In this dossier, a series of football enthusiasts (who also happen to be social and cultural critics), offer their reflections upon the meaning and significance of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Much commentary and controversy has already been generated by this global event, the first World Cup, and indeed the first global sporting event of any significance to be held in “Africa”. The specific importance of South Africa as a relatively privileged outpost, what some would describe as an “exceptional” civil and political space on the African continent — lends additional weight and distinctiveness to these reflections. World history from the vantage point of South Africa has been represented as a triumph over the legacies of modern white supremacy and settler colonialism. South Africa’s World Cup in turn has been touted by its many boosters as a benchmark in post-apartheid nation-building, and as a showcase for African national competence and good governance that will both advertise and provide a leading indicator for a bright new era of continental development.
From: World Cup 2010
July 20, 2010
The facts on ground, of course, have proven to be messier and more conflicted, even as the conventional narratives and imagery that saturate the event often conform to and reanimate older colonial scripts. Pre-World Cup advertisements on Australian television, for example, depicted the national team, “the Socceroos,” training with wild animals of the African bush. Laundered by post-apartheid common-sense, the racist bestiary thus regains its old salience for the ‘invention of Africa’. What might be called the sounding of the event as several writers discuss, has been an arena of fundamental contestation, as “Waka-Waka” and the vuvuzela offer competing soundtracks and register a contested history of cultural production and material appropriation that has long been central to both scholarly and popular representations of African realities. A stunning commercial and financial success from the standpoint of FIFA (football’s world governing body), and its biggest corporate sponsors (McDonalds, Budweiser, Coca Cola, etc…), for South Africans saddled with ‘white elephant’ stadia, unpaid public wage bills, and masses of underemployed and workless poor who could not afford the price of the ticket, the ‘trickle-down benefits’ of the event are far from certain.
Africa’s first World Cup in this sense at once signifies and promotes the ascendancy of multicultural neo-liberalism in our own time, bundling together its glittering promise of inclusion for all along with its vicious indifference to a host of new enclosures. Yet, for many who write here who have been engaged in the event these past weeks, football’s World Cup cannot be grasped in its complexity if it is cast only as a confirmation of dominance (or merely as a guilty pleasure). For the ardent partisans of national teams, the passionate neutrals, as well as those who get drawn in, in different ways, to the public narratives that cohere around the event, the World Cup indexes something more than the unremitting triumph of corporate capitalism in the train of its colonial past and present. Not only is football, (soccer in the US parlance), arguably the only truly global game, its World Cup, a spectacle consumed by billions of people, takes on an interpretive significance for the entire planet, as its serialized, agonistic form engages in both precise and distorted ways the pressing social questions of our time: the allure and failure of nationalism as a cosmopolitan ideal, the risk and promise of innovation weighed down by a stagnant order of things, the limits of formal equality and the inadequacy of the rule of law to demands for justice, the threat that ever widening circles of human affiliation across borders will beat a xenophobic retreat to virulent realities of marginalization and defeat.
Football in this sense encompasses a geopolitics of affiliation, one with an irreducibly modern historical dimension. Viewed in this light, the presiding trope of “Africa’s World Cup,” retains a decided ambivalence. The tournament has unfolded in such a way that for the first time in 72 years two European teams will meet in back to back finals; the winner will be the first European nation to win a World Cup played outside of that continent. Michel Platini, the head of UEFA, the European soccer federation, explains these developments in a classically Eurocentric idiom: “we are witnessing a triumph for technical education programs, sound management and good governance… Nothing could be more pleasing than this state of affairs.” As columnist Richard Williams pointed out in the Guardian and as Peter Alegi documents in his book African Soccerscapes, Platini characteristically ignores how Europe’s soccer federations have prospered in recent decades through the ravenous recruitment of African talent at all levels of the game, with very little return given back for local infrastructural development at the source.
One suspects that the collective feeling, cost accounting and narrative framing in South Africa and elsewhere on the African continent is rather different. For despite the failure of most of the African teams, including South Africa (the first host nation to fail) to advance out of the qualifying rounds, one team, the Black Stars from Ghana (notably the first independent, post-colonial African state), did so, eventually reaching the quarter finals. South Africans across colors and communities quickly transferred their allegiances to the Black Stars in ways that seemed unprecedented to many — a demonstration of horizontal solidarity and pan-African affiliation that appeared to cut against the grain of both South African exceptionalism and the enduring divisions of the apartheid past. At Soccer City stadium outside Soweto, a crowd of 85,000 (excepting approximately 2000 Uruguay supporters) watched in horror as Ghana were cruelly knocked out by Uruguay, as a result of a Uruguayan field player, Luis Suárez saving a ball off the goal-line with his hand, an egregious breech of the rules of the game, but one that despite being punished with a red card and an award of a penalty kick, delivered the match to Uruguay as a consequence of the Ghanaian players subsequent failure to convert the penalty, and a succession of spot kicks in the penalty shoot out. This event, much like Zinedine Zidane’s notorious head butt in 2006, or Diego Maradona’s ‘hand of god’ goal in 1986 arguably constituted the central talking point for the event as a whole. For Suarez’s handball highlighted an injustice, indeed a form of cheating, for which the laws of the game provided no definitive remedy. In turn, Ghana was prevented from becoming the first African side to reach a World Cup semi-final, (after which who knows what might have happened?). Instead, with the defeat of (the now locally unloved underdog) Uruguay in the semi-final we were left with the novelty of two of Europe’s oldest colonial powers Spain and Holland, neither of whom has ever won the World Cup before, contesting for the ultimate prize on African soil.
One South African blogger of note (who also happens to be my brother) thoughtfully considers this outcome, drawing upon the insights of the celebrated Uruguayan leftist writer and soccer enthusiast Eduardo Galeano. “In football,” Galeano writes, “rarities occur. In a world organized around the daily confirmation of the power of the powerful, nothing is rarer than the coronation of the humiliated and the humiliation of the crowned. But in football, at times, this rarest of events does happen.” Alas, “rare” remains the operative word. More often the games leave fans hard done by and not only because our teams don’t win, or because we must return to our mundane existence. Rather we are dogged by a sense of the unfairness of it all. This is not only because we have spent days, weeks (and eventually years) mesmerized by a highly scripted, corporate-dominated, commodity spectacle. For unlike other serialized forms of mass culture whose generic prescriptions frequently offer comforting confirmation and imaginary resolution, football is fatalistic; its results rarely please. And yet this may also help to explain the peculiar unity that an event like this actually engenders among supporters of all sorts. For apposite the nationalist pageantry of flag waving and face-painting, the beautiful game, particularly when played on the global stage, engenders neither partisanship nor triumphalism among the great majority, but the intimate fellowship and humility of the mutually wronged.
The essays here can hardly begin to chart the still proliferating meanings of this global event, particularly as its narrative threads disperse with returning players and fans across four continents. Inside South Africa, the post-mortems on World Cup 2010 have scarcely begun. Charges of corruption, murky money trails, on-going and impending strikes, rumors of resurgent crime and xenophobia are weighed against a justifiable sense of national achievement and near universal praise for South Africa’s astonishing ecumenism and hospitality. With its’ coffers lined, FIFA ( an organization that seems a bizarre cross between the Vatican and the IMF) has already charted a relatively short path across the Southern hemisphere to 2014 and Brazil, a country still brimming with recrimination for falling short of a wholly unique expectation to win every World Cup it plays. Outside hapless England, whose golden generation finally withered on the vine, Europe looks on with anticipation and complacency. Elsewhere, Catalunya pauses to give two cheers for Spain. While Asia and Africa still await their champion.
Nikhil Singh is Associate Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU. He is the author of Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (Harvard, 2004), and editor of Climun’ Jacob’s Ladder: The Black Freedom Movement Writings of Jack O’Dell
Photo by Karam Singh.