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Africa and the World Cup: Soccer as Evolution?

Africa, as Friedrich Hegel and Nicolas Sarkozy have lamented, never managed to enter the march of history. Regardless, in the next month, it will play a starring role in the World Cup. Not quite a free pass through the pearly gates of universal subjecthood, but close.

Undoubtedly, soccer has always been a highly political phenomenon on the continent. From the development of national African teams after decolonization to the controversy over Zidane's "head-butt heard around the world," colonialism, soccer and politics have gone hand in hand, or ball in net. There is also the still-lingering memory of Le Pen's 2002 claim that France's team was not sufficiently "French." Ostensibly in France's "blanc, black et beur" team, blanc should be the primary color.

This is not only the first World Cup to be played in Africa, but it is also the first time that African teams have played with such a strong numerical (if not competitive) showing. Yes, there have been the inevitable concerns: about a lack of infrastructure and the impact of the games on the poorer segments of Cape Town. Moreover, on the heels of movies like Invictus, we should hardly be surprised that ESPN has glibly declared that this will be the "Cup of Contrasts" and that "nothing comes close to football in terms of breaking down colour, creed and religion."

Yet there is a more disturbing current in the discussions about Africa and the World Cup. It is a current that flows easily over racial reconciliation and soccer globalism, but which struggles when confronted with meaning of a word that seems to be an innocuous geographical marker: Africa. Perhaps this is because Africa is once again being used as a misnomer. The games, more precisely, are a watershed event for South Africa, one country out of 46 on the African continent. Pan-African rhetoric aside, can one imagine an Olympic bid by Bulgaria signaling a victory for all of Europe? Certainly a World Cup hosted by Canada would not be celebrated as a feather in America's continental cap. But Africa has always been viewed as an undifferentiated mass where individual nation-states do little to temper the land's essential "Africanness."

Secondly, there is a pervasive anxiety: how "African" is the South African team? In this case, Africanness tends to be associated with blackness. Many articles have fixated on the fact that the South African team is mostly black. Could one make a similar statement about the composition of the French team? Zidane may have played for France, but we all know that he was "really" Algerian. Perhaps because of the color of his skin, he was seldom described as African. The colonial conflation of Africa with Blackness resurfaces here, especially since Algeria, along with Morocco and Tunisia, are rarely viewed as African despite their continental positioning.

This anxiety speaks to the ambiguous place of colonialism in the continent's history. No matter that parts of Africa were colonized at different times, in disparate fashion, by a number of colonial powers. As Africa hosts the World Cup we must recognize Africa's history of colonialism - and make peace with it. A New York Times article states: "If anything can be salvaged from the harsh and unequal encounter between Western and African cultures, then the list must include the arrival of football." Soccer is a sign of Africa's tardy entrance on the world stage, which has been made possible by the tools offered by colonialism. Once again, to get to the universal, you must go through Europe.

But the anxiety goes further. The Wall Street Journal reports that African fans are concerned because many of the coaches training African teams are not actually African. Foreign expertise, which is in no short supply on the continent when it comes to multinational corporations, IMF loans, or development policies, is somehow a threat to the authenticity of Africa's sporting life. Whether or not some actually do feel this way is beside the point. What matters is that this worry, unlike the allegations of neo-colonialism lobbed against the World bank, is picked up by the WSJ as a matter of real concern. Preferably, African teams should have mostly black players and be trained in a sufficiently African manner.

Thus it is incorrect to claim that the World Cup "marks a milestone in South Africa's evolution," as the Financial Times has stated. Evolution itself is a loaded term, implying that Africa will eventually "catch up" to Europe, just being a bit late to arrive at the European ideal. But moreover, coverage of the World Cup has been obsessed with pinpointing, and defining Africanness, not overlooking or transcending it. Along the way the old colonial tropes - of Africa as monolithic, black, and Europe's "other," have been reasserted anew. Africa may have evolved in terms of soccer life stages, but the Hegelian universal is still very much out of reach.