, my absolute favorite demonym is Equatoguinean.  My second favorite is Burkinabé.)

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 The other first day match was Zambia v. Senegal, a match with more symbolism and latent angst than an Ingmar Bergman film.  Senegal was a team on the verge of greatness, or so everyone thought in 2002 after the team famously upset defending champion (and former colonial master) France in the first round of the World Cup, and then reached the semifinals.  Then as suddenly as they appeared, the team disappeared from non-African international competition.  There were some fairly decent AfCoN showings, and top Senegalese players continued to play in the upper echelons of the game, but Senegal became a buzzword for unfulfilled potential.  For the first time in ages, Senegal actually looks good.

For Zambia, this match has even more symbolic importance.  In 1993, the plane carrying the very talented Zambia National Team crashed into Atlantic Ocean.  Every person on the plane died including most of the national team, the coaches, and the support staff.  That was the Golden Generation of Zambian football, the team expected to reach the World Cup, and the team is still deeply mourned in Zambia.  This year’s tournament and this match in particular are especially poignant.  The 1993 match that the Zambian National Team never played was a World Cup qualifier in Dakar against Senegal; the plane crashed after leaving Gabon, this year’s co-host, for a brief stopover.

Zambia won today’s match 2-1 which is something of a major upset given that Senegal is (was?) considered the tournament’s third-best team, behind only the Ivory Coast and Ghana.  Only a half-filled stadium saw this tremendous result because much of the crowd left after Equatorial Guinea played–another embarrassment for the host nation.

Zambia is still justifiably in mourning about the death of its earlier team, and because of the symbolism, this tournament is something of a redemption for the lost team.  Inevitably that will lead to disappointment, and perhaps unfairly.  So large does the lost team loom in the Zambian consciousness that the Zambians may have overestimated the ability of that team’s prowess.   Just look at this article written about the current Zambia side: “in Zambia there is no doubt [the lost team was] the best that the country, and possibly the continent, ever had.”

This of course leads to the inevitable “What if” questions, so endemic to African football.  Every footballing nation creates its alternate realities to explain away failure, but the African continent as a whole lives by them.  If only the Zambian team hadn’t been killed in a horrific disaster.  If only FIFA hadn’t been so condescending in the 1960’s, which led to the African and Asian boycott of the 1966 tournament thereby denying the great Ghana team a chance to play on the world stage.  If only South Africa had never adopted a policy of apartheid. If only the Nigerian FA weren’t such a corrupt cesspool.  If only Egypt didn’t choke every time there was a World Cup qualifier.  If only the Ivory Coast had better draws in the past two World Cups.  If only Luis Suarez had no hands.  If! If! If! If! If!  There are so many ifs because there that makes a convenient excuse for the absence of a when.  The flaws of African football have been thoroughly debated by those more knowledgeable and intelligent than me, but they seem to agree that change anytime soon is unlikely.

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I suspect that a small but significant problem with African football (beyond the money issues, corruption, and slave trade that disguises itself as “playing in Europe“) is that few outside of Africa think of the continent’s individual countries as individual countries.  Rather they tend to be lumped together as “Africa” even though we all know the major African powers and are not likely to confuse them.  This laziness can also be applied within Africa too, which is why the continent so thoroughly embraced the idea that the 2010 World Cup was the “African World Cup.”  No one thought of the 2002 World Cup as the “Asian World Cup” even though it was the first one to be held in Asia and two Asian countries (who otherwise hate each other) co-hosted.  No one thought of any of the World Cup held in the Americas or Europe as continent-wide tournaments.  Yet when Shakira sang “this time for Africa,” everyone bought into that, forgetting that Africa is just as diverse as Asia, if not more so, and far more diverse than any other continent in the world.

There are two books about African football that I have encountered, Ian Hawkey’s Feet of the Chameleon and Steve Bloomfield’s Africa United.  Both books examine individual African nations and their unique football cultures and histories, yet both treat Africa as a whole simply because of geographic happenstance, thereby undercutting their own theses that African football is not monolithic.  It also should be noted that in both books even the most disparate countries suffer similar trials, travails, and tribulations.

There must be a way to individualize African nations.  Perhaps once one African nation win the World Cup the world will view African nations as unique in the way that Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay prevented South America from being consolidated into a similar monolith.  However, unless something radical changes in the structure and governance of African football, I doubt that breakthrough will happen.

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In other news, the Ivory Coast beat Sudan 1-0, a score that flattered the latter and should give worries to the former.  Angola beat Burkina Faso 2-1 in a competitive and enjoyable match.

To Blog Or Not To Blog

This decision may be taken out of my hands depending on employment circumstances, but I am unsure whether or not to write regular reflection pieces about the upcoming African Cup of Nations as I have done so with other tournaments, the Women’s World Cup being the highlight of my blogging career thus far.  I am hoping to write a lot this summer about the Euro and possibly the Olympics.  It is easy to get overextended writing about football so much though; because of the Women’s World Cup and the earlier CONCACAF Gold Cup, I had no energy to regularly write about the far less interesting Copa America.

The African Cup of Nations presents a unique challenge because, the tournament itself has become kind of dreary.  The reason for this is because the African international game has fallen in quality rather than improved.  Witness the performance of the (non-Ghana) African nations at the 2010 World Cup; it hasn’t gotten better in the year and half since.  The reasons for this are fascinating, varied, and pitiful, and Jonathan Wilson explores them in a brilliant article.

Wilson does not say this, but I would also add that one of the reasons AfCoN is so tedious is because it comes around far too often.  Every two years is too much, and AfCoN comes right in the middle of the club season, which makes the tournament more distraction than attraction.  That it also occurs during World Cup years (which it’s not supposed to, but Sepp Blatter needs African votes so FIFA won’t say boo), merely cheapens and overshadows the African tournament–as does CAF’s insistence to hold a continent-wide tournament in non AfCoN years that is only open to players who play in their own national league.

Because of mismanagement and corruption from CAF and the national FA’s, African football has regressed rather than progressed over the years.  Sure it still produces some of the greatest players in the world, but those players seem to feel that national team duty is more burden than honor, and quite frankly, given who can blame them?  Two of the nations that should be potential champions every tournament, South Africa and Nigeria, failed to even qualify this time.  African FAs do not even try to develop their own coaches, choosing instead washed-up Europeans or Brazilians.  For that reason there is little national style because there is a tremendous disconnect between national tradition and national team.  Is it any wonder that the Asian teams are overtaking their African counterparts in the international game?  (Wilson was probably too polite to say that in his article but he has noted that before.)

I will, of course, be following the tournament whether I write about it or not.  I am very curious to see what happens.  There are a lot of stories to follow.  Can Ghana live up to its promise and heritage?    Will the Ivory Coast’s Golden Generation finally win a tournament or disintegrate with nothing to show for all its talent?  Can Zambia overcome its tragic history?  Can Libya or Tunisia do anything  of symbolic importance in the wake of the Arab Spring (and Egypt’s qualification implosion)?  Should the brutal regime of Equatorial Guinea even be allowed to host a tournament?  Can newcomers Botswana impress like they did in the qualification round?

These questions and more will be on my mind as I watch the tournament.  I am just not sure that the football will give me enough of an impetus to write about the answers (or lack thereof) that I discover.  In the meantime, go Botswana!

[Update:  The job situation is such that I will not be able to spend copious amounts of time thinking about AfCoN.  I will try to post from time to time, but it will not be every day.  Sorry, or you're welcome depending on how you feel about my blogging.]

The United Nations, African Politics, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Dearest readers, I admit up front that this post is half-baked and thematically inconsistent.  I apologize for that, but it comes from a bunch of ideas that have been floating in my head and that seem connected, although I am not sure how.  For those of you who wanted another football post, there are always more coming soon.  For those of you who are sick of football, enjoy.

To my shock, the United Nations Human Rights Council finally adopted a resolution that applies human rights principles and protections to sexual orientation and gender identity.  This is a shocking first for the UN, and particularly for the ironically named Human Rights Council (can such a body truly cares about human rights includes members such as China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Nigeria, Uganda, and, until recently, Libya?)  This is a UN resolution so it is essentially meaningless except in symbolism.  Nevertheless, the votes were fascinating, and telling about LGBT rights and a changing world.

This particular resolution was spearheaded by South Africa, and was supported by 22 other countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, France, Guatemala, Hungary, Japan, Mauritius, Mexico, Norway, Poland, Republic of Korea, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States and Uruguay.  (In 2003, Brazil was the first nation to put forward such a resolution.)

Opposed to the resolutions were the following members: Angola, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Djibouti, Gabon, Ghana, Jordan, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Russia, and Moldova.

Zambia, Burkina Faso, and China abstained, Kyrgyzstan was absent, and Libya had been suspended for obvious reasons.

The resolution was co-sponsored by the following countries:  Albania, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Honduras, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Timor-Leste, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and Uruguay.

There is an immediately obvious divide primarily between a Middle East/Africa/predominantly Islamic countries bloc and everyone else.  It’s not quite that universal or simple though.  Russia and Moldova are really the lone Western who voted against the resolution.  Noticeably, historically Catholic countries favored the resolution (despite the Church’s opposition to all things LGBT.)  Latin America, for example, really came through, but then again Latin American governments are trending  progressive on LGBT issues, particularly Argentina and Uruguay.  The support even extended into the East despite the opposition of the Middle East.  All the non-Muslim Asian countries (save China) voted in favor of the resolution.  And even China’s abstention is cause for curiosity.

China usually votes against LGBT protections; this abstention is something of a shock.  The real surprises however, were Mauritius, Zambia, and Burkina Faso.  For years, the whole of Africa has fallen into line, and, led by Nigeria, has voted as a bloc against LGBT rights.  That two of those nations, Burkina Faso (predominantly Muslim) and Zambia (predominantly Christian) abstained from the vote is in itself jaw-dropping.  That Mauritius actually voted in favor of the resolution is a minor miracle.  Mauritius is a tiny island country near Madagascar.  Consensual homosexuality is still illegal there.  I am curious to know above all else why exactly Mauritius voted as it did.

In my search for the answer, an answer I still do not know, I read about the government of Mauritius.  Unlike most of Africa, Mauritius has a functioning democracy with peaceful transitions of power.  It rates at the top of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, which probably has something to do with why Mauritius voted in favor of the UN resolution.  The better a nation’s human rights record, the more likely it was to vote in favor of the resolution.

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The Ibrahim Index of African Governance is basically what it sounds like: it rates how well the African nations are governed.  A little background is in order.  The Index, which is researched and published by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, was intended as a way for Africans to monitor how good their governments are.  The Foundation was founded by Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-born billionaire (he made his fortune through telecommunications and founded Celtel before selling it for over $3 billion), who is determined to help the Africa clean itself up, and join the world community as an equal partner.  The Foundation awards the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, a prize given to African leaders who, during the course of their reign, significantly improve their countries and then (and this is key) allow the democratic process to work by peacefully transferring power to their successors.  The prize is $5 million and then $200,000 a year for the rest of the former leader’s life.  (This has led critics to call the prize a bribe, and there is an element of truth in that.  There are legitimate questions about the purpose and efficacy of the Ibrahim Prize.)  The obvious model for such a leader is Nelson Mandela, although the Prize began well after the Great Man stepped down.  The New Yorker published a fascinating profile (subscription required) of Mo Ibrahim this past March, and I encourage you to read it if you can.

The 2010 Ibrahim Index of African Governance lists the top five nations as Mauritius, Seychelles, Botswana, Cape Verde, and South Africa.  It is probably not coincidence that three of the top five nations are islands, and thus less likely to be unsettled by disturbances in neighboring countries.  (Not all islands scored well though.  Madagascar and Comoros are in the bottom half.)  South Africa, for its many faults, has had a relatively stable government since the fall of the apartheid regime, and Botswana has been a model of good governance and economic growth for decades.  Unsurprisingly, one of the (only two) recipients of the Ibrahim Prize was Festus Mogae, the former President of Botswana.  The prize was not awarded in either 2009 or 2010, which is a rather telling and sad fact about governance in a continent of over 50 nations.

Admittedly, using the Ibrahim Index is a very faulty of determining whether a nation is well-governed.  The criteria are somewhat suspect, and good governance is a subjective and nebulous concept, more ideal than quantifiable.  Good governance is also, to an extent, in the eye of the beholder.  The brilliant Cape Verdean singer Mayra Andrade sings a song excoriating the corruption and the failed promises of her nation’s democracy yet the Ibrahim Index ranks Cape Verde near the top.  Sometimes, the Ibrahim Index just quantifies the obvious.  Things in Somalia are very, very bad, which is why it is at the bottom of the list with 8 points out of a total 100.  In comparison, the next worst governed country is Chad with 31 points.  This is pretty compelling numerical evidence that Somalia is indeed hell on Earth.

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In the New Yorker profile of Ibrahim, there was a question of who the next possible Ibrahim Prize winner would be, and sadly there were no contenders on the immediate horizon.  The one possibility is the President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.  Johnson Sirleaf is an interesting case.  A former World Bank economist, she is the first woman to be elected the head of an African state, and thus far the only one.  She is extremely popular abroad, although I am not a Liberian and cannot vouch for her popularity at home.  Supposedly, she is not quite so loved in her own country.  (The true test will be whether she is reelected this fall.)  Her presidency followed the horrific and destructive dictatorships of Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor and years of civil war, which included, among other horrors, the use of children as soldiers.

Johnson Sirleaf’s Liberia is not exactly a success story.  There are many, many problems, and the country has a very long way to go.  To her credit, Johnson Sirleaf acknowledges this.  The most recent Ibrahim Index tells an interesting story though.  Liberia is ranked 36th of 53, but that number alone is deceiving.  Liberia’s score have gone up significantly between 2004-05 and 2008-09.  Scores in specific areas have also significantly improved.  These areas include Safety and Rule of Law, Participation and Human Rights, Sustainable Economic Opportunity (where the score is still near the bottom), and even a bit in Human Development (health and social services), where  Liberia is woefully lacking.

None of this is to say that Liberia is good.  The Index hints however, that Liberia is on the right track.  Nevertheless, that statement is highly debatable.  Charges of corruption have been thrown at Johnson Sirleaf and her government.  In fairness, it is difficult to discern what is truth and what is propaganda.

I would like to think that Johnson Sirleaf is succeeding, if for no other reason than because the modern world has yet to produce a truly great female leader (although British Tories would probably disagree with my assessment.)  More importantly, the people of Liberia have suffered tremendously, and only a great leader can even start to turn around their nation.  It may well be impossible for one person to fix horrors that evolved over decades.  But a great leader may be able to stem the tide and put the nation on the right path.  Time will tell if that person is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

TP Mazembe and African Football

On December 14, 2010, TP Mazembe, a football club from the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, beat Brazil’s Internacional 2-0 in the semifinals of the Club World Cup.  Mazembe will probably lose in the final to Inter Milan (3-0 victors over South Korea’s Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma), but the win over the Brazilian side was significant because this marks the first time an intercontinental championship will be contested by a side that is neither European nor South American.

European audience will most likely not care.  To European fans, the Club World Cup is part joke and part inconvenience.  That is an understandable reaction, if regrettable.  No matter who wins the final the best club side in the world is the European side.  No other continent has the money the Europeans do, so only they can build the all-star superclubs that compete in the UEFA Champions League.  The best side in the world, regardless of the Club World Cup will come from only one of a few places: Spain, England, Italy, or Germany (meaning Bayern Munich.)  If you are think that is an unfair concentration of talent, just ask yourself if a basketball team from another country could beat the NBA Champion.

To the South Americans, the Club World Cup is a huge deal.  This is a chance for the top South American clubs to show up their European counterparts.  The South Americans know their sides are not as good as the superclubs, but this is a still a matter of pride.  From 1960 to 2004, the Intercontinental Cup pitted the winner of the European Cup and the winner of the Copa Libertadores.  At first, this produced some excellent performances, perhaps most famously the two victory of the Pelé-led Santos’s over Eusébio’s Benfica.  In the late 1960’s however, Argentina’s Racing Club and Estudiantes de La Plata won the Libertadores with extremely dirty tactics which they used on the European clubs.  As a result, in the 1970’s, the European Champions often declined to participate.  From 1971 to 1979, the European Cup Champion competed twice.  In the 1980’s the tournament regained some luster, but the Europeans never really took the competition seriously.  There were some attempts to make a club championship with the champions of every conference.  2005 brought the first Cup World Cup.

This edition is the 6th Club World Cup.  Brazilian clubs won the first two edition, which just underscores how traumatic the loss to Mazembe is for Internacional.  Internacional desperately wanted to take on Intern Milan.  Instead, not only will Internacional be the first Brazilian side not to win the Club World Cup, they are the first South Americans not to even make the finals.

Beyond European apathy and South American depression, I can only imagine the joy in Africa.  Africa has long provided talent to the top European clubs, at least since Mário Coluna and Eusébio (both born in Mozambique) played for Benfica and Portugal in the 1960’s.  That Eusébio and Coluna played for Portugal–Mozambique was then still a part of Portugal–evidences Africa’s colonialist legacy, a tragic heritage whose repercussion are still felt long after the Europeans departed.  In footballing terms, a side effect of colonialism is that despite furnishing top talent, African countries have yet to make a significant impact on the world stage.  The reasons for this are not mysterious.  There is no real infrastructure in African nations and the national footballing federations are, like the governments, rife with corruption and factionalism.  Unscrupulous agents sell budding talent (who come from poverty) to lesser clubs in Europe where the players often do not speak the language and are complete strangers to the culture.  A system that already depends upon survival of the fittest is magnified when it comes to African players.  Then there are the players’ connections to gambling rings (described by Declan Hill.)

Africa was also almost completely ignored by FIFA for decades.  The European (re: English) leadership of FIFA did not want to give Africa automatic qualification to the World Cup.  As Tim Vickery points out, there was no way for African nations to improve their standard of play when they were not allowed to compete with the best.  (Of course African nations were still a part of FIFA and could vote for its leadership.  Is it any surprise that the Eurocentric Stanley Rous was ousted by the Brazilian Joao Havelange?)

As an issue of nomenclature, it must be stated that when people talk about “Africa”, they are really talking about Sub-Saharan Africa.  Although North African (Arab) nations and clubs compete in African tournaments, for all intents and purposes, North Africa is culturally and linguistically the Middle East, which is a subcontinent unto itself.  For that reason, no matter how great the pressure there was for the North Africans nations to make the “African” World Cup of 2010, it will be nothing compared to the pressure to make the “Middle Eastern” World Cup of 2022.

With that in mind, the first “African” (Sub-Saharan) nation to make the World Cup was Zaire in 1974.  (Now, Zaire is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the home of TP Mazembe.)  It was a disaster.  First they were  beaten by Scotland 2-0.  Then they were beaten by Yugoslavia 9-0.  And then they had to face Brazil, the reigning world champions.  The Zaire squad held on to lose only 3-0, but provided a moment that will forever live in infamy.   Ilunga Mwepu, the right-back who defended a Brazilian free kick, only he did so before Brazil took it.  As you may be able to tell from that clip or this one, the rest of the world (particularly the British) interpreted this as a sign that the ignorant backwards Africans did not even know how to play.

The truth however is far more complicated and terrifying.  At the time Zaire was ruled by the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.  Mobutu loved football, and wanted his national squad to show up the rest of the world, if not outright win the World Cup.  After the 2-0 loss to Scotland, the players found out they were not getting paid, and as in protest they let themselves get trounced by Yugoslavia. The trouncing infuriated and humiliated Mobutu, who threatened retribution against the players if they lost to Brazil by more than 3 goals.

Sports are more or less a form of ersatz war.  Most of the time, a match allows fans to get out whatever emotions they are feeling in a harmless manner.  Football is more associated with violence than other sports–hooliganism, racism, riots, and stadium disasters are all too common.  I hope FIFA has buyer’s remorse from of the news out of Russia.  Once a match even sparked a real war between El Salvador and Honduras (although the reasons behind the way were far more complicated that football.)  Colombia’s Andrés Escobar was killed for his own goal at the 1994 World Cup.  And then there was Arkan and the ultras of Red Star Belgrade, whose footballing allegiance was a pretext to bring genocidal evil to the Balkans.

Sometimes, like with Mobutu, the government becomes as vengeful as the fans, and that adds a whole new level of horror.  Football players are just men doing their jobs.  Certainly they are flawed, but poor performance on the field does merit the brutal treatment from dictator like Uday Hussein and Kim Jong Il.  Mobutu may have been the first world leader to actually threaten his players for their performance.  It is nearly impossible to imagine the pressure, fear, and desperation felt by the Zaire squad.  Yet rather than ask why an experienced football player like Ilunga Mwepu would make such a silly mistake, the world laughed at him and at his team.  It is a miracle that they lost only 3-0 to Brazil, and were able to return home without retribution.

Although this proved to the world that Africa was a backwater, the irony is that by 1974 Africa already had a strong footballing tradition.   Perhaps the first great African national side was Ghana’s in the early 1960’s.  That is no accident, as Ghana was the first nation to gain independence from British rule, and football had a very powerful supporter, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah–Ghana’s first President.  Football was important to Nkrumah as a means of establishing national unity and self-empowerment.  While Nkrumah was President, the Ghanaian National Football Team was Africa’s strongest, and it won the 1963 and 1965 African Cup of Nations (its first two appearances.)  Although Ghana was the finalist in the next two editions of the tournament, the Black Stars were never the same after 1966 after Nkrumah, one of the most popular men in modern African history, was overthrown by a military coup.  It is worth noting that Ghana almost qualified for the World Cup in 1962 and could probably have made the World Cup in 1966 but for the an African boycott (for not being granted a guaranteed spot into the World Cup.)  By the time Africa was guaranteed automatic qualification, the Black Stars’ best days had passed.  Ghana did not make the World Cup until 2006, although it continued to win at the African Cup of Nations and perform well at the youth level.

Post-1974, Africa’s results have been mixed at best, despite Pelé’s claim that an African team would win the World Cup before the century ended (as great a player as Pelé was, the man is neither prophet nor visionary.)  Had South Africa been allowed to enter competitions between 1976 and 1991, I believe, although I cannot be certain, that Bafana Bafana would have been able to create the infrastructure that would produce a top team (as South Africa has done in rugby and cricket.)  South Africa’s growth was stunted by self-inflicted wounds.  Because the government clung to its evil apartheid system, a Havelange-led FIFA expelled South Africa in 1976.  (Stanley Rous had championed South Africa’s FIFA membership, thereby further alienating the African nations.  Is it any wonder he was ousted?)

Most of African nations at the World Cup have not performed well, but there have been flashes of potential.  In 1990, Cameroon became the first African side to advance to the quarterfinals.  The Cameroonians beat a Maradona-led Argentina and Romania in the group stages, the well-respected Colombia of Carlos Valderrama (and the insane Rene Higuita) in the Round of 16, and barely lost to England in the quarterfinals.  Senegal made the quarterfinals in 2002 and gave that tournament its first major shock when the Senegalese beat defending champions France (their former colonizers) in the group stages.  Although Ghana made the Round of 16 in 2006, its really proved its worth in 2010, when a young Ghanaian team made the quarterfinals to the delight of an otherwise despairing continent and, but for the hand of Luis Suárez, would have become the first African nation to reach the semifinals.*

With all long and tortured history, this is why Mazembe’s upset of Internacional is so monumental.  Africa has been the perpetual no-show in international football.  Because the World Cup was in South Africa this year, that underachievement was acutely felt.  Now Africa can end 2010 on a high note.  An African team in the Club World Cup final for the first time.  Hopefully it will not be the last.

Footnotes:

*  The entire continent backed Ghana for good reason.  Five other African nations qualified for the 2010 World Cup: Algeria, South Africa, Cameroon, Nigeria, and the Ivory Coast.  Only Ghana advanced, and only Ghana and South Africa won any matches.  On a related note, the vilification of Luis Suárez is completely unwarranted.  He did what he had to do to ensure his team would go through.  Anybody on any other team would have done the same thing.

Music that I listened to while writing this: Dolly Parton “Coat of Many Colors”;

The Changing Football Map

Tomorrow, FIFA will decide which country will host the 2018 World Cup.  For good measure, FIFA will also decide the 2022 World Cup host too.  Like everything out of FIFA, the World Cup selection process is secretive, lacking oversight, devoid of accountability, and probably corrupt.

The 2018 edition will be going back to Europe, and why not?  Europe has not hosted the World Cup since 2006.  How can the continent possibly survive without the tournament for a full 12 years?*  Europe and FIFA successfully drove out all competitors once Sepp Blatter, the head of FIFA, made it clear that he wanted the 2018 tournament to be in Europe.  The finalists for 2018 are Russia, England, a joint bid by Spain and Portugal and a joint bid by the Netherlands and Belgium.  Russia is the bookmakers’ favorite with Spain/Portugal a close second.  England has fallen to a distant third because of the English press (which, horrors!, exposed FIFA corruption.)  The Netherlands/Belgium bid has no chance because (1) they did not play FIFA’s corruption game, and (2) the tournament would be far too socially conscious for FIFA to handle.  FIFA wants a legacy damn it, not the greenest tournament ever.  Besides, Russia has oil money.

Mercifully, the 2022 tournament will not be held in Europe.  The contenders are the United States, Australia, Qatar, South Korea, and Japan.  The United States and Australia are the frontrunners.  Both will give a great tournament; both have the stadia, the money, and the infrastructure.  Both also have a public that FIFA wants to win over (football in both countries refers to different and far more popular sports among the home crowds.)  Australia has some advantages: (1) Oceania has never hosted the World Cup while the United States hosted in 1994; and (2) the United States will not give FIFA carte blanche to do what it wants (Sepp Blatter even tried to convince Barack Obama to urge MLS to follow the international calendar–an ironic move coming from FIFA which wants all government out of football oversight.)  However, the United States is still the United States: it is rich, it could host the tournament tomorrow if need be, the crowds will be massive, and the tournament it hosts tomorrow will be spectacular from an organizational point of view.  Also, a United States tournament will be more convenient for European television audiences than an Australia tournament.  Qatar is the favorite according to the gambling in London, but it just seems so unlikely that a small state in Persian Gulf would get the tournament even with all the oil money involved.  The heat of the Middle East would present problems for players and fans alike.  Also, to the rest of the world it would look like FIFA was bought and sold.**

Japan and South Korea jointly hosted the 2002 edition and are desperate to get away from one another.  They did not want a joint bid last time, but were basically told  by FIFA it would be the only way to get the World Cup.  The South Koreans and the Japanese have a healthy hatred for each other (stemming, like so many things, from World War II and the Japanese refusal to recognize their war atrocities toward the South Koreas), and they are very big rivals in pretty much everything, sport and beyond.  South Korea virtually has no chance and Japan has only a slightly better one.   All three Asian countries will have absolutely no chance if China decides it wants to enter (win) the competition for the 2026 Olympics. China however, has said very little.

The impending announcement of the 2018 and 2026 World Cups is a good time to reflect on how the focus of power in football has shifted and will continue to shift.  Thursday’s announcements will most likely confirm that the old guard (i.e. Western Europe) has been swept aside in favor of football’s nouveau riche.

Football originated in Britain.  A lot of revisionist history says ancient China or the Aztecs, or the Romans, or some other ancient civilization.  But the sport we know as football (and also rugby, and American football, and probably Australian rules football and Gaelic football) originated in England.  The rules of Association Football*** were formalized in England in 1863 and spread to the rest of the United Kingdom (hence called the “Home Nations.”)  The first international football match took place in 1872 between England and Scotland (a 0-0 draw).  Through British citizens living abroad, football spread to the rest of the world.   For decades, the Home Nations (meaning England and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were not so strong) were the top footballing nations, but the rest of the world caught up to the Home Nations without them noticing.  The Home Nations did much to help this along.  The English especially patronized the rest of the world with their arrogance and belief that football was their birthright, to the rest of the world’s annoyance.  This arrogance continues today, despite England’s utter failure to win anything since 1966.  England did not immediately join FIFA and then left in 1928 until 1946.  Therefore, England did not attend a World Cup until 1950, and Scotland first attended in 1954.  By 1950, the world had undeniably passed them by.  On November 25, 1953, after the great Hungarian Golden Team demolished England at Wembly and beat them even worse in Budapest, the English finally, reluctantly, figured it out.  Even today, the English hatred of Germany in football is less a reaction to World War II than to the fact that Germany always wins when it matters.  (Even more galling, the Germans think the Dutch are more their rivals, and the English are afterthought.)

Had the English (and Scottish) been paying attention, they would have seen that the world surpassed them as far back as the first World Cup.  At the 1924 and 1928 Olympics the Uruguayans dominated the Europeans (sans Great Britain, which withdrew.)  In 1930, the Uruguayans dominated again on home soil.  Although Uruguay was the first great South American team, its two far larger neighbors Argentina and Brazil soon surpassed it.  Decades later, Uruguay is an also-ran in South America who fights to qualify for the World Cup.  The 2010 World Cup brought Uruguay back into prominence: Uruguay finished 4th, the most successful of all the South American teams.  Uruguay, particularly Diego Forlan, were great fun to watch; whether you loved them or hated them, you must admit they produced some of the most entertaining matches in a largely dull tournament.  While one hopes that this is a new dawn for Uruguay, the truth is that Uruguay were blessed with an easy draw throughout the tournament.  Under different circumstances, would Uruguay have done as well?  I cannot say, although I suspect probably not.

In Central Europe. the great Austrian Wunderteam of the early 1930’s vied with Italy, Hungary, Germany, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia.  Each of these teams (except for Switzerland) had their moments in the sun.  Totalitarianism, or the end of totalitarianism ruined many of these teams: Austria was absorbed by Germany in the Anschluss in 1938.  When the two countries separated, Austria was never the same.  Hungary’s Golden Team of 1952-54 disbanded after the Hungarian uprising–many team members left their country (some, ironically, for Franco’s Spain.)  Hungary was never the same.  Yugoslavia exploded into civil war and terror.  Croatia has had spectacularly mixed results–either reaching the latter rounds of major tournaments or failing to qualify for them entirely.  Serbia has made the last two World Cups, but finished bottom of their group both times.  The other former Yugoslav republics have fared either the same or worse (Slovenia, the smallest nation population-wise in the 2010 World Cup, did a spectacular job eliminating Russia to qualify, but faltered in the group stages.) The two nations that were formerly Czechoslovakia have had similar mediocre records.  Only Germany and Italy have maintained consistent success.

In the 80 years since the first World Cup, only eight times have won: Uruguay, Italy, (West) Germany, Brazil, England, Argentina, France, and Spain.  Uruguay and England are no longer contenders (despite what the English fans and the English media think.)  At some point in the not-so-distant future Italy will may fall by the wayside, especially as the best teams in Serie A are made up of mostly foreign players.  Only time will tell.  Argentina is at a crisis point: they have not won an international tournament since 1993 despite waves of talented players.  The last time Argentina reached a World Cup final was 1990 (they lost).  Now they have the greatest player in the world in Lionel Messi.  If not now, when?

It is unthinkable that only five teams (Brazil, Spain, France, Germany, and maybe Italy) are capable of winning the World Cup.  New nations have to take their place at some point.  The great Tim Vickery has said on numerous occasions that only Colombia has the population in South America to join Argentina and Brazil on the world stage.  Colombia however, has yet to pull itself together, and a great Colombian team is nowhere on the horizon despite a proud heritage.  It seems inevitable that Russia and Turkey, two nations with crazed football followings and plenty of resources, will join the European elite.  Yet after both did well at the 2008 European championships, they faltered in World Cup qualification.  This is not the first time.  The Netherlands alone is the one country that has not won the World Cup that creates talented players and consistently good national teams.  They deserve a World Cup victory sheerly for that.  However, their continued success depends on the financial stability of the club sides’ youth academies and the ability of once storied clubs to sell their rising stars.  In other words, the Netherlands is extremely dependent on a good financial market.

African teams are consistent disappointments.  They have neither the infrastructure nor apparently the competency to create good teams.  The players, unsurprisingly, appear to have more loyalty to the clubs that treat them well than to the national associations that exploit them.  Every once in a while there is a Cameroon, or a Senegal, or a Ghana who rise to the World Cup quarterfinals, but who cannot put it together.  On home soil, the African teams fell hardest.  South Africa alone has the ability to push through to the next level, but as 2010 showed, that is a very long road ahead.  While Africa has produced exceptionally talented players, it has yet to produce a star on the world stage.  Africa’s greatest player ever, the Mozambique-born Eusebio, played for Portugal.  (Like France, Portugal’s national football team benefits from colonialism and immigration.  In a Portugal side, it is not altogether rare to see a player who is too good for his native African side or not good enough to play for Brazil.)

Mexico, like the African teams, can never step up to the biggest stage when it matters most.  A Mexican self-destruction is par for the course.  One bad decision, like in this year’s World Cup match against Argentina and the house of cards falls apart.  If any national team needs a sports psychologist, it is Mexico.

Then there are countries that should be competing for World Cups titles but are not: the United States, Australia, India, China, South Korea, and Japan.  Some are easy to figure out why.  Indians barely notice football, they prefer cricket and field hockey.  The I-League is a relatively recent (but growing) phenomenon.  China’s football federation is so corrupt that it has set back the men’s team 20 years and practically eviscerated the women’s team.  Australia and the United States, like India, prefer other sports.  Unlike in India, football has established a toehold in Australia and the United States as a niche sport.  Both are years away from good results though.  It will come for Australia but slowly.  The Australians need the World Cup to speed up the process.  The United States has simply failed thus far: the United States Soccer Federation has been unable to push football into minority communities, which is shocking especially given the large Latino population in the United States.  This lack of successful outreach is harmful for long term prospects for an American team and a national league that is more than fringe.  Japan and South Korea, I think they will always be strong in Asia.  I cannot see them pushing through yet.  Both performed well at the 2010 World Cup, but not nearly well enough.  South Korea’s run to the 2002 semifinals was dubious to say the least.

Until then, the ancien regime will dominate the World Cup.  The football map has changed, but not in the way one might hope.  The faces are still the same, but there are fewer of them.

Footnotes:

*In contrast, South America–the other continent from which a winning national team could come from–last held the World Cup in 1978.  Providing everything goes okay (a major if) the next tournament to be held in South America will be the 2014 edition.  Therefore, South America has not hosted the tournament for 36 years.  Part of this is Colombia’s fault.  They were supposed to get it in 1986, but Colombia in 1986 was not a good host.  As a result the tournament went to Mexico.  Since 1978, the following continents have hosted the tournament: South American (1978); Europe (1982); North America (1986); Europe (1990); North America (1994); Europe (1998); Asia (2002); Europe (2006); Africa (2010); South America (2014); Europe (2018); Not Europe (2022).  Europe also hosted the tournament in 1934, 1938, 1954, 1958, 1966, and 1974.  By 2022, Europe will have hosted 11 of the 22 World Cups.  Remember that the next time Europeans complain about Americans hogging the world’s spotlight.

** Not that appearances matter.  Another problem that no one I know has spoken about is what would happen if Israel qualifies?  Has the Qatari government given assurances that Israeli players and fans could enter the country?  There have been problems in the past with Gulf States and Israeli tennis players.

*** Dear fellow Americans, if a British person ever makes fun of you for calling the sport soccer instead of football, please remind them that soccer is British slang for “asSOCiation football.”  The game was called soccer because Association Football was too clunky a name, and it needed to be distinguished from Rugby Football (“rugger”), which separated into a distinct sport after the Football Association created the Laws of the Game.

Music I listened to while writing this post: Podcasts again, mostly football related.