Melanie Boehi discusses how, for politicians, sports tournaments such as the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations and the World Cup in 2010 serve as magical image-production machines and informal meeting space, where work is disguised as play and play disguised as work.
Hosni Mubarak was among the first to congratulate Egypt’s national team upon its return from the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Ghana in February. The president welcomed the footballers at Cairo’s airport and posed in their midst with the golden trophy. Mubarak has demonstrates a keen interest in football. The 2008 AFCON is only the latest occasion. After the national team’s victory over Cameroon in the group stage, the state-run Egypt Information Service reported that the president had called the team in Ghana. According to the Service “the national team players expressed their gratitude for Mubarak’s attention” and described it “as a motive for more success”.
Politicians’ appreciation for the Pharaohs’ winning of the Africa Cup of Nations was massive. Sa’id Abd al-Khaliq, a writer for the Egyptian daily Al-Wafd, speculated that following the joyous mood about the football success, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif might as well have called Confederation of African Football (CAF) president Issa Hayatou to ask him “to extend the African football championships for another two months as he wants to pass some difficult resolutions”.
In three weeks’ time, the second round of qualification of CAF for the 2010 World Cup that also functions as qualification for the next AFCON begins. When Tanzania plays Mauritius in Dar es Salaam and Malawi meets Djibouti in Blantyre on 31 May, the stadiums are unlikely to be as filled with VIPs as they usually are during major sporting tournaments. But Mubarak, Nazif and their colleagues will nonetheless follow the results with much interest because politicians want their teams to qualify for the competitions and they want to let voters know that they care.
For example, when the appointment of Jose Claudinei Georgini as new coach of Zimbabwe’s national team was announced in January, the Acting President Joseph Msika and several ministers and deputies were present. Msika, who is also the patron of the Zimbabwean Football Association, called upon all Zimbabweans to support the players to qualify for the 2010 tournaments. Sport has also been high on the political agenda in Nigeria following the early drop out of their football team in Ghana. In South Africa and other countries, sports ministers have recently made suggestions about how to improve athletic performances, especially in expectation of the 2010 World Cup.
But FIFA doesn’t tolerate government interference in the organisation of football. If politicians infringe upon FIFA’s regulations, their countries can be excluded from international activities, as was the case with Madagascar in March.
If voters love sport stars, it is a prudent strategy for politicians to demonstrate that they adore them too. Given the number of sports tournaments and the media interest in them, there are plenty of opportunities to publicly prove commitment. Sports events allow politicians to produce rare images showing them as emphatic women and men. Recall Chancellor Angela Merkel kissing Germany’s coach Jürgen Klinsmann at the ceremony of handing over the bronze medals at the 2006 World Cup.
“Incredible!” German journalists commented upon the emotional outburst of the otherwise rather reserved Merkel. For politicians, hugging football players is even better then hugging children, another well-tried strategy in the business of voter-sympathy-seeking.
Deploying sporting success is particularly helpful if government performance is low and citizens are frustrated. Should a state president visit the victims of the latest natural disaster in a remote area or head to the airport in the capital to celebrate returning sport stars? Often, the second scene is considered to be more uplifting of voters’ mood. Politicians go sports, but what if fans suddenly turn political? Imagine if the public gathering, chanting and cars hooting in the streets of Cairo on the night of the AFCON final turned from celebrating football success to demanding democracy. It is no coincidence that governments in the past have suspended sporting competitions in times of revolts.
Looking good through sports tournaments
International sports tournaments are fixed points in the schedules of diplomats and politicians. Contrary to claims made about the Olympic ideal and other athletic principles, sport has never been apolitical. The selection of host countries, the nomination of participating nations and the decisions about participating or boycotting have always been entangled with current political affairs.
Most obviously, the Olympic Games of 1936 in Berlin, 1980 in Moscow and 1984 in Los Angeles were instrumentalised by Fascist and Cold War politics respectively. In 1978 the football World Cup was held in Argentina and Joao Havelange, then FIFA president, mingled carelessly on the tribune with generals and admirals of the military dictatorship. On the African continent, football tournaments have repeatedly been hosted by autocratic rulers. The most recent tournaments of the AFCON were held in Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s Tunisia (2004) and Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt (2006). And thereafter? Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Libya have been chosen to stage the next three AFCON tournaments in 2008, 2012 and 2014 respectively. For the governments of host countries, international sports tournaments are opportunities to reimagine themselves as democratic and respectable states. As host in the stadium, every dictator can claim to embrace fair play.
The image machines that sporting tournaments constitute are not only important for the host countries, but also for the foreign politicians who attend them. The heads of protocol of FIFA, the International Olympic Committee and other organising bodies cautiously seat the dignitaries in designated areas of the stadiums. The politicians should have a good view of the playing field and at the same time look good in the angles of the cameras that transport images from the stadium to the voters at home on television, in newspapers and over the internet.
Once the qualification rounds for AFCON and the 2010 World Cup are completed, the diplomatic staff of the participating nations in Angola and South Africa will begin preparing for the events. For ambassadors, international sports events are unique opportunities to present their activities in a favourable light. It is easier to create positive images at sporting events than in circumstances of military conflict or natural disaster.
Large numbers of sports journalists are flown in and the competitions are given more airtime and pages in the media at home than sports alone can fill. Ambassadors willingly assist reporters in need of stories. The account of a fan who travels abroad for the first time, loses his passport in the stadium and is rescued by a caring member of the consular staff can be told as a mini-drama with a happy end. Bringing minor diplomatic success stories into prime time news is never as facile as during major international competitions when the audience readily perceives everything through a sports gaze.
From the time South Africa won the bid to host the 2010 World Cup, the president and vice presidents of FIFA have regularly brought themselves into pictures, together with Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Joseph Blatter repeatedly referred to Mandela as his “dear friend”. Last year, FIFA organised a VIP match in Cape Town to honour Mandela on his 89th birthday. At the occasion, Blatter emphasised that the two of them had “more than just football in common”, such as their “work to fight discrimination” and their “drive to build a better future”, despite the numerous and well documented allegations of corruption and lack of transparency at FIFA. If Sepp Blatter manages to shine in the light of Mandela and Tutu, it is understandable that politicians are keen to travel to the 2010 World Cup to get their share of face time with global icon.
Work disguised as play
When footballers qualify for the international tournaments, the various politicians representing or responsible for certain portfolios get the chance to participate in the diplomatic games that are played in and around the stadiums. They attend the opening ceremonies and decisive matches of the World Cup, the Olympic Games and to a lesser extent also those of the world championships in athletics, rugby and cricket. Although the athletes compete on the playing field, politicians indulge in politricks in the VIP-ranks and lounges. At an opening ceremony of a major international sports competition, the number of state presidents, ministers, royalties and other powerful office holders is near ‘Global Leaders Summit’ in proportion.
The VIPs meet in specially designated areas in the stadiums and FIFA regulates their accommodation in detail. In the technical recommendations and requirements for football stadiums, it is written that the dignitaries’ “access route should be designated high security and protected from any public interference”. Stadiums should be equipped with banqueting suites, lodges and boxes that can accommodate between 10 and 1,000 people. State presidents and ministers can address urgent questions in an atmosphere that is relatively free of protocol and critical observation. Informal meetings can be held before and after the matches or during half-time breaks. Sports events enable politicians to hide behind the hypervisibility that is given to the actions on the field. For politicians, sports tournaments can be work disguised as play.
As the host team, Bafana Bafana has already qualified for the World Cup and South African politicians can look forward to having plenty of high-profile meetings in 2010. They only need to hope that their most desired meeting partners’ football teams qualify for the tournament. Thirty-two national teams will compete in the 2010 tournament. Except for the host country, all of them have to qualify in rounds organised by the continental associations. There are 13 places reserved for Europe, six places for Africa, five places for South America, four places for Asia, three places for North America, Central America and the Caribbean and one place for Oceania. In the beginning of 2010, the Winter Olympics will also take place. For countries whose athletes are strong in football and winter sports, there will be plenty of opportunities for their politicians to perform the discipline of politricks in the stadium.
When the International Monetary Fund, the G20 or the World Trade Organisation meet, or Klaus Schwab sends out invites to the World Economic Forum, critics from around the world observe the happenings closely and sharply comment on the outcomes. When the so-called global leaders meet in the desert of Doha or the mountains of Davos, activists get together in cafés, offices, on streets, in living rooms and in online forums to share concerns, thoughts and plans of intervention. Yet, when the same global leaders meet in the stadiums, surprisingly little attention is paid to them.
Criticism of sports events mostly focuses on the corruption and commercialisation of the game and is expressed before or after the encounters. When the football, rugby or cricket is on, members of the political spectrum are most likely following the game in the stadium or on television. Focus is on the players and the pitch, not on the politicians and the VIP ranks, corridors and lounges. It is almost as if critics take a break during the games, being enchanted by the aesthetics of athletics or merrily getting drunk on beer.
Challenges for sports journalism
The Ghana AFCON was prominently reported about in the international media. Beside the football, features were produced about life in the host cities of Sekondi, Kumasi, Tamale and Accra. Some foreign journalists focused on ethnographic narratives and produced programmes about grass-roots football or, like Al-Jazeera, reported about the “superstitions and beliefs” that Ghanaian football fans developed “as football fever took over”. Common topics in the international media were about the conflict between the AFCON and the European club leagues and the trafficking of young African football talents. Journalists didn’t pay much attention to the happenings in the VIP areas of the stadiums and they didn’t investigate the activities of ambassadors and diplomatic staff during the tournament.
During international sports events, media create the hypervisibility with which politricks can be covered. The lack of reporting about politricks in the stadium can partly be explained with the firm division of labour within the journalism profession that separates politics and sports into two independent departments. At The Chronic we see things a little differently. The reports in our sports pages will not only list the scoring chances and goals on the pitch, but also the same in the VIP ranks and lounges of the stadiums.
The Chimurenga Chronic, is the once-off edition of an imaginary newspaper which is issue 16 of Chimurenga. Set in the week 18-24 May 2008, it imagines the newspaper as producer of time – a time-machine.
An intervention into the newspaper as a vehicle of knowledge production and dissemination, it seeks to provide an alternative to mainstream representations of history, on the one hand filling the gap in the historical coverage of this event, whilst at the same time reopening it. The objective is not to revisit the past to bring about closure, but rather to provoke and challenge our perceptions.
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