Shameless Self Promotion: World Cup edition

Look out for a a special issue of African Journalism Studies on “The Fifa World Cup 2010 in the News.” I guest edited.  While you’re contemplating whether you’d pay to read the opinions of academics on the greatest sporting event in the world, here’s the relevant parts from my introduction to the special issue:

It is too early to speculate about the full import of the 2010 World Cup, dubbed “Africa’s World.” However, journalists—never shy to express their “analyses” of a media event—were quick to state the obvious. British journalist David Smith writing in The Guardian captured the general sense that South Africa proved the critics wrong by hosting a successful World Cup. Contrary to what had been the prevailing consensus in the international media (and some parts of South Africa’s domestic press and blogosphere) pre–World Cup, “No one died. No one was stabbed, no one was kidnapped and no one took a wrong turn into the clutches of a gang of garrotters.”

Smith, who had recently moved to South Africa to represent his [newspaper] there, added: “History will show that South Africa defied fears of violent chaos to host one of the best-attended World Cups ever. It has put Africa on the global sporting map in a way which seemed unthinkable only six months ago.”

Afro-pessimism, according to Smith, was dealt a blow: “When Armageddon did not happen and smiling crowds flocked to world-class stadiums, it was hailed as a glorious surprise, if not another rainbow nation miracle. The ultimate accolade was that, from the moment of kick-off on 11 June, people were debating French egos rather than burning tyres, goalline cameras rather than CCTV evidence and hands of god rather than hands wielding machetes.”

Smith was of course being half-sarcastic. His reporting in the lead-up to the World Cup had—in general—been an exception to the rule and better than even some of his own colleagues at The Guardian, who, when they were not conjuring up nightmare scenarios, were subjecting the 2010 World Cup to unreasonable demands. If the foreign media were to be believed, the South Africans would either fail at hosting the World Cup or fail to solve poverty.

Most South Africans were of course not surprised at these media discourses.

Before the tournament, news coverage focused largely on South Africa’s perceived inability to mount such a competition, often reflecting journalistic assumptions of Africa and South Africa. They remembered well that South Africa had hosted the Rugby World Cup in 1995—one year after its first democratic elections. Since then it had hosted countless international team sports, including cricket’s Indian Professional League at short notice when Indian authorities felt it would be safer to do so because of terrorist threats back home in India. Most South African fans understood that the governing body of international football, FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), is a private corporation, has a less than stellar reputation when it comes to the profits of the tournament, and struggles with the tension between the “beautiful game” and the business model of the modern game. Though much public outrage is aimed at professional footballers’ salaries, the real problem is the money made by advertisers, FIFA executives (the association is notoriously corrupt), and speculative club owners in Europe, where the bulk of the world’s best players ply their trade.

Six years earlier, on May 15, 2004, FIFA had awarded the 2010 edition of the World Cup to South Africa. Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratic president, spoke for a large section of his compatriots and millions on the continent when he exclaimed: “I feel like a 15-year-old.” Mandela’s enthusiasm reflected the historical significance of the decision.

This would be the first time the World Cup—in its 80-year history—was set on the African continent. Africa has historically been shunned by world football—viewed mainly as a cheap source of talent for Europe’s football leagues. Expectations were therefore high for Africa’s first World Cup tournament.

For many people, including Africans, the event was experienced as a global and national news event. Increasingly media, whether news media or TV commercials, shaped the popular discourses about football, whether about the relation between nationalism and football (which most media actively promote), consumption (football is now a billion-dollar business), or leisure (in many societies football is a cheap form of relaxation and socialization).

… A varied group of contributors—mostly based in South Africa and the United States—were brought together to reflect on the tournament … Sampada Aranke and Karl Zoller, graduate students in California, look at the “representational fields” that can be identified in media representations in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup. The first of these, they indicate, is “FIFA’s self-fashioning through the production of its own media.” The second comprises “mass media reportage on Africa predominantly aimed at English-speaking fans and consumers in the United States.” As they explore media discourses around “Africa” and “Africans,” Aranke and Zoller find these representational fields to be “dialogic and mutually constitutive.” FIFA’s responses, or lack of response, to such reportage “comprise a representational strategy meant to manage crises facing the successful staging of the first ever African World Cup.” They show how FIFA’s representational strategy was not just visible in media reports of South Africa as the site for the upcoming tournament, but also in the reporting of events around the play-off qualifying match between Egypt and Algeria in Sudan in early 2010.

Their article connects well with that of Guy Berger, a journalism professor at Rhodes University, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. Berger points to media stereotypes about South Africa prior to the World Cup, in which the country “was a candidate for acquiring the stubborn connotations of Africa being a vast black hole, where what little is known about the totality is that wild and tribal identities provoke violence, that rapacious and corrupt Big Men wield power, and that ordinary people on the continent are ravaged by conflict, poverty, hunger, malaria, and Aids.” He identifies two countervailing discursive tendencies ahead of the tournament: First, a romanticism—albeit waning—about South African success; and second, a growing “Afro-pessimism” about the country’s failings. As in Aranke and Zoller’s article, Berger also shows how representations of South Africa were often intertwined or conflated with “Africa” as a broader construct. The central point Berger makes in the article is that although these two positions can be posited as opposites, respectively desirable and undesirable views of South Africa, the pair can also be understood as “twin dimensions of a single basic stereotype of (male) ‘noble savagery’” that operate along a “single essentialist spectrum.”

The contribution of Raphael Ginsberg from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, makes similar points. Ginsberg argues that the WC 2010 was in fact a very “un-African World Cup.” Because it was precisely South Africa’s “Africanness” that generated so many negative media representations in the run-up to the tournament, the organizers sought to present an Africa that could “supplant or even counteract history, an Africa that competently executes a significant international event rather than an Africa begging for foreign aid, an Africa that is a subject and no longer an object in global economic and political relations.” To this end, Ginsberg argues, FIFA, the South African government, and the local organizing committee “promised the revelation of ‘Africa’ during the ‘African World Cup,’ but the execution has merely been a global operation adorned with African accessories.”

If Africa is constantly presented in media discourses as a place that needs to be “developed,” African football has also been viewed as a vehicle for such development. In his contribution, University of Arkansas law professor Richard Peltz suggests that sports journalists, particularly writers about African football, are perfect candidates to make the idea of development journalism a workable model. According to Peltz, development often concentrates on news but overlooks the role of sports in African life. Sport is mostly seen as representing leisure and diversion, while development “is about the serious business of human survival.” Peltz however argues that sport itself “has survived since ancient times as an integral and universal part of human culture because it represents more than amusement. Sport is a metaphor for the human struggle.”

Like Peltz, Tendai Chari, based at a rural campus in South Africa, demonstrates how football, although primarily viewed as a form of leisure, can be intricately interwoven with politics, economics, and culture. Chari writes about how South Africa’s winning bid became an ideological tool between opposition and state-supporting newspapers in Zimbabwe. Chari’s article hopes to “open new pathways for theorizing the relationship between sport and other social aspects, thereby broadening our understanding of the social meaning of sports in general and football in particular.”

In what is a first for [the journal], we are also publishing a roundtable discussion on the 2010 World Cup. Football historians Peter Alegi and Chris Bolsmann convened a group of leading African football journalists (and Western journalists writing regularly about African football) to talk about the politics and economics of the World Cup. This informal discussion piece provides perspectives that are not always represented in more formal research, such as those pieces represented in this issue’s peer-reviewed section, but nonetheless are important to consider in order to gain an understanding of the views circulating between the broader journalistic community and their audiences.

* References are in the original document.

Further Reading

No more caricatures

Engaging seriously with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life could help us understand how South Africa got where it is and where it’s going.