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.]

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”;