For those of you in New York on 4th May, this debate at the New School about the World Cup will be well worth attending. Panelists include the Binya Wainaina, Teju Cole and Sean Jacobs.
Africa has historically been shunned by world football—viewed mainly as a cheap source of talent for Europe’s football leagues. Expectations are therefore high for what will be Africa’s first World Cup tournament.
So are debates, not just about the football, but also about its wider significance: whether about development, nation building, identity, expression, politics, history, media images, or consumption. A panel of experts–journalists, writers and academics–will set light on these issues.
Sean Jacobs, GPIA assistant professor, in conversation with Time Magazine senior editor Tony Karon, Austin Merrill, who writes the Fair Play blog for Vanity Fair, and writers Binyavanga Wainaina and Teju Cole.
The World Cup will not just showcase South Africa, it also has the potential to reshape many people’s view of the continent as a whole. Most news stories that come out of Africa are negative: wars and humanitarian crises, despots and rebel leaders. From Darfur to Zimbabwe and Somalia to Guinea, when Africa makes the headlines it tends to be for the wrong reasons. Yet this summer Africa will be the backdrop to a month-long “good news” story.
Between now and the World Cup, when hopefully many more great moments in African football will be created, I plan to highlight a few of the best from the past 40 years (or as far back as YouTube can go).
We start with Liberia’s George Weah, arguably the continent’s greatest ever footballer, running the length of the field to score for AC Milan against Verona in September 1996.
“[Sport is] a great tool for change. Sport is always ahead of where the laws are, where politics and prejudices are. It has always bridged the gap between Jew and Muslim, black and white, straight and gay, religious and non-religious, Communist and capitalist, because as athletes we don’t judge by those criteria. It’s ‘how well does she hit a forehand?’ Or ‘how fast can he run?’ That’s the beauty of sport.”
Cameroon’s World Cup performance in 1990 was Africa’s breakthrough. They beat the world champions, Argentina, a Romania side starring Gheorghe Hagi, and Carlos Valderrama’s Colombia. In the quarter finals the Indomitable Lions were leading England 2-1 with just seven minutes left to play, before Gary Lineker’s two penalties finally knocked them out.
Cameroon’s success changed everything for African football. No longer would Africans be seen as also-rans making up the numbers. Fifa, which by 1990 had grudgingly allowed two African teams to compete, increased the allocation to three in 1994, four in 1998 and five in 2002. This year, the first time the tournament will be held in Africa, the continent has six teams.
A line can be traced from Cameroon’s performance in Italia ’90 to Fifa’s decision to award the World Cup to South Africa in 2010. It was the moment that African football could no longer be ignored.
So it’s a shame that this Coca Cola advert focuses on Roger Milla’s hip wiggle at the corner flag rather than the goals he and the rest of the team scored.
“Yes, there are problems in Africa. But there are problems everywhere,” said the Burkinabe Minister for Sport a few days ago. “If a bomb goes off in Marseille,” he continued, “France is still okay. If a bomb goes off in Nigeria, it is Africa and it is a big problem.”
From the blog of The Ball, a 15,000 mile journey from Europe to the World Cup. I’m hoping to meet them when they swing through Kenya later this month.