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At Africa Cup of Nations, lingering bias against blacks

Colonialist-era prejudice is alive and well in soccer.

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But people here keep saying it. Every time I take a taxi, I ask the driver the same question: Why doesn't the Ghanaian team have a Ghanaian coach? And in every case, the answer is the same: The top professional players in Africa all play in Europe, so they're accustomed to white coaches. They wouldn't listen to an African.

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Sadly, many of these same players have faced racist jeers from European fans. Crowds in Spain have made monkey noises to taunt Barcelona's Samuel Eto'o, the Cameroonian striker who recently became the top scorer in Africa Cup history. Two years ago, to protest racist slurs against him at a match in Spain, Mr. Eto'o threatened to walk off the field. But instead of stepping down, he decided to speak up. "Players, leaders, and the media have to join forces so that no one feels looked down upon because of the color of their skin," Eto'o told reporters.

He's right, of course. But as the resistance to black coaches reminds us, Africans themselves have imbibed some of the worst prejudices against them. What could be more racist than to claim that black people can't manage their own affairs, in soccer or anything else?

On the same page that it lauded the Black Stars' victory over Nigeria, for example, the Daily Graphic published a piece condemning poor facilities for tourists in Ghana during the Africa Cup. "Sometimes I wonder whether we can organise anything well," columnist K. B. Asante wrote. "Is such a simple arrangement beyond the capability of the blackman? If we Africans cannot organise elections without cheating and bloodshed, we should at least be capable of arranging to enjoy ourselves well at football."

There's a final irony in the history of Ghana, where 20th-century independence leader Kwame Nkrumah promoted soccer as a force for national pride and self-determination. By defeating Europeans in a colonial sport, Mr. Nkrumah predicted, Africans would make soccer their own – and would assert their mental freedom from their former rulers.

He was correct, but only to a point. Soccer has indeed become a huge fulcrum for African patriotism, as the recent celebrations in Ghana demonstrate. But the game itself remains mostly in colonial hands, as do the minds of too many African fans. Take another look at the coaches, and you'll see.

Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history and education at New York University, is teaching this semester at NYU's study-abroad program in Accra, Ghana. He is the author of "Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century."