(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).
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.
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.