How to write about African Football

How to analyse Africa’s World Cup without resorting to stereotyping or spurious indignation

By Ed Dove

Africa’s participation at the 2014 World Cup has come to an end and now, with the inevitability of German qualification for the quarter-finals, comes dissection of the continent’s performance and prognoses for its future.

The fallout has been met with pseudo-righteous indignation, with many questioning the merits of considering the performance of Africa’s teams as a whole. “Surely,” they say, “there’s nothing to be learned from generalising about the performances of the five representatives.”

It’s a common theme.

“Why should France just belong to the French but South Africa, Algeria and Ghana belong to Africa as a whole?”

“Why should the indignities of Cameroon or Ghana reflect upon their brothers in West Africa or Central Africa, or indeed any Africa?”

“You solve the problems of countries on a country-level, not a continental one.”

Now, I don’t condone the kind of inane, mindless writing of the likes of Kurtis Larson, who, with the Toronto Sun, produces lines like: “This [CAF] is a federation full of cry babies, selfishness and alleged cheats.” However, there is merit to considering the performances of CAF’s World Cup teams as a whole, spotting trends and discussing the broader patterns and direction of the continent’s game.

Boateng | "Cry babies, selfishness and alleged cheats"

First of all, trend-spotting is an important tool in opening a discussion and finding a point of solid land, or a bench mark, from which to launch debate or analysis. Those that say that the footballing community only generalise about African football and the continent’s game are widely misguided.

This is not a purely African phenomenon. It’s perfectly valid to talk about “the decline of Premier League teams in Europe” for example, or the “Post-Independence Prosperity of Eastern European national sides” because we are assessing grouped individuals on the basis of their common factors relative either to the writer/analyst or the others that constitute the pool.

The broad trend shows that English teams’ performance in the Champions League has declined since the middle of the last decade. This can be true without denying Chelsea their 2012 victory and doesn’t assume that the Premier League’s representatives have declined for the same reason.

Similarly, trends can be drawn for the Balkan states because of their shared characteristics and, particularly, the way their independence and thus emergence into the European community came about along concurrent pathways.

The blog Africa is a Country, one of this writer’s personal favourites, has based its identity and forged its mission on the lazy, uninformed images and perceptions of Africa spewed out by the Western media. Africa is not a country, of course, but it’s worrying how many people treat it as one, as a simple one-dimensional homogenous entity. It’s an idea critiqued in Binyavanga Wainana’s satire-saturated ‘How to write about Africa’.

Those who criticise trend spotting and the African game are buying wholeheartedly into this half of the argument…they’ve forgotten to read the disclaimer, however…

There is another side to Africa is a Country. This blog that battles to “destabilize received wisdom” acknowledges that the “nation”, in this case the ‘Nation of Africa’, “operates outside the borders of modern nation states in Africa and its continental and conceptual boundaries.”

It is a concept that comes from Benedict Anderson’s top drawer; Africa exists as an imagined community “whose ‘citizens’ must reinvent the narrative and visual economy of Africa.”

There is an Africa to be assessed and to be considered and to be evaluated as a whole, in its entirety, and it is possible to do this (and to draw valuable conclusions) without resorting to generalisations and sweeping statements.

With regards to the question of ‘ownership’, when prominent figures within the African game such as Asamoah Gyan are actively enforcing the notion that they are “playing for Africa”, yet their European counterparts are not, there is clearly a reason for it. Is Gyan, like Farai Sevenzo, not simply buying into the idea of an African nation, an African imagined community, beyond the delineated boundaries of country?

Gyan | "Playing for Africa" 

Yes, it’s a bad idea to blindly and lazily repeat the tired old stereotypes about African football, but to use, for example, the performances of the continent’s World Cup five as a starting point to discuss the problems that affect many of the teams within CAF is not.

The fact is that while there are great contrasts and variants within Africa and within CAF, the federation still exists and operates as an entity. Africa’s teams all have, at the very least, geography and footballing federation in common (this is not the case for two other FIFA federations).

The fact they exist within one federation means that it is at least worthwhile to identify the qualities and weaknesses of that federation and its collective body.

But there is more than that. African nations (and by extension, their national teams) have largely ‘come into being’ along similar lines. They almost all have a multitude of shared experiences, namely things like political influence within sports, presidential manipulation of the game, proximity between government and federation, a relationship with a metropole, a ‘perception’ to contend with, imbalances between the relative statuses of squad players, a lack of trust between administrators and players, the constant vacillation between local coaches and foreign coaches.

I could go on.

These issues affect federations across the continent. Considering the trends, considering the broad characteristics is a way into the discussion, a route into the problem and a starting point, hopefully, to try and understand how the continent’s teams, as a collective, can improve their collective performance.

The fact that people like Larson, and he is not alone, are choosing to resort to stereotypes and lazy observations to represent the continent’s game is obviously not ideal, but the fact that Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria and others are giving people reason to do so is something to be acknowledged as an issue enough. It is a problem significant enough that it affects some of the continent’s most prominent sides and therefore must be addressed.

The fine line between stereotyping and making broad observations of the continent can be achieved by acknowledging context, caveats, cases and caution.

When considering any example, recognise that there is a context, perhaps temporal, perhaps unavoidable, perhaps regional, that affects the narrative and ought to inform the way that African teams are understood.

Similarly, seek the caveats that explain and quantify what is being witnessed. People were quick to condemn Nigeria’s players for skipping training having not being paid, for example, but when one considers the caveat that manager Stephen Keshi was waiting on his wages for seven months, things are seen in a different light.

Keshi | The Seven-Month Caveat 

The third ‘c’, ‘cases’, overlaps with the previous two slightly, but simply means to judge each example in its own right, considering context, caveats, causes together.

Ghana’s controversies and Cameroon’s controversies may look similar at face value, and indeed, perhaps there is common ground between the two (it’s not a pure coincidence that such a high proportion of the teams that created off-field controversy in Brazil were African), but each have their own different reasons, explanations and principal actors.

Larson seems to suggest that equal effects must mean equal causes—this is not the case at all.

Finally, exhibit caution in making sweeping statements or broad generalisations. For example, between 1986 and 2014, 19 CONCACAF teams entered the World Cup, 10 escaped from the group stage. By the same token, during that same time span 28 African teams entered the competition, only seven advanced to the knockout stages.

This is a true fact; it is a valid trend to observe and a pattern to recognise. It shows that African teams have escaped the group stage much less often than their Central American and Caribbean counterparts. Without understanding the context, caveats and causes, however, there’s little more that can be taken from this fact at face value, beyond it being an ideal starting point for a debate.

“Africa is doomed”, as Wainaina once wrote…he didn’t mean it either!

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