Every time the FIFA World Cup tournament occurs, at least as far as I can recall, the question of ‘will it be Africa’s time to win it?’ recurs. Not necessarily because expectations are ever high that an African team will lift the globally famous cup. But more because African football players have been performing wonders at the highest levels/leagues of the beautiful game in Europe. It therefore always baffles many an African mind why they cannot do the same for their countries (most often confused with ‘continent’).
But when the tournament kicks off, the questions are subsumed by enthusiastic optimism. The entirety of Africa’s football fans will watch, scream at television sets and even hug in bars, church recreation rooms in the name of one of the five African teams in the tournament. Even if it was the one that relegated a home African country out of contention for qualifying for the tournament.
And after the group stages, where we start counting the lower number of African countries left, we still cling to the hope that one will continue to the semi-finals. And we have come close, three times. With Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010, all of which lost at the quarter final stages of the sporting competition. And if satellite images in each of these previous tournaments could pick up images of the anguish of a continent, it would only be those of Africa that would be spectacular.
The anguish is not without cause. Firstly as part of a global spectacle, and as I am sure has been noted by sports writers and scholars, the World Cup is both footballing competition and affirmation of global ‘togetherness’ as well as identity (nationalism). The latter may be more so for many of the established football powerhouses who coincidentally tend to be either the most ‘developed’ countries.
For Africa however the World Cup appears to be primarily about both history and collective continental identity. Mainly because the continent cannot shirk off the false global impression that it is somewhat backward, not only in relation to ‘development’ but as a result thereof, in football.
And that’s the first burden of Africa and the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Even after successfully hosting the last one in South Africa (though it had FIFA special courts temporarily replacing South African ones).
Our teams, our players and ourselves have to get over the notions that inform our continental history of being assumedly backward or less than the other in order to succeed at the tournament. And this is what also informs our enthusiastic support for African teams, almost as though we are there to prove a point. Hence, almost every African football pundit hints at needing to concentrate more and keep focused in the aftermath of an initial defeat for an African team. Not only in relation to the game that was played, but in relation to the strength of other teams in the same qualifying group. Especially if they are known and established football powerhouses.
This general but given point, leads to the second burden. One which falls on the shoulders of the player. Especially the star player who plies his trade in the best football leagues in the world. He has to contend with the fact that in another country he would have been in one of the powerful teams. And that his real teammates may not be good enough to challenge for the title since he knows the quality of the players and teams they are all up against.
He has to commit what others in political circles have referred to as ‘class suicide’ and see himself as much a team player in his own national side than that which he usually gets very well paid for playing with. He has to believe in his own team, even against the odds, and this is a burden few players (and teams) have been able to shoulder. Apart from Cameroon 1990, Senegal 2002 and Ghana 2010.
This brings us to the third burden, that of the imperative of Africa having to learn to compete better in global tournaments through adequate and holistic domestic development of sporting cultures.
The tendency of most African states has been that of waiting for talent in various sporting disciplines to emerge by default as opposed to seeking it out and nurturing it. And where we have been most successful, particularly in long-distance running, we have lost our most prodigious talents to other countries. The burden of all Africans is to therefore invest in their sports, not at the whim of a corporations only but also through transparent state funding. As well as through the establishment of a sporting industry that respects and values talent across all sporting disciplines, economic classes and gender.
So, as the FIFA 2014 World Cup reaches familiar stages for African teams, the questions we must ask of ourselves are whether we are continually going to keep our fingers crossed and prayers consistently on our lips so that this time, a country from our continent wins it. Even if by luck. Or whether again we witness a faltering, not for a lack of talent, but for lack of holistic preparation. And once again, hear a sports commentator mention, ‘Oh my, the Africans are coming’ during a game and not know the full import of such a statement.