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At Africa Cup of Nations, lingering bias against blacks

Colonialist-era prejudice is alive and well in soccer.

By / February 7, 2008

Accra, Ghana

Last Sunday, my family and I watched host Ghana squeak by arch rival Nigeria to advance to the semifinals of the Africa Cup of Nations tournament. Then we saw a post-game press conference with Ghana's coach, whose looks might surprise you.

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He's white.

So are 11 of the 16 head coaches here at the tournament: six Frenchmen, three Germans, one Pole, and one Dutchman. Counting the Brazilian coach of South Africa's team, exactly three-quarters of the coaches are non-Africans. To an American observer, that's one of the most incongruous aspects of the "football frenzy" here in Ghana. The tournament has released a torrent of patriotism, as news reporters and ordinary citizens trip over each other with tributes to the "Black Stars" soccer team – and to the country at large.

"The Black Stars have infused a strong urge of nationalism, unity, and singleness of purpose into the populace," The Accra Daily Graphic newspaper editorialized, the morning after Ghana defeated Nigeria. "We urge Ghanaians to continue to fly the national flag, adorn themselves in the national colours and display oneness and love for all ethnic groups within the borders of our dear country."

So why does the national coach come from outside of these borders? And why do so many other African teams continue to hire coaches who aren't African?

The answer isn't pretty. Despite all of the patriotic rhetoric surrounding soccer, the sport itself is a legacy of colonialism. And so is the predilection for non-African coaches, which reflects the lingering sense among Africans that they'll never really measure up to their former European masters.

Consider the spat at the 2006 Africa Cup between the Togolese coach and one of his star players, who threatened to quit the team in a dispute over playing time. "It is because I'm a black coach," Stephen Keshi told the press. "If I was white, maybe he would have more respect for me."

Ditto for the controversy surrounding Egyptian soccer idol Mido, who called coach Hassan Shehata a "donkey" during a very public confrontation at the 2006 tournament. To millions of viewers, the argument told the same sad story: Africans won't respect African coaches.

And here's the biggest irony of all: Under Coach Shehata, Egypt went on to win the 2006 Africa Cup! Indeed, 12 of the 25 winners of the Cup – that is, almost half – have been coached by Africans. So it's simply false to say that African teams can't succeed with homegrown coaches.