Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Vuvuzelization of world football: Ghana & the real story of SA2010

With Ghana as the only remaining African team at the ongoing 2010 World Cup, as I write, the question for many people inside and outside Africa has been about the miserable performance of the five other African representatives. The 2010 World Cup was billed as the African World Cup, and hopes were high that a good number of African teams, amongst the six, would do better than in previous World Cup tournaments. These hopes thrived notwithstanding the facts of the official FIFA rankings, in which no single African team featured in the world’s top eighteen. Running up to the start of the tournament the highest ranked African team has been Cameroon, at number 19 in the world, with Ivory Coast coming in second, at number 27th, according to Jeré Longman in the New York Times (June 5th, 2010). Among the more interesting explanations for the failure of all but one of Africa’s representatives has been the observation that with the exception of Algeria, the rest of the African teams have European and Latin American coaches. Now Algeria themselves, under an Algerian coach, Rabah Saadane, have also been eliminated in the very first round. As per the heading of a June 21st New York Times article by Christopher Clarey, Africa has hosted the Cup, but has imported the coaches.

The foreign coaches argument takes on a curious tone when we note that South Africa, the host country that has had six years to prepare, have themselves exited the tournament, also in the very first round. This has happened despite being coached by none other than Carlos Parreira, a Brazilian who coached his own country to World Cup victory in 1994, according to Piers Edwards (The New African, African Football insert, May 2010). Meanwhile, Ghana have reached the quarter finals with a foreign coach, the Serbian Milovan Rajevac. The foreign coaches argument does have merit, but the fate of African teams at the 2010 World Cup has been determined by a host of other factors, including political interference, bureaucratic indifference, and perennial diffidence.

Nigeria and Ivory Coast replaced coaches with three months to go to the 2010 kick-off. According to the New York Times’ Jeré Longman, neither coach met the full team until late May. Nigeria dismissed a local coach, Shaibu Amodu, who was being paid US$13,000 a month, and hired Swedish coach Lars Lagerback who had failed to qualify his own country Sweden into the 2010 World Cup tournament. He is being paid a handsome US$300,000 per month over a five-month period ending in July 2010, according to Osasu Obayuiwana in African Football (April 2010). As I am putting finishing touches to this article, England have exited the tournament in the second round, at the hands of Germany. The Germans have a German coach, Joachim Löw, while the English have an Italian coach, Fabio Capello, according to the South Africa 2010 World Cup blog.

In the concluding part of this article I will discuss the issue of the sheer randomness and unpredictability that many times offer upsets and turn conventional expectations upside. But the main point I want to make is about Ghana and how its football triumph goes beyond the football pitch and the 2010 World Cup. I make this point regardless of the outcome of Friday’s forthcoming quarterfinal match between Ghana and Uruguay.

The more compelling story worth telling about the global tournament in South Africa this year has two sides to it. First is the story of what Ghana’s triumph symbolizes, at the center of which symbolism is Africa’s past and future. This symbolism is embodied in the vuvuzela, the cheering trumpet. Riding on the success of Ghana is also the story of how the 2010 World Cup has thus far proved wrong most of its critics, detractors, pessimists and doubting Thomases. The vuvuzela, much like Ghana’s Black Stars, has beaten odds to become more than a cheering instrument. It has now attained the status of an African metaphor for the unacknowledged ways in which Africa determines particular discourses at the global level. There are three narratives intertwined here. First, Ghana is carrying the hopes of the continent, and the larger Pan-African world. Second, this tournament has been remarkable for the bigger presence of players of African descent in many of the teams, especially those from Europe and Latin America. Third, the phenomenon that has become the vuvuzela takes on a significance that elevates the symbolization of Ghana’s performance thus far, as well as the widespread presence of African influence in the ancestry of the players on the field.

That it has been left up to Ghana at this point to carry forward the hopes of the African continent may look inconsequential in casual circumstances. But to a serious student of Pan-Africanism and of Africa’s place in the world, it is more than a coincidence. Ghana is the de facto center of 21st century Pan-Africanist ideals, and it is unfortunate that this knowledge remains unexplored amongst the majority of ordinary Africans. This is due to the failure of Africa’s political leadership, as well as the disconnect between Africa’s intellectual elite and the African wanainchi. As I have argued elsewhere, these problems are not unsolvable. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza has pointed out that there is a gap between the knowledge that African scholars produce in the academy, and the knowledge that makes up the school curriculum in many African countries (Zeleza, 1997). Even in Ghana itself, where the awareness of the country’ central place in 21st century Pan-Africanist throught exists amongst political thought leaders and intellectuals, the political discourse still poses challenges. A recent article by Sharon Hemans in the April-June issue of the BBC’s Focus on Africa magazine laments how very few Ghanaians visit the resting place of the 20th century father of Pan-Africanism, W.E.B. DuBois. When I visited the DuBois Memorial Center for Pan-African Culture in Accra in November 2009, I found only the staff who manage the place, on a Saturday afternoon. It was not much different when earlier in the day I visited the uniquely designed and aesthetically inspiring Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum, also in Accra.

My hosts, themselves Pan-Africanist thinkers, enlightened me about the difficulties surrounding perceptions of the relevance of Pan-Africanist ideas in Ghana today. I know these difficulties to exist in my own country of Malawi, and in the rest of Africa. As I have written elsewhere, and as is widely known in African scholarship, Sub-Saharan Africa owes its legacy of independence to the pioneering role played by Ghana’s first president, the Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. Nkrumah took a personal interest in supporting Malawi’s own independence, in his prescient conviction, 60 years ahead of his time, that the independence of Ghana was meaningless, unless it was tied to the independence of the rest of Africa. It is a lesson that ought to resonate with those African countries today that are undergoing an economic renaissance: the economic progress of Malawi, Botswana, South Africa, etc, is meaningless unless it is tied to the economic progress of the rest of the continent. The disconnect that divides African intellectuals, political leaders, and the wanainchi makes it very difficult for ordinary Africans to understand the significance of this exhortation. The acrimony and bitter negativity that greets the idea of a United States of Africa (notwithstanding the uninspired unoriginality of the term) amongst ordinary Africans is testimony to this difficulty.

Yet tied to the role that Ghana is playing in this tournament is the remarkable widespread presence of players of African descent in many teams, especially European and Latin American. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza has called this the “globalization of African football and the Africanization of global football” (The Zeleza Post, June 12th, 2010). For Zeleza, “the African presence in world football has actually been astonishing.” He remarks on the number of players of African descent in teams from North America and Latin America, Europe and Western Asia. Zeleza observes that the Saudi Arabian team at the last World Cup tournament in 2006 was “predominantly black.” He points out how Latin America is “home to Africa's largest diaspora,” and that both “Western Europe and Western Asia [are] also homes to millions of people of African descent.” Many of these teams, especially the United States, England, Brazil and France have several players of African descent. In particular, Brazil has the largest population of people of African descent outside the continent of Africa. And the complexion of its national team reflects this.

Writing for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s World Cup blog on June 16th, the South Africa-based analyst of African football Mark Gleeson listed Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland and the United States as European and North American teams with “sons of African soil in their ranks.” Gleeson attributed this to the “global village and modern migratory patterns,” adding that “most major European sides [now] represent much more their immigrant communities than they do old national stereotypes.” Particularly fascinating was Gleeson’s comment on what was going to be a historical first for two brothers to face each other in a World Cup tournament playing for opposing sides. That happened on Wednesday June 23rd when Kevin Prince Boateng of Ghana played against his blood brother Jerome Boateng of Germany. A comment on Gleeson’s story insisted that these players were not African at all, as their cultural mindset and upbringing were European and had nothing in common with Africa. Were it that easy to dismiss the concept of diaspora consciousness and the search for one’s roots and identity! In the England team that crashed 1-4 to Germany in the second round, no less than seven of the players featured were black, three of them coming in as substitutes. For France the presence of players of African descent has been even more visible going back to the last two World Cups.

It is this phenomenon then that gives us the metaphor of the vuvuzelization of world football. The vuvuzela’s adoption by football fans from various teams participating in the World Cup has been fascinating. Trevor Ncube, publisher of South Africa’s weekly newspaper Mail & Guardian tweeted on June 20th about how even at matches involving non-African teams, the vuvuzela could still be heard above the din. Fans from Europe, Asia, Oceania and Latin America have also taken to the vuvuzela. And the utility of the instrument has now gone beyond the football stands. According to an article posted on the website African Aristocrat on June 25th, Taiwan’s opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party, had ordered 200 vuvuzelas for a protest rally against a trade pact between Taiwan and mainland China. The article went on to report that a trade union in Poland, Solidarity, was also considering purchasing vuvuzelas, also for use at protest rallies.

Writing in the Mail & Guardian Online’s Thought Leader blog on June 24th, Sarah Britten quoted Peter Aspden of The Financial Times as describing the vuvuzela thus: “It is a joyous, life-affirming sound, of a nation entranced in pride and celebration, and expressing it through its own culture.” The word “vuvuzela” sounds very much an African word, but there has reportedly been a dispute as to its invention. Several web sources attribute the invention of the vuvuzela to an Afrikaner businessman, Neil Van Schalkwyk, co-owner of the Masincedane Sport Company, said to own the trademark for the instrument. The BBC reported in January that a black South African religious congregation, the Shembe Church, threatened to take FIFA to court over the use of the vuvuzela. The church claimed that the vuvuzela was invented by the church’s founder, Isaiah Shembe, in the early 1900s. To this day, the church conducts an annual ceremony retracing the footsteps of Isaiah Shembe, to the sound of the vuvuzela. The South African newspaper The Sowetan reported on June 22nd that Neil Van Schalkwyk and the Shembe Church had reached a settlement in which the Masincedane Sport Company had acknowledged that the church were indeed the original inventors of the vuvuzela.

The instrument is also known to have irked quite a few people. European coaches appealed to FIFA to ban the instrument, saying it was disrupting coach-player communication on the field. The British newspaper Daily Mail Online reported about one woman said to have torn a part of her windpipe after blowing on the instrument too hard. A US Army civilian employee in Germany is said to have been driven nuts by the trumpet, and to have threatened a vuvuzela-blowing neighbor with an axe. Such is the intrigue of the vuvuzela that it has created its own narrative alongside that of the 2010 World Cup. The vuvuzela has secured for itself an important legacy at this year’s tournament, Africa’s World Cup, creating a following of its own, according to Ndesanjo Macha of Global Voices Online. Now to return to the issue of randomness and unpredictability as to who gets to win and who gets to lose in any given FIFA World Cup tournament.

Commenting on developments at an ongoing event like the World Cup tournament is like aiming at a moving target. The failure of the majority of African teams to progress beyond the preliminary round has caused much anguish to supporters and sympathizers of African football. The various explanations that have been offered carry elements of accuracy, but there’s also the inevitability of chance that is always present in football. Much of this chance is inexplicable even by FIFA rankings, and by recent World Cup triumph history. For example, the two teams which competed as finalists at the last World Cup, in 2006, Italy and France, exited the 2010 tournament in the first round. How does one explain this, especially for Italy who were the reining world champions going into the tournament?

And watching the African teams play, one is hard placed to see distinct differences between them and their European, Latin American, Oceania and Asian counterparts. Ivory Coast held Portugal to a 0-0 draw, and lost very narrowly to Brazil. South Africa drew against Mexico 1-1 in the opening game, and beat France in their last group match (albeit arguments that the French team had been dispirited by internal squabbles). Nigeria, Cameroun and Algeria all held their own against high ranked European, Asian and Latin American teams. There’s a randomness, an unpredictability to the final result in many of these games not easily explained by FIFA rankings and recent success among the traditional favourites. It’s only when one throws into the equation the tactical and bureaucratic mistakes made by countries such as Nigeria and Ivory Coast, that the odds add up and militate against the African representatives. This is what has to be taken into consideration and added to the soul searching about what exactly happened to the African teams at South Africa 2010. Aren’t Italy, France, England and many other teams also doing the same soul searching?

Another point worth considering is what I discussed back in 2006, about the imbalance in the number of representatives per region, and how that imbalance skewers the probability of succeeding or failing in World Cup tournaments. The continent of Europe has 51 national football associations, and this year has had 13 World Cup finals slots (15 in 2002, 14 in 2006). Africa has 52 member associations, and this year has had 6 slots, with the sixth, South Africa, being included only because they are the hosts. The Latin American continents, combining North and South America and the Caribbean have a combined total of 50 associations, and this year they have had a combined total of 8 World Cup places. With these kinds of numbers and unequal representation, is it much wonder who gets eliminated early in the process, and who proceeds to the final rounds, as has always been the tradition?

For now, the action continues for another two weeks. Histories have been made. Critics, detractors and perpetual pessimists have been proven wrong. There are legacies that will shape the coming decades, on and off the football field. Long after the 2010 World Cup tournament has ended, the sound of thousands of vuvuzelas blowing across the South African veld will remain an indelible, identifiable symbol of this historic moment. Ghana’s possible success in the coming match will be pregnant with even more significance, but the greater meaning of what the Black Stars have already achieved will have resonance beyond footballing circles. This meaning will reinforce the historical legacy that Ghana has already given the Pan-African world, connecting an emancipatory past with the aspirations of a different African future both on the continent and in the diaspora. The sound of the vuvuzela will for a long time to come be the soundtrack for the 2010 World Cup anthem, performed by Shakira, and emblazoned in the words “This time for Africa.”


Unknown said...

Hello Steve,
Your article is wonderful. The performance of Ghana resides in the patriotism of the players in particular and Ghanaians in general, and the proven democratic good governance of the country itself. Patriotism and good governance are the ways for South Sahara Africa to get out of poverty and have a credible say in international affairs including football. Corruption reigns in every sector in Africa and impedes the football associations to perform well. Corruption is one of the biggest barriers to Africa development.

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Nkrumah took a personal interest in supporting Malawi’s own independence, in his prescient conviction, 60 years ahead of his time, that the independence of Ghana was meaningless, unless it was tied to the independence of the rest of Africa.

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