A World Cup for the people

Even VAR could not save the Africans who withered away in the first round of Russia 2018.

Nigerian forward, Ahmed Musa.

The FIFA World Cup of neo-liberalism is living up to its expectations

What is it that dampened my enthusiasm about the FIFA World Cup? I need more and more time and money to follow the game as it is getting out of reach, being standardized, sanitized, and controlled by a few for global consumption. Tickets and travel cost more; TV the same, with increased fees under the guise of customization. Probably not just one thing. I watch the same players all year round. The media hype them up and raise our expectations for FIFA World Cup, and they offer nothing excitingly creative. The players are exhausted from long seasons ruled by results and big capital.

Shall I say it is football fatigue? The same praises for the same stars who shuffle from super club to super club to win “trophies” like Robin Van Persie or Raheem Sterling. It is never officially to “win more money.” Well-connected agents move them to super clubs owned by tycoons who cannot reveal the source of their wealth. The brutal truth is that only a few clubs win trophies these days. Those super clubs are champions as soon as their leagues start or keep winning many years in a row (Juventus, Paris St-Germain, Bayern Munich, Glasgow Celtic, FC Barcelona or Real Madrid, etc.). In much the same fashion, the FIFA World Cup has been magically won by the same club of 5 “deserving” countries: Germany, Italy, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay (ages ago). France, Spain and England have been invited to the club once. No surprise in Russia; two weeks into the tournament, 10 out of the 16 countries at the knockout phase are European, 5 from Latin America and 1 from Asia. The “other” dogs, especially the Africans, already underrepresented, withered away. Even VAR, invented to clean up the game, could not save Nigeria. An “invisible” hand has kept Messi and Argentina in again. The FIFA World Cup of neo-liberalism is living up to its expectations. For “other” dogs, participating remains the dream and the ceiling.

African football needs to regenerate itself

The Algeria of Belloumi, Madjer and Assad seduced the world in 1982. In our days, no surprise any more (except for the “calamity” of the elimination of Germany at the group stage as if a divine order was disrupted), no flair, no art, no risk-taking; results are money, like time. African teams, this time again, have won no trophy. They were a little unlucky, not pathetic, but Africans would have been happy with some genius and style. No cultivation of unique philosophies. Africa seeks the quick fix, the quick result for the pleasure of politicians and federations active under the table. African football imitates fruitlessly, feeds leagues around the world and forgets their own, like their raw materials. It refuses to think, design and create. No Cruyff or Guardiola type to focus on long-term development of a recognizable style, personality or identity. Too arduous, and maybe excruciatingly painful.

African football needs to regenerate itself and “reinvent their wheel.” Performances like Musa, Morocco’s Amrabat or Salah’s must abound, but the field is dominated by athletic and unimaginative defensive midfielders, and other “belly” players (to use Jean-François Bayart’s famous expression for politicians). Laurent Blanc, the former French coach allegedly remarked in 2011, that France were producing only athletic big, and strong players (alluding to black players who had taken over the French team), and not producing enough skilled players. Such statements are interpreted as racist, given the almost automatic emphasis on black athletes’ athleticism, speed, power, and not on their intelligence and hard work. In Russia, the French team comprises 16 players of African descent (of whom two are Algerian and Moroccan descent, and the rest Black) among the most skilled. There’s also one player of Filipino descent, one of Spanish descent, and the remaining 5 probably of French roots. The blood of Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the National Front, is probably boiling. This is the new face of Europe and the world. Is it reverse immigration (millions of Europeans took and settled in other lands and are holding on to them), or repopulation of the world but without guns, war ships and planes, and massacres? Some fans call the French team the sixth African team.

When will the people recover their game?

Those are some of the reasons why I am losing interest. All about the 1% who play and win more of everything they already have in abundance (money, fame and popularity, endorsements, material benefits and other types of social benefits) whereas the majority of players can hardly make a decent living. Common people love and play the game, but dividends go to a small elite of managers and players.

I have played football all my life. I am still in and could not ignore the competition, for the tradition, the history, the camaraderie and the hope for brilliance. Beautiful goals (Ronaldo, and Nacho in Spain-Portugal, Musa against Iceland. Coutinho, Son Heung-Min and Cherishev), or collective beauties like Tunisia’s first goal against Panama excite me. I had forgotten the chants, the dancing, the drama, the magic of the game, the conversations it inspires, the new friendships it creates, the emotions, the tears (fake or real) and all that jazz, nicely taken advantage of by large corporations.

When will the people recover their game? Maybe an illusion or a delusion on my part, but in Saint Petersburg, Russia, a group of young activists and social entrepreneurs, in a campaign called “Cup for the People,” bring the game closer to the people. They attempt, in the words of one of their members Arsene Konnov, “to show Saint Petersburg beyond the tourist clichés, and [show] that problems in most countries — the relationship between citizens and the state, corruption, megaprojects’ influence on urban life, our contemporary perception of history, social inequality and discrimination — are similar to those in our country in the eyes of locals who are trying to improve society.” Football is not whole, without its beauty and the people.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.