Here in Maputo there’s only one thing on tonight: Portugal’s clash with Spain in the semi-finals of Euro 2012. Fancy bars are pushing up their cover prices and there are images of Cristiano Ronaldo all over the city centre. All the matches in the tournament have been watched with interest here, but when Ronaldo stooped to head Portugal to victory against the Czech Republic last week, most Mozambican football fans were on their feet, whooping and high-fiving one another as though it were the Mambas, their own selecção, that had triumphed.
After that game, I suggested — much too loudly — that Ronaldo is still some way off the level of play sustained by his nemesis, Lionel Messi. This heresy draws scowls from all corners of the pub and I was soon put to rights as to Ronaldo’s undeniable superiority. I admit that I am surprised to find such fervor attached to the football team of Mozambique’s former colonizer. We Scots tend to root for a shape-shifting nation by the name of “ABE” (Anyone But England) in such competitions, with our own side still languishing in the doldrums. “The Portuguese are our brothers,” my friend explains. “And of course, there was Eusébio.”
In a typically illuminating piece, the historian Laurent Dubois yesterday looked at how the ongoing Euro championship offers a window into “how histories of immigration have reshaped the world of European football”.
Dubois is acutely sensitive to how international football provides a stage for the creation of national symbols and myths. He writes:
During international football competitions like the European Cup, eleven players briefly become their country, for a time, on the pitch. A nation is a difficult thing to grasp: inpalpable, mythic, flighty. Historians might labor away to define the precise contours of a country’s culture and institutions, and even sometimes attempt to delineate it’s soul, while political leaders try mightily (and persistently fail) to stand as representatives of it’s ideals. But in a way there is nothing quite so tactile, so real, as the way a team represents a nation: during their time on the pitch, they have in their hands a small sliver of the country’s destiny. And in those miraculous and memorable moments when individual trajectories intersect with a national sporting victory, sometimes biographies and histories seem briefly to meld. At such moments, the players who inhabit the crossroads of sporting and national history – Maradona in 1986, Zidane in 1998 – become icons, even saints.
In Maputo, soccer’s communion of saints is presided over by Eusébio, the local boy. With Eusébio as the totem for the great Portuguese side of the 1960s, Mozambicans developed the enduring attachment to the Portuguese national team that will see them cheering on Paulo Bento’s players later today.
Nicknamed “Os Magriços”, Eusébio’s side enjoyed an enthralling run to third-place at the 1966 World Cup, and around that period many other Mozambicans joined him in the red and green: players such as Mário Coluna. He captained the team at the 1966 World Cup, played in five European finals with Benfica, and later became president of the Mozambican Football Association and Minister for Sport), the extraordinary forward Matateu (who scored 218 goals in 289 Primeira Liga games for FC Beleneses), and Matateu’s brother Vicente Lucas (whom Pelé called the greatest defender he had ever faced) Hilário da Conceição, and Alberto da Costa Pereira.
Together they could have made Mozambique a fearsome force in world football, but at the time there was no independent Mozambican nation, and no Mozambican national side to play for. Yet if there was something coercive about Mozambique’s golden generation representing the country that had colonised them, Mozambicans still felt a great thrill at seeing their countrymen becoming world-beaters. The bond with the vehicle for that pride — the Portuguese national team — still holds.
Not all former colonies can look back to such a moment, and yet for the most part it seems that African fans retain a surprising affection for old colonizers when it comes to international tournaments. Apparently in South Africa pretty well everyone was, as usual, behind Hodgson’s team. This is probably as much to do with SuperSport’s ongoing conquest of the South African weekend by means of the English league (and players who have excelled in it during its rise such as Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney) as it is with old colonial ties. It will be interesting to see, as immigration continues to shape the European game, whether these loyalties begin to fracture. Ghanaian affection for England may have taken on more of an edge in this tournament with Danny Wellbeck starring for them, but in their quarter final Italy fielded an even better Ghanaian striker in Mario Balotelli.
Top tweeter @Kweligee said he reckoned he was one out of a total of possibly just two Kenyans, worldwide, who reveled in Scottish-style schadenfreude as England were beaten by Italy at the weekend. He suggested that our glee was the cheapest possible expression of our postcolonial condition. Yet isn’t there something enjoyable about choosing to flout the Anglophone broadcasting edict according to which one must cheer for England as a matter of public decency, and stubbornly backing “Johnny Foreigner” instead?