At Africa Cup of Nations, lingering bias against blacks

Colonialist-era prejudice is alive and well in soccer.

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.

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.

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.

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."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.