Post-Imperial Football Guilt

For those among you who don’t follow sports, or news, or the stricken faces of football fans of varying teams, the French football team imploded yesterday in front of millions of viewers, in its last group stage match at the South African World Cup. Their opponents, South Africa, managed to net two goals but will still not be continuing in the tournament because of previous losses. Had it not been for a second-half French goal, the host nation’s team might have continued a fairy tale run with the hopes of a whole continent on its shoulders.

For this is supposed to be Africa’s World Cup, despite the fact that only six of the 32 teams are African, and they are all among the lowest-ranked. This is the first time the tournament’s been held on the continent, and pundits the world over are hoping for a victory for the perennial underdogs, because it seems fitting. Even Shakira is getting in on the action, with her official tournament song, subtitled “This Time For Africa,” which shows delightful snippets of the world’s best players touching their hearts and wearing t-shirts with the African continent on them, all while traditional African dancing (led by Shakira, of course) goes on in the background.

All this, and that nasty French team had to go and ruin it all by scoring a goal – one goal, when they were likely going home anyway! – to stop the momentum and dash the hopes of so many. Surely they are the villains of the piece (certainly they are to the Irish), for all the “neutral” viewers are behind South Africa and its continental brothers.

But why? Why should the immense pressure under which the French team (and many others as well) succumbed be so delightful, so seemingly just? In part, it is because we love the story. Which former world champion, awash in cash and world-class talent, won’t even get out of the group stage this time? It is a kind of ironic pathos that those in other nations (especially those who have fallen by the wayside along the way) can revel in.

It is perhaps also in part because we want to compensate, in some way, for a history in which Africans were underdogs in more significant ways than in football rankings. The big teams, with a few notable exceptions in South America, are all former colonial powers: wealthy, powerful, and Western. England, Spain, France, Germany, Portugal, the Netherlands – all countries that did and still do impact the fates of African nations in important ways. A victory for Ghana, or Côte d’Ivoire would be, in a word, revolutionary, an upset to the old order.

For football, like economics and militarism, can also be imperialistic. A fascinating post I read recently talks about how the World Cup is only reinforcing football imperialism: the most talented African stars leave their home countries to play in the big European leagues, leaving behind weaker players who lack the same experience and have little hope of getting it in impoverished African leagues and a generally weakened sporting culture. They are then re-imported to be the stars of their teams, all the while implicitly reinforcing the idea that European/Western is better, and that the place where African talent should migrate to be “discovered” is Europe. Even in countries that are seeking to bolster their footballing hopes for the future, the reflexive bent toward playing for European teams being the apex of a career is evident. In Nigeria, for example, a former national star has set up a school to find the most promising children and train them in football – but also in English and accounting, to prepare them for “making it big.” It aims to perpetuate its success by selling the best graduates to rich European teams.

I wonder if an element of our support for the African teams, however unconscious, comes from feelings of “white guilt,” the uneasy emotion that blogs like Stuff White People Like play upon. A thought-provoking post I read recently goes into more detail about white guilt in films from Dances With Wolves to Avatar, but the same concepts can be applied to football: white people feel that they are, in some ways, contributors to the continuing debasement of ex-colonial (footballing) culture, so to assuage their guilt they go against their traditional allegiances and support the “other,”  the underdog.

Am I extrapolating too much? Perhaps. But the fact remains that it will never be “Time for Africa” until a lot of cash and a thriving sporting – and general political – culture combine with the requisite amount of luck and natural skill involved in winning a World Cup. In the meantime, the answer is not to cheer for France’s demise – unless, of course, you are Irish.

MARGINALIA: In a stroke of marketing genius, Pizza Hut in Ireland gave out 350 free pizzas every time a team scored on France at this year’s World Cup. The “Handball Campaign” continued with more free pizza to celebrate France’s ouster yesterday.  I guess they don’t feel the need to grow market share in France.

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