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”;

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One response to “TP Mazembe and African Football

  1. Pingback: ¡Campeones! ¡Campeones! | tracingthetree

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