The World Cup: Will South Africa Shine?

[Editor’s Note: In the lead-up to the World Cup, the first to be held in Africa, we are serializing in three parts an essay by Eli Jelly-Schapiro on the cultural politics of soccer. This essay will then be followed by a Periscope forum about the Cup.]


I. Will South Africa Shine?

In Greenmarket Square in Cape Town, South Africa, tourists can buy an assortment of familiar souvenirs–wooden bowls and bracelets, colorful jewelry, ceramics, and prints–meant to evoke an essential, generic Africa. The oil paintings sold in one representative stall depict quaint pastoral scenes–thatched huts and women carrying bundles of fruit on their head–or the idealized vibrancy of township life. One somewhat anomalous painting I noticed while visiting the market recently took as its theme the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which will be hosted by South Africa, marking the first time soccer’s signature event will be held in an African country. With the iconic silhouette of Cape Town’s Table Mountain as its backdrop, and under the banner title “2010 Africa Will Shine,” the painting portrayed a soccer pitch graced by 22 dancing bodies–in opposing 4-4-2 formations–and ringed with corporate placards: Nike, Sony, Coca-Cola, Nissan.
Speaking in 2004 to the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) Executive Committee in support of South Africa’s bid to host the World Cup, then South African president Thabo Mbeki described the event as “a global stage on which nations and peoples of the world come together to reaffirm our common humanity.”1
At the unveiling of the official South Africa 2010 emblem during the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Mbeki delivered another speech, which evinced the particular resonance the tournament’s universalism has in “the new South Africa.” “We come from a place where our hearts beat in unison as we celebrate a shared destiny and love for the beautiful game with the human family,” he declared. “Africa is ready. Africa’s time has come. Africa is calling: Come home to Africa in 2010.”2
Mbeki’s remarks and the 2010 painting that caught my attention in Cape Town share more than a kitschy sense of uplift. What both reveal is the extent to which the World Cup, a “global” event, is profoundly shaped by the history and politics of the nation where it takes place.
II. Rimet’s Kantian Dream
The key facts of South Africa’s history–apartheid and European imperialism–are intrinsically bound up with the history of soccer. Codified on the playing fields of Eton, and brought to the world by the agents of British, and later French, empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, soccer is today the world’s most popular sport. And the World Cup, as David Goldblatt puts it in his peerless global history of the game, is our “single greatest simultaneous human collective experience.”3 To cite just one measure, an estimated 750 million people watched the 2006 final, contested by France and Italy and won by the latter.4
Jules Rimet, president of FIFA from 1921 to 1954 and the intellectual architect of the World Cup, declared in 1926 that a global soccer tournament–inclusive of professionals, unlike the all-amateur Olympic Games–could nurture cosmopolitan culture and “reinforce the ideals of a permanent and real peace.”5 Though the World Cup has throughout its history lent its universalist pretensions to the expression of nationalist drama, and though the event functions today as a forum for the orgiastic display of commodity culture, Rimet’s Kantian dream prevails. The World Cup remains a powerful utopian symbol, helping people to imagine an internationalism that represents something greater than competing chauvinisms or the globality of capital.
The first World Cup, held in Uruguay in 1930, was won by the hosts, who affirmed their status as soccer’s international standard-bearer. Four years later the tournament was hosted by Mussolini’s Italy. The relatively benign, if fervent, cultural nationalism on display in Uruguay gave way to the explicit politicization and vulgar nationalism of La Copa del Duce. Italy won the tournament in unspectacular fashion, a victory for fascism.6 The postwar decades saw the rise of Brazil as a global footballing power, an ascent that culminated with the 1970 World Cup title–their third since 1958. At Mexico in1970, the first World Cup to be broadcast in color, football reached an aesthetic apogee, as Brazil–led by Pelé, the most beautiful player of all, in what would be his last World Cup–audaciously scored nineteen goals in six matches. The dictatorial regime of General Emilio Medici labored to exploit the victory for its own purposes–playing the team’s song at official government events, and combining Pelé’s image on posters with the nationalist slogan “no one will hold Brazil back now.”7 But to those around the world watching, the verve and spontaneity of players such as Clodoaldo, Jairzinho, Tostão, Carlos Alberto, and Pelé could not be reconciled with the rigidity and repression of the military junta.
More recently, France’s famous 1998 victory, on home soil, occasioned a moment of national catharsis–more than a million revelers gathered on the Champs-Élysées after the final defeat of Brazil–and brought questions of post-colonial multiculture to the center of public discourse. The cup-winning side, Goldblatt writes, was “a team of all France, its ethnic roots testament to a hundred years of French empire and retreat, immigration and emigration.”8 Far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen described the 1998 team as “artificial” citizens, a sentiment echoed in his appraisal of France’s 2006 World Cup team: “France cannot recognize itself in the national side. . . . Maybe the coach exaggerated the proportion of players of color and should have been a bit more careful.”9 For many within and beyond France, the collective feats of celebrated players such as Zinedine Zidane, Marcel Desailly, and Thierry Henry–of Algerian, Ghanaian, and Guadaloupean heritage, respectively–represented the triumph of multicultural possibility over the ethnic absolutism professed by Le Pen. In other words, the modern French side embodies one of the central utopian claims of the World Cup: the idea that the national is the space within which the international becomes intelligible. It is in this spirit that South Africa frames its own connection to the tournament–a tournament to which South Africa has only recently been admitted, after decades on the sideline of the international game.
[Image caption: Nelson Mandela with World Cup Trophy, May 15, 2004, Zurich. Source: ]
Coming next: “Bafana, Bafana.”

Eli Jelly-Schapiro