The Invention of African Football

Moses März documents his fleeting orbit of the “African” football scene, from the Afcon 2008 tourney in Ghana to Angola in 2009 and the 2010 FIFA World Cup extravaganza further south. All in all it was brief, expensive, stereotypically Eurocentric and big on defeat.

My short-lived career as an African football correspondent began with a readers’ competition organised by the alternative German football magazine, 11 Freunde, Yahoo, and Eurosport, the television channel that covers the African Cup of Nations (Afcon) for German audiences. To enter the competition you had to write a 100-word story about “Africa” and football and the winner would be flown to Ghana to cover the 2008 Afcon.

Reason, or reasonableness, is something one seldom finds in the little that passes for reporting on African football in Germany and so I knew exactly what to write. My article on Kumasi Asante Kotoko, theatrically titled “The Porcupine Warriors”, contained all the usual stereotypes: a romantic trip in a crowded trotro at sunset over the hills of Kumasi, a juju priest pissing against the goal poles before the match, the Ashanti king sitting under royal umbrellas while the tropical rain poured over the rest of the spectators in the stadium, an overall poor display worthy only of the German Regionalliga, and a final scene where the goalkeeper leaves the poles in protest against an unfair penalty.

I was not surprised when I received the notification that I had won the competition that had been subjected to a vote by an online community. To be sure, I had also given my own candidature an unfair advantage by posting several hundred votes from my own continuously renewed IP address.

Short on nonsense though it was, “The Porcupine Warriors” nevertheless marked my beginning as an African football correspondent. A year after the tournament in Ghana concluded, 11 Freunde asked whether I would like to cover the Afcon in Angola for them. In the run-up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, football in Africa was beginning to gain journalistic currency. The Afcon had in the past only been a gap-filler for the few weeks the Bundesliga went on winter break. Now heated discussions about whether South Africa was ready to host the World Cup were filling the sports pages alongside speculations about whether an African team would be strong enough to progress past the quarter-finals for the first time in the history of the tournament. In a strange way Angola was considered to be the litmus test for both of these things.

11 Freunde had reached an agreement with Puma to produce a once-off small booklet about the Afcon tournament in Angola. Puma – under the leadership of Jochen Zeitz of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa – had also just released its Africa Unity Kit. The uniform was brown up to the hips and light blue on top, to represent, they said, the African soil and sky. The accompanying “Play for Life” posters, with Samuel Eto’o, John Mensah and Emmanuel Eboué in their African Unity Kits – with an elephant, an eagle and a giraffe in the background and a lion hugging a ball at their feet – hung all over Berlin.

Initially everything went according to plan. I had passed a basic Portuguese course and got my visa and I searched through the only two relevant resources my Berlin library housed on the country – Ryszard Kapuściński’s Another Day of Life and Abderrahmane Sissako’s Rostov-Luanda. I had considered myself well prepared until the Togolese national team bus was attacked by the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda two days before the opening match in Luanda. Puma immediately pulled out of the deal and there was no money left to cover my travel expenses. Initially, my chances of winning back the money by selling as many articles as possible did not seem too bad. When I arrived on the last day of the group stages the only other German journalist at the tournament was already packing his bags to fly back to Frankfurt.

“I have seen enough,” he said, “I have already sold more than enough articles and will piece the rest together from home. Angola is just too expensive.”

After our conversation I walked to the press area of the Estádio 11 de Novembro – a Chinese-built stadium on the outskirts of Luanda. I took a seat in the almost empty press area. I could make out the imposing presence of the BBC World Service’s Piers Edwards at a distance, an authority in African football reporting. Ghanaian radio journalists were standing at some distance from one another while they shouted live commentary into their cell-phones. I sat back and relaxed. The brief from the football magazine was clear. I was supposed to cover everything happening around the matches themselves. The conventional reporting could be left to agencies.

In one of the first articles I submitted, called “Lost in Luanda”, I droned on about the high price of bread and the dinginess of the hotel I was staying in which let out rooms by the hour for US$100, about Stefan Hüsgen, the director of the local Goethe-Institut, who lived on canned foods because fresh produce was too expensive, and I dared to analyse how the Dos Santos government used the tournament as a propaganda tool with its “Estamos juntos!” slogan and the free scarves that had the MPLA emblem on one end and the Angolan flag on the other.

Apart from the stadium and the tourist complex, I did not get to see much of Luanda or the rest of the country in the two weeks I was there. Because of the high prices and my rudimentary Portuguese it turned out to be easier to stay in Luanda and live off crackers and sardines sold from one of the containers in the neighbourhood.

Because of my restricted movements I tried to focus on the actual game. Germans wanted to know about Ghana since both national teams would meet in the same FIFA World Cup group, so I spoke to André Ayew and Anthony Baffoe. Ayew spoke of the Black Stars as the underdogs of the tournament and Baffoe spoke out about European misconceptions of “African football”. The response I received from the editors was timid at best. But when I covered a failed public viewing event in Zango, on the outskirts of Luanda, next to a refugee camp, I received rave reviews.

On the day before the semi-final the organising committee invited the few remaining journalists to an evening out on the Ilha de Luanda. It was the first time in nearly two weeks that we had eaten a warm supper.

“It’s about time!” shouted Frank Simon from France Football when he saw the buffet prepared on the beach. After a couple of beers Simon started making fun of magazines like 11 Freunde, laughing about the fact that they considered writing about the fans of Didier Drogba as important as news about the player himself. “Guys, do you know that Ghanaian TV even interviewed this guy because they think he is some kind of expert?” The round of laughter was friendly but I felt slightly awkward. My cover had been blown.

Mark Gleeson, who boasts of writing an average of four African football articles a day, became the object of a major news story himself when he ran into problems with his visitor’s visa. “First they don’t want me to come into the country, then they don’t want me to leave,” he said. Back in Germany the corruption Mark Gleeson was subjected to at the Quatro de Fevereiro International Airport made bigger headlines than the tournament itself.

From the start the Cabinda attack and the surreal opening match, in which Mali scored four goals in the last 16 minutes to equalise against the Angolan team, both led to the impression that this Afcon could not be taken seriously as a sporting competition. The event was stamped as “the most expensive tournament in history” and that was that. The fact that Egypt went on to win the tournament and had not even qualified for the FIFA World Cup did not increase the attractiveness of the event in Europe.

A few months later I woke up in a small room in the backyard of a house in Cape Town. Again, I was convinced that I was in the right place at the right time. South Africa was busy counting the days until the start of the World Cup and the tournament was set to be the summit of my career as an African football expert.

The editors at 11 Freunde were expecting background articles explaining the vuvuzela phenomenon, why so many African teams have European coaches, and a description of what a typical South African dish tastes like. But something was amiss. I was no longer alone. A whole armada of journalists, who had spent years preparing for this tournament, had entered the country. Somehow it became impossible to cut through the noise.

I travelled the country from one corner to the other: Cameroon in Cape Town, Ghana in Johannesburg, Nigeria in Bloemfontein and Côte d’Ivoire in Nelspruit. One defeat after another. When Ghana lost to Uruguay in the quarter-finals the abyss opened. Without a single African team left in the tournament, I had come to the end of the road. My career was finished and I knew it. I have not written a word about African football since.

 

chronic 7 books resizedThis story features in the Chronic Books (April 2016), an edition in which we explore the tensions between reform and revolution, and decolonisation and the neoliberal order in the academy, through the lens of history and via the alternate education paradigms based in indigenous knowledge systems, and also arising from South Africa’s radical anti-apartheid struggle.

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