Ted Lasso and the Afropolitan

The Afropolitics of one of the characters, Sam Obisanya, makes the second season of TV series "Ted Lasso" even better than the first.

Still from Ted Lasso.

If you’re not watching “Ted Lasso” yet, you should jump on the bandwagon, even if you do not consider yourself a football (read: soccer) fan. The series follows the lives of a diverse cast of characters brought together through the elite world of professional football and one woman’s plot for revenge against her philandering ex-husband.

Through her divorce settlement, Rebecca Welton (played by Hannah Waddingham) acquires AFC Richmond, a fictional English Premier League club on the verge of relegation. Plotting to ruin her ex’s beloved club, in her first major decision as the new owner, Rebecca hires American college football coach Ted Lasso (played by Jason Sudekis) as the club’s new head coach. Players and fans at first rebuke Rebecca’s choice given that Ted had zero experience on the football pitch. But Ted’s magnetism and vision for a kinder sort of sportsmanship enable players and audiences to imagine new forms of success for the team of young men from around the globe, and for the women who enable their victories.

The show offers a fresh and sometimes raw examination of male friendship, masculinity, mental health, and women’s empowerment through the lens of professional football. It has produced much fanfare and recognition, winning several Emmys and prompting various written perspectives on Ted’s kind, empathetic, and complex optimism in a world of competition and toxic masculinity. However, very little has been written about one of the African and Black characters, rising Nigerian footballer Sam Obisanya (played by Toheeb Jimoh, a British actor and the son of immigrant parents from Nigeria). Some of the online takes on his character have focused on his romantic entanglement with Richmond club owner Rebecca (including some criticism). With the African Cup of Nations heating up (before the tournament, Liverpool head coach Jurgen Klopp reminded fans of the longstanding tensions between AFCON and the European leagues), now is a good time to consider what Sam Obisanya does to elevate Africa’s contested place in the world of (fictional) professional football.

Sam is a newcomer to Richmond in season one, hailing from a club in the Nigerian Football League. Though his role is minor in season one, his character is an important foil to the emotionally immature and egotistical striker, Jaime Tartt. But after Richmond is relegated from the EPL at the end of season one, forcing the club to reexamine their strategies in the show’s second season, Sam begins to rise both on and off the pitch, buoyed by Coach Lasso’s constant encouragement and keen awareness of Sam’s bouts of homesickness. At just 21 years old, Sam is mature beyond his years. He is worldly, genuine in his kindness, and as Coach Lasso helps him redefine his role on the pitch from defender to midfielder, Sam emerges as a role model to aspiring young footballers across racial divides who proudly wear the Obisanya jersey.

Sam is an Afropolitan.

The term “Afropolitan” has sparked intense debate here and elsewhere. The social theorist Achille Mbembe says Afropolitanism is a philosophical concept merging “African” and “cosmopolitan” to explore “the many ways” that “Africans, or people of African origin, understand themselves as being part of the world rather than being apart.” As a Nigerian footballer aspiring to belong in England, Sam rejects the exclusivity, elitism, and “self-aggrandizing” behaviors that mark well-founded critiques of the way some have commercialized the term coined by Taiye Selasi in her 2005 essay.

As Sam’s star rises on the pitch in season two, he confronts new questions about his identity and the responsibility that comes with his growing success. For example, Sam is elated to receive an offer to be the face of a new ad campaign for the club’s sponsor Dubai Air, a subsidiary of Cerithium Oil. But upon learning from his father that Cerithium Oil was responsible for repeated oil spills in Nigeria while refusing to clean them up—and experiencing the discomfort of his father’s disappointment—Sam decides not to go through with the ad campaign. Club owner Rebecca supports his decision. But Sam’s political activism doesn’t stop there. Before Richmond’s match against Coventry City, Sam covers the Dubai Air logo across his chest with black tape to take his protest public. His Nigerian football mates join him, and the rest of the team follows.

In a post-match press conference, Sam publicly accuses the Nigerian government of corruption for its destructive dealings with Cerithium Oil. (It’s no secret, of course, that there is a long history of corporate and government corruption surrounding regular oil spills in the region.) Sam’s public protest ultimately leads to the dissolution of the sponsorship, quickly replaced by the team’s PR mastermind, Keeley Jones, with a sponsorship from a progressive new dating app, Bantr, that does not allow users to post photographs of themselves. The sponsorship change is hardly a rejection of the capitalist regime that funds elite football clubs around the world. It nonetheless presents a bold scenario in which an elite football club eschews the logos of corrupt corporations and governments that are hurting the people and communities they claim to serve, where real life teams have failed to do so.

Still from Ted Lasso.

In a recent interview, Toheeb Jimoh explained that his character’s closeness to his father mirrors his own relationship with his parents, who Jimoh feels a great debt to for their sacrifices to provide him with a good life. Sam’s activism gives viewers a glimpse of the rising footballer’s emerging political consciousness rooted in the responsibility he feels to do right by his family and home country.

The show carries this theme forward with the introduction of a new character in the final two episodes of season two, Edwin Akufo. Played by Sam Richardson, an American actor who grew up in the US and Ghana, Edwin is a Ghanaian billionaire looking to recruit top African talent to field the club he just bought, Raja Casablanca (an actual top club in the Moroccan professional league, Botola Pro). Edwin appears to have noble intentions in his quest to recruit Sam for his all-star, all-African football club. (In a real-life parallel, the black South African coach of the Egyptian club, Al Ahly, current African Champions League and Super Cup champions, recruited Percy Tau, a forward with EPL club, Brighton Hove and Albion to leave the UK and play on the continent again.) A new conflict emerges for the young footballer who seems to finally be feeling at home with Richmond, but who is also intrigued by Edwin’s Afrocentric vision to bring Africa’s top football talent back to Africa.

To Edwin’s surprise, following AFC Richmond’s win promoting them back to the Premier League in the season two finale, Sam tells Edwin that he is going to stay with Richmond: “I don’t believe my time here at Richmond is over, and for that reason I have to stay. I hope you can understand.” Edwin’s expression sinks, and in a fit of rage, calls Sam a “Nigerian motherfucker” and “Yoruba trash,” and vows to “dedicate my life to destroying you … you will never play on the Nigerian national team.” Sam takes the high road, and simply responds: “OK,” with a smirk. As Edwin exits the Richmond locker room, he continues to hurl ethnic slurs and threats of violence at Sam in an over-the-top tantrum.

Edwin’s insults are intended to threaten Sam’s sense of self and identity, as a Nigerian and as an African. But as Edwin accuses Sam of betraying his Nigerian home and African heritage in a fit that erodes Edwin’s credibility as anything more than an entitled billionaire who inherited his wealth from his father, Sam is sure of himself and his decision. The dynamic between Edwin and Sam thrust viewers into longstanding debates over “who is African and who is not?” in a rather decisive way. Sam, of course, rejects Edwin’s insults that Sam is not African enough, or not doing his part as an African, for Africa.

It is exciting and refreshing to see this subject take center stage in a show as popular as “Ted Lasso.” Some critics say the show sidesteps the pervasive racism that Black footballers endure in the world of elite European football. Indeed, the lives of African footballers in Europe have been historically difficult to navigate amid persistent forms of discrimination. Recent research shows that about 30% of all players in European leagues hail from the continent of Africa, but only 1% go on to coaching and managerial careers in Europe. Historically, the pay that African footballers receive is far below their white counterparts, to the extent that researchers have found African footballers still tend to struggle to find solid financial footing as they work to establish their professional careers in Europe.

But Sam’s character development and the conflicts he navigates in season two do shine a light on the challenge African footballers—and people living in the diaspora more broadly—face when trying to find a sense of belonging in their new homes. And true to his character development so far, Sam’s confidence in his decision to stay with Richmond is a testament to his self-affirmation as an African who desires to belong beyond Africa’s borders. Season two closes with Sam opening a Nigerian restaurant in London, an indication of his determination to put down roots in his new home.

Some viewers may not like how the show navigates this question of “who is African and who is not?” That scholars still seem to be engaging in this debate indicates that the stakes remain high for some. What is exciting about how the show imperfectly enters this debate is that it fits with wider, and growing calls for more inclusive ways of thinking about belonging in European football and society. As the growing field of Black European Studies evidences, there are many more stories that mirror Sam’s desire to feel at home in England. Reading Bernardine Evaristo’s new memoir, Manifesto, is a difficult but hopeful exploration of her affirmations of belonging as a Black British woman and award-winning author.

Sam’s self-affirmation as a Nigerian footballer living in Britain may be a fiction. But the present reality demands that we imagine such a world of acceptance of our common humanity and shared belonging. Because if we cannot imagine it, we certainly won’t ever achieve it. The African Studies scholar, Wendell Hassan Marsh, recently argued that “African epistemic self-affirmation is the ultimate end of decolonization.” Sam Obisanya’s particular brand of Afropolitanism gives us a glimpse of what that might look like.

Further Reading