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Our psyches shy of the goal

Football has been fertile terrain for political analy­sis since the 1986 World Cup in Mexico when US scholar-diplomat Henry Kissinger assessed the prospects of the favourite teams, linking their styles of play to national history and characteristics.

Kissinger famously contrasted the ‘carnival” flair of the Brazilians with the warlike preparations of the Germans.

In a similar vein, and with less than 90 days to go before the first World Cup on African soil, what do the national identities of the six African countries represented say about their teams’ prospects on
the pitch?

Despite South Africa’s self-image as ‘the rainbow people of God” and the global reverence for the iconic figure of Nelson Mandela, the continent’s most industrialised country suffers from a profound cultural schizophrenia inherited from decades of colonialism and apartheid social engineering. Many of its citizens are ambivalent about its ‘African” identity; and, with continuing xenophobic attacks on fellow Africans, it will be interesting to see whether or how the rest of the continent embraces South Africa’s World Cup as their own.

Bafana Bafana, having failed to qualify for the recent Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in Angola, are clearly the weakest of the six African teams at the competition. The team, like the country, tends to overestimate its own abilities, while at the same time it suffers from a crisis of confidence — a syndrome not uncommon for a 15-year-old juvenile.

Despite having a Brazilian coach, South Africa faces the unenviable prospect of being the first host nation to be knocked out of the competition in the opening round.

West Africa accounts for three of the teams that qualified for the tournament. From the most populous country in Africa, Nigeria’s Super Eagles tend to perform very much like their country: huge natural talent that remains unfulfilled because of disorganisation and poor, uninspiring leadership.

At Afcon Nigeria, which somehow contrived to steal third place, sometimes acted as though all they needed to do to win was turn up.

The coach, Shaibu Amodu, has now been sacked and replaced by a Swede, Lars Lagerback. But can the Swedish socialist model be successfully transplanted to African soil? Nigeria’s football team won gold at the 1996 Olympics and has appeared in three previous World Cups but never reached the quarter­final. The players representing West Africa’s Gulliver show the strains of a country dogged by five decades of military misrule and political kleptocracy despite an abundance of impressive human and natural resources.

Cocoa-rich Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire supply the other two West African teams. The politics of both countries at independence were dominated by two powerful individuals: Kwame Nkrumah and Félix Houphouet-Boigny. In what famously became the West African wager, they bet each other in 1957 that their own country would be more economically developed than the other’s within a decade. Nkrumah advocated socialist heavy industry for Ghana, whereas Houphouet emphasised laissez-faire capitalism for Côte d’Ivoire.

Nkrumah failed to stay in power long enough to settle the bet — he was toppled by a coup within nine years. Houphouet, by contrast, died on his throne in 1993. Côte d’Ivoire at first appeared to be performing better than Ghana. But an economic crisis in the 1990s was followed by a civil war in 2002. Meanwhile, Nkrumah’s heirs have built a stable democracy since 1992, as the
country prepares to become a major oil producer. On the pitch, although Ghana’s Black Stars were runners-up to Egypt at Afcon, they tend to rely heavily on individual superstars in the style of Nkrumah, who was ­nicknamed Showboy.

In the 1990s it was Abedi Pelé; today it is Michael Essien, whose current injury could affect the team’s performance. The Ivorian team, though packed with world-class talent, similarly relies heavily on its inspirational captain, Didier Drogba, whose lacklustre performance in Afcon clearly affected the team. In South Africa the Elephants unfortunately find themselves in the ‘group of death” with Brazil and Portugal.

Representing Central Africa, the team from oil-rich Cameroon is clearly the most successful on the continent. The Indomitable Lions won Olympic soccer gold in 2000, reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup in 1990 and won Afcon four times.
The country itself, however, has been stifled by autocratic misrule and widespread corruption, with President Paul Biya having stayed in power since 1982. The nation suffers from something of an identity crisis, having been ruled by French, British and German imperialists.

The Lions demonstrate more solidity than artistry in their style of play — their creativity is perhaps stifled by the country’s culture of autocratic governance. Like Côte d’Ivoire’s Drogba, Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o is a superstar of global stature. But, reflecting the country’s problems at large, one-man rule is unlikely to lead the team to World Cup glory, as was recently evidenced by a disappointing Afcon.

From North Africa, another oil-rich nation, Algeria, completes the continent’s representation at the football finals. The Desert Warriors surprisingly knocked out Egypt’s Pharaohs to qualify for the tournament — a defeat convincingly avenged by Egypt at Afcon.

Indeed, it is Africa’s footballing tragedy that its best team, Egypt, which just won an unprecedented three Afcon titles, will not be at the first African World Cup.

Algeria won its independence from France in 1962 after a brutal eight-year war of liberation in which about a million Algerians were killed. After Algeria’s military brass hats annulled elections in 1991, which Islamists were poised to win, more than 100 000 people were killed in a ghastly civil war.

Algeria’s football reflects the gritty determination of a country that has sought to emerge from historical hardships. The Algerians won Afcon in 1990 and appeared at the 1982 and 1986 World Cups, but are not expected to reach the final stages in South Africa.

The world’s best footballer, Brazilian legend Pelé, made the famous prediction in 1977 that an African team would win the World Cup before the end of the 20th century. The apostle of the beautiful game has, however, always been a better footballer than a prophet.

Can an African team really win in South Africa?

Unfortunately, geopolitical analysis indicates that it will take a while longer before Africa’s football and national characteristics align sufficiently to claim the prize.

  • Dr Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town

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