Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Hidden Stories of Football in Africa

Former prisoner, Thulani Mabaso, on Robben Island football field
Feet of the Chameleon: The Story of African Football
Ian Hawkey, Anova Books, 2009.
More Than Just A Game: Football v Apartheid, The most important football story ever toldChuck Korr and Marvin Close, Harper Collins, 2008.

The world is in the final stages of counting down to the biggest show on earth – the football world cup in South Africa – the first time it has ever been held on the African continent. 

While billions of people prepare for the spectacle, it seems time to review a couple of recent publications that put the role of the “world game” in Africa into perspective.

The first and most recent of these is Ian Hawkey’s Feet of the Chameleon, which tracks the emergence of the game in Africa, its ongoing exploitation by the old colonial European powers hungry for talent to improve their leagues, and the role football has played in African nations winning their independence and democracy.

Through thirteen themed essays, Hawkey tracks the history of such football greats as Larbi Ben Barek – Africa’s first football superstar – and of Eusébio da Silva Ferreira, who moved from Mozambique to Portugal to become the greatest – and most fought-over – football player of his time, on a par with the Brazilian legend Pelé.

Hawkey also uncovers the role of football in African politics (and vice versa), and exposes the process of economic migration that has seen such modern greats as Emmanuel Adebayor, Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Samuel Eto-o playing in Europe, and has seen thousands more forsake friends, family and home, dreaming of emulating them.

Where Feet of the Chameleon is most engaging is in describing the relationship of football and politics. For some African countries, such as Algeria, football became an integral part of their independence struggles. Hawkey recounts how the FLN, the guerrilla army fighting for Algerian independence from France, formed an “illegal” national team by convincing Algerian players competing in the French league to defect.

While some of the players were arrested en route, a rebel team managed to gather at the FLN headquarters in Tunisia, where it was inundated with invitations to play in the Arab world, China, Vietnam and the Eastern Bloc countries. FIFA – football’s world governing body – refused to acknowledge them, but the rebel team won 65 out of the 91 matches they played over four years, and provided the Algerian independence movement with a famous victory and a worldwide symbol of their struggle.

Hawkey also recounts the role football has played in forging the national identity of other African countries. The national team of Ghana – known as the “Black Stars” – has brought confidence and pride to their country post independence as the team excelled on the world stage. There are also stories like that of the 1993 Zambian team that crashed tragically in Gabon, or the bizarre strictures placed on the Congolese side by the ruling dictatorship, or the many mystics employed in dozens of countries to cast spells over opposing teams.

Anyone who remembers the brilliant “Indomitable Lions of Cameroon” – and the unforgettable Roger Milla – that became the first African team to reach the quarter finals of the World Cup in 1990 – beating Maradona’s Argentina on the way and winning four African Nations Cups and an Olympic Gold medal – will recognise the importance football has played in recent African affairs, something which Hawkey captures with ease.

The Feet of the Chameleon also reminds us of the racism and colonialism that has characterised the European relationship with Africa, both past and the present. Despite the undeniable quality of Cameroon in 1990, the team was subjected to the full spectrum of racist jibes in the media, from accusations of using witchdoctors to suggestions that the players ate monkeys.

The story could have ended there, but Hawkey shows us another face of football in Africa, and that the modern world of football is as lopsided as the old colonial world that preceded it.

In a day and age when the most important African football games are beamed in from London, Madrid, Manchester and Paris, tens of thousands of African teenagers risk life and limb in the hope of finding a place in a top flight European team.

The best teams, the highest pay, the biggest profile – in short, the chance of a truly successful career in football – reside in Europe, and the influx of migrants into Europe desperate for a better life includes thousands of would be Premier League and La Liga stars. Most never make it, however, and are forced to eke out an extra-legal existence in the shadows of European society, desperately near yet impossibly far from their goal.
Football has come a long way in Africa, but it is still a game run by white men.


While Ian Hawkey gives a good overview of football across the continent, Chuck Corr and Marvin Close’s More Than Just A Game: Football v Apartheid provides a more detailed account of football’s political role in this year’s World Cup host country – South Africa.

In South Africa, football has a proud history as a weapon in the struggle against Apartheid. In a country where the white elite excelled at cricket and rugby, football was undeniably the sport of “black and coloured” South Africans, when anti-Apartheid activists – most notably Nelson Mandela, but also current president Jacob Zuma – were imprisoned on the infamous Robben Island.

Football was a key focal point of political organising in the prison. It was through football that they maintained their discipline and dedication to winning freedom and democracy for South Africa. Fighting for the right to play football – and on their own terms – was a central battle for the political prisoners, and one in which they were eventually victorious.

In fact, they were so successful – in setting up a Football Association with multiple leagues, uniforms, referees, and even a detailed dispute resolution process – that some of the most hardened racists amongst their guards began to question the white supremacist propaganda of the Apartheid regime. The fight to maintain the “Makana Football Association” also helped to draw international attention to Robben Island, and to the battle against Apartheid, hastening its eventual fall.

It is no coincidence that the South African Bid for the World Cup was to a great extent won by the involvement of anti-Apartheid heroes such as Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Football still holds an iconic position in the struggle for democracy in South Africa, and this may indeed be "the most important football story ever told".

Unfortunately, however – but not unsurprisingly – preparations for the World Cup have exposed the fact that political corruption and poverty continue to plague South Africa, despite the formal end of Apartheid two decades ago.

In past months, Zuma’s government has cleared the streets of the homeless and is forcing hundreds of thousands of people out of the townships – the semi-permanent slums that fringe South Africa’s main cities. These “unwanted” poor have been virtually incarcerated in "temporary relocation areas", places described by their residents as concentration camps, far from international scrutiny.

Both of these books allow us to reflect on the power football has to mobilise people to fight for justice and fair play. As the World Cup unfolds in South Africa this June, they should also remind us of the need to "reclaim the game” as a force for freedom and justice, and not just another multi-billion dollar industry, brimming with consumerism and hollow nationalism.

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