Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Zizou’s issues: football’s aesthetics vs. global ethics

Who would have predicted that on the morning after the grand finale of Germany 2006, and in the days to follow, much of the world would be debating a headbutt and its probably or allegedly racist provocation? The issue has divided people’s opinions, with some believing that the reputation of the game solidly rests on the upholding of a virtue called “sportsmanship,” in which a player should not react to a provocation, however insulting. Others contend that as long as it fails to address the problem of racism head-on (pun coincidental), football as a game does not deserve the attribute of being a beautiful game. Regardless what side of the debate you are on, the incident makes one thing clear: football is more than about athletic aesthetics and kinesthetics. It is also about global ethics and responsibilities in addressing problems of racial injustice and historical inequality. These problems are evident and in need of attention, even if it turned out that Matterazzi’s comment to Zinedine Zidane, popularly known as Zizou to his fans, was benign, if not amiable.

Those who see the game as being more about sportsmanship and athletic aesthetics than about global ethics insist that the best reaction to a provocation on the field is referring the matter to the referee, rather than responding to the provocation. The issue of not responding to provocations has been a defining problem for individuals and groups dealing with problems of social justice for many centuries. It may be said to share philosophical turf with ideas such as non-violence and the biblical ethic of turning the other cheek. Some movements based on these precepts have been successful, but others have merely worked to the advantage of the powerful and privileged, leaving the concerns of powerless and underprivileged groups unattended.

From the perspective of sportsmanship and athletic aesthetics, Zidane should have kept his calm and reported the matter to the referee. But this perspective ignores the question of whether the referee would have believed Zidane, having not been within earshot of the incident. Would the world have believed Zidane? A non-response from Zidane would have in fact meant that the only sound to be heard the morning after would be the deafening cacophony of Italy’s triumph. Would a complaint about racism, in a world in which racism has sometimes been blamed on the victim, have any chance of being heard in such a triumphalist din?

Another point being made is that a non-response reaction to a provocation on the field would have been more appropriate considering that the behavior of sports stars on and off the field has a huge impact on young people worldwide. This is also a good point to make, but it subordinates the problem of racism as being less important than the need to provide young people with impeccable role models. Subordinating the problem of racism to the backyard of perfect, spotless role models strikes me as not only immoral, but also unrealistic and misleading. Do we really expect young people to be that uncritical? Even if we accept that many young people are indeed uncritical and buy wholesale into the myth of the perfect sports star or celebrity, is that the kind of worldview we want to encourage in our young people? For how long are we going to sweep under the carpet the problem of racism and injustice in world football?

The problem of racism should not be seen as superficial and merely having to do with the temperament of players on the field only. It should be seen as a more profound problem, affecting the hopes and aspirations of billions of underprivileged people around the world. It should be seen as representative of the other intractable issues that have so far not been given prominent attention, including the fact that this was another all-Europe affair in which Eurocentrism as both an ideology and reality was on display yet again, as far as the hosting of the tournament, the slots per confederation, and FIFA’s selection of the best 23 players of the tournament. While the diverse ethnic and racial makeup of the French team was one indication of how racism can begin to be overcome in the very heart of Europe itself, that observation is, for the moment, being buried under superfluous condemnations of an act that may have been the culmination of years of pent up rage, as alluded to by those more familiar with Zidane’s experiences growing up and the larger problem of racial integration in French society. This is not a perspective that can be easily understood by some ensconced in the racialized privilege and class comfort of material surfeit.

Rather than seeing Zidane’s headbutt as an ugly act tainting the reputation of a so-called beautiful game, it should be the pervasive racism of European domination of world football that is truly ugly. The beauty of the game should not be seen in terms of aesthetic and kinesthetic displays on the field only. It should also be seen in the actions FIFA takes to make the game live up to that attribute by being an instrument of active world peace and global social justice. With South Africa 2010 on the horizon, one hopes we are heading in that direction.

Monday, July 03, 2006

African football, global inequality and 2010

Much of the African media’s analyses on the reasons why no African team went beyond the second round at the ongoing World Cup Finals in Germany focus on one theme that reflects much of the African media’s analysis of Africa’s problems: self blame. Virtually no analysis I have so far looked at mentions broader issues of global, historical and political injustice and inequality, in how world cup berths are allotted in the different FIFA confederations. In fact, a Rwandan columnist repeats a common refrain about how Africans always blame colonialism for their ills, when no such thing has even been mentioned in any of the analyses and comments, whose uniting feature has been blaming African teams for lacking self-confidence and resources. Such is the strength of the reluctance to examine African problems in their broader context that blaming colonialism is considered not only taboo, it is brought up even when nobody mentions it.

In Malawi, The Nation newspaper of July 1 quoted national team players, sports commentators and coaches as saying African teams lacked tactics and “failed to properly read issues on the pitch and react quickly.” Another player blamed it on lack of self-confidence, saying African teams gave a lot of respect to the more experiences teams. The Zambian paper The Post quoted the Nigerian coach Augustine Eguavoen as attributing the problem to lack of experience, while the Business Day of South Africa quoted Farouk Khan, youth development coach, as saying it boiled down to lack of facilities to promote the sport in Africa. The Zimbabwean Independent put their finger on “naivet.” There is no denying of the validity of each of these issues.

However, in addition to these analyses, I want to suggest a deeper examination of historical and political trends apparent in the development of the game since 1930, the first time that the world cup finals were staged, in Uruguay, South America. With the exception of Japan and South Korea in 2002, the world cup finals have always been played in two regions, Europe and the Americas. Is it much wonder, then, that the world cup has always been won by teams from these two regions, and never from any other region of the world? To date, after 17 world cup tournaments, in a period of 72 years (as of 2002), only 7 seven teams in the world have ever won the FIFA World Cup, all of them from either Europe, or South America. Is it such a big surprise that these two regions boast the world’s most accomplished footballing nations, and that other regions do not have such pedigree?

The inequality and injustice of the game’s organization is even more blatant in the way world cup finals slots are apportioned. The continent of Europe has 51 national football associations, and has 14 (15 in 2002) world cup finals slots. Africa, which has 52 member associations, has only 5 slots, an improvement from 1978 when Africa was accorded only one slot. South America has 10 associations, yet it claims 5 world cup places. Asia, with 44 associations, has 4 places, while Oceania, with 11 associations, has no slot of its own, relying on a victory in a play off with the 5th placed in South America to be accorded a slot. Unstated in these allocations is the fact that some of the teams that are accorded national status in FIFA are not even sovereign nations. Examples include Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, teams that do not have nation status at the United Nations, yet they are accorded the opportunity to compete with a 3 to 1 chance of making it to the finals over sovereign African and Asian nations. This not an argument against these teams’ world cup berths; rather, it is an argument against the injustice and inequality facing African and Asian nations.

To its credit, FIFA has been more open and accepting to demands from the Confederation of African Football (CAF) for more places and support, thanks to the two FIFA’s presidencies of Joao Havelange, a Brazilian, and Sepp Blatter, a Swiss, who is the current president. According to Paul Darby’s (2002) study of the development of football in Africa, politics and colonialism have been apparent at each turn of the game. In his book titled Africa, Football and FIFA: Politics, Colonialism and Resistance, Darby argues that the contours of the development of football in Africa reflect the struggles of African countries in global politics and history. Writes Darby: “Africa’s position within FIFA’s global hierarchy can be illustrated and informed by drawing upon explanations which take into account of the globalization of culture, economic models of global development and a range of perspectives in international relations” (p. 7).

Darby’s framework and approach, which lead him to conclude that Africa has contributed a lot to world football, is shared by other researchers, including Alegi (2004), Cornelissen (2004), and several others. This is why I find it intriguing that much of the commentary in the African media says nothing about the broader contexts in which African football has to dribble and tackle. It does not take sophisticated thinking to understand how more opportunities to play in the world cup finals translate into improvement of the game back in the region accorded those opportunities. The self-blame train, interestingly, does not see this point.

There is much to be admired in the tendency for us Africans to blame ourselves, contrary to those who claim that Africans like to blame others. However there are broader contexts that must be taken into consideration, to make the analysis more accurate. A lot of the self-blame can in fact be seen as coming out of the inferiority complex that is widely, and perhaps correctly, understood to plague many Africans, who never cease to see Europe and America as the unmatched epitome of civilization and advancement. Some of the self-blame also comes from an attitude of Africans’ dissatisfaction with conditions in their own countries, unbalanced with an acceptance of the status quo at the global level. These are effects of a Eurocentric mindset, in which these particular Africans, mostly from the elite ranks, have been schooled to view themselves through European worldviews.

After several shots from the penalty box, Africa has finally scored into the goal of the hosting rights to the 2010 world cup finals. A few commentators have observed that Ghana’s performance in Germany has been worthy of world cup finalists, and that to those who have followed Ghanaian football, this has not been a lucky flick. Whereas hosting the tournament on African soil does give African teams an added boost, the reality of five slots, against historical domination and slot advantage from Europe and South America, does not offer much hope for an African team winning the cup. Africa’s victory lies in the gradual triumphs registered so far, a reflection of the awareness of the inequality and injustice of not only the world game but global relations as well, on the part of Africa’s struggle leaders and other fair-minded individuals around the world.