Ghana's World Cup wins disprove those who still think Africa can't play soccer

For a long time football was simply considered too complex and too ‘beautiful’ to be mastered by Africans, writes blogger Sipho Hlongwane. Racism created that perception, but poor African governance and political interference have helped keep that perception alive.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Ghana players, including Derek Boateng, right, and Quincy Owusu Abeyie, dance and sing at the end of a Ghana national soccer team training session on July 1, 2010. As the team prepared for their World Cup quarterfinal match against Uruguay on July 2, they're also battling the perception that football was simply considered too complex and too ‘beautiful’ to be mastered by sub-Saharan Africa’s dumb brutes.

After more than two weeks of reading intense World Cup coverage, I think I have pinned down the typical stereotype of African football. You see it everywhere, in different shades, but I think I’ve managed to whittle it down to its barest form: African football is physical. It’s all brawn, muscle and physicality. South American football is like dancing. European football is like the inside of an iPod: very scientific and very engineered.

The knee-jerk reaction to all of this, as an African, is to cry “discrimination” and have a fat rant about how de poh African is mistreated. It’s a little more complicated than that.

For a long time football was simply considered too complex and too ‘beautiful’ to be mastered by sub-Saharan Africa’s dumb brutes. The fact that sub-Saharan footballers tend to be bigger than the average footballer (South Africans are a distinct exception in that regard) didn’t help. Africa faced incredible prejudice from FIFA, especially prior to 1990. In the qualifiers to the 1966 World Cup, it was decided that the winner of the Africa zone would have to play the winner of the Asia zone for a slot in the World Cup. Africa’s teams withdrew from the qualifiers in protest, prompting the Guardian to write, “the only sour note so far has been the withdrawal of all the African countries from Group 16. They were allocated, with Asia, one spot in the final and felt that they should have had more. As Dr. Keusar pointed out, they were given seven places in the Olympic Games, which is a tournament for amateurs.” All the African countries that took part in the boycott were fined heavily by FIFA.

In the 1974 World Cup, Africa was only allowed one slot: 24 Africans teams competed for it. Compare this to the one slot for every four European teams in the same tournament. The confederation of African football’s requests for more African representation were rebuffed time and again by Sir Stanley Rous, the FIFA president at the time. African football was simply prejudiced against.

With regards to the administration of football in Africa, the issue there is a little more complex. It involves several things: Africa’s poor governance record, Africa’s relatively new birth as a football continent, and a lack of resources. We’re all well-aware of this continent’s shoddy record when it comes to governance and management. We are simply cursed with leaders who want to run everything, and who then proceed to stuff everything up. African
football has not been spared.

The first sub-Saharan team to qualify for the World Cup was Zaire in 1974. It’s a heartbreaking story. When the team won that year’s African Cup of Nations and then qualified for the World Cup, Mobutu Sese Seko showered them with gifts and praises. They had a victory parade through the streets of Kinshasa (horribly reminiscent of South Africa’s victory parade through Sandton before the World Cup began) and were everybody’s heroes. Then they went into the World Cup, promises of huge bonuses ringing in their ears, and were quickly beaten 2-0 by Scotland. Suddenly all the jubilation was gone. Even worse, the Zairean officials pocketed the players’ wages and refused to pay them. The players then revolted on the field and were thrashed 9-0 by Yugoslavia. It’s not
like they even tried to play. If you look at the footage, you’ll see the Zaireans moping about on the field.

After that showing, Sese Seko sent his presidential guard to threaten the players. If they were beaten more than 4 – 0 by Brazil, they couldn’t come home. Can you imagine trying to play against Brazil, the greatest footballing nation on the planet, under those conditions? The players went to pieces, running around the field like headless chickens. At one stage, Brazil got a free kick and Ilunga Mwepu charged out of the wall to kick the ball away even before the referee’s whistle blew. It was a humiliating exit from the World Cup, and it did lasting damage to sub-Saharan Africa’s image in football.

In a sense, the 2010 World Cup is about trying to rebuild that image. A team that did yeoman service to the continent is the Cameroonian team at the 1990 World Cup. They nearly created one of football’s greatest upsets by defeating England in the quarter-finals of the World Cup.

Africa’s governments like to meddle in the administration of the sport. Mobutu Sese Seko did it in 1974 and now Goodluck Jonathan is doing it too in 2010 to the Nigerian team. Administrators like to meddle in the training of the team. The main reason why South Africa's team, Bafana Bafana, are failing to replicate the feats of the 1996 team is largely thanks to the South African Football Association, who are too impatient and too impetuous to nurture football in this country. They thought that by hiring Carlos Alberto Parreira for millions they could avoid an early exit in the World Cup. What could Parreira do, besides do the best he could with the players he had? South Africa doesn’t have good development infrastructure in place, and that is SAFA’s fault.

We shouldn’t forget too that football is relatively new in Africa. Countries in South America and Europe have been playing football since its birth in the late 19th century, The first World Cup was held in Uruguay in 1930. How many countries in Africa were even independent at that time? It takes time, money, patience and skill to build up a good crop of footballers in any country. Africa has hardly had the money, patience, and skill. But I think after this World
Cup, things will change. They must change.

Having said that, we must remember that each football team plays to its strengths. Germany’s players are tall and strong. They tend to play the ball in the air, and bully their way into the opposite team’s goal. Except in this World Cup, they had a lot of Turks and Poles in their team, meaning the football began to resemble Brazil’s. The Russians and British play like this as well. Teams like Spain, Brazil, and Italy, who are less physically endowed, play a craftier football where they do their damndest to hold onto the ball and play into space.

If you’ve ever watched the African Cup of Nations, you’ll immediately notice how extremely athletic African football is. It’s all muscle, speed and running. West African teams play like that, because physicality is their forte. Problem is, if you’re going to play against a team that’s going to hold onto possession, you’re going to run yourself sick. Hence the idea that African football is immature, because they run like nuts, and when they don’t get the ball, foul the opposite team. It’s exactly how Nigeria lost to Greece in this World Cup. However, if you get a coach who will get his side to play with a little more cunning, you could have a lethal team on your hands. All that power, all that physicality, ready to unleash at a moment’s notice.

It’s how Ghana beat the USA. Bradley tried to play Ghana at their own game (run them down into the ground) and failed. I believe Ghana has been able to get the balance between brains and brawn so far. Look at the difference between the two goals scored in the GHA-USA match. Kevin Prince Boateng’s goal was the epitome of clever play. Asamoah Gyan’s goal was down to sheer physical strength. Best of both worlds.

The stereotype of tough, physical African football isn’t far off, but it’s too easy nowadays to write of African football as reliant on muscle. Teams like South Africa certainly don’t rely on physicality. Teams like Ivory Coast and Ghana have that element of muscle, but are, of late, playing with more deftness and craft. It’s a fallacy to think that there’s a distinct ‘African’ style of football, and I don’t think there ever will be. We are simply too diverse to develop a single style of play. Journalists who write in that manner are either lazy or narrow-minded.

Sipho Hlongwane blogs at the Daily Maverick. You can follow him on Twitter: @comradesipho

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of Africa bloggers. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here.

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