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« Ijaw Nation and South-South / South-East Politics | Main | Distinguished Igbo Among the New Crop of Leaders »

July 06, 2006

Why Africa Performed Dismally at Soccer World Cup 2006

by Chido Makunike (Dakar, Senegal) --- It is not difficult to understand why soccer is such a popular sport the world over. It is a simple game, with easy to understand rules. The kit it requires is simple and relatively affordable compared to other games. It does not require elaborate infrastructure to play it well. Raw skill, natural or acquired through training, is much more a determinant of success than in other sports.

In soccer height, weight and other such factors do not give a player or team as much of a basal advantage over another before one even factors in training, motivation, native ability and so forth as is the case in many other sporting disciplines.

Soccer is therefore a great potential leveler, in which is not unthinkable for an unheralded team to humble the mightiest one. And so Africa, behind the rest of the world in so many areas of endeavor, could nevertheless manage to field a respectable number of teams in the run-up to the 2006 soccer World Cup. Angola, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo and Tunisia made up the contingent of African teams at this year’s World Cup.

It is generally agreed that the performance of all was lackluster, with only Ghana making some waves with its win over the United States. The US may not be renowned as a great soccer nation, but the very possibility of the symbolism of a poor African country’s team beating that of the world’s lone superpower is a large part of soccer’s global appeal. Such upsets may not happen very often, but they are not at all in the realm of fantasy, as Ghana showed.

While to have the number of African teams who made it as far as they did must be seen as a sign of soccer progress, it is puzzling that by and large Africa did so poorly. It is certainly not a lack of talent, as the increasing number of African players that are part of the line-ups of strong European teams testifies. Why then did Africa perform so dismally?

I believe that a big part of the reason is psychological. The Africans played a game that requires both mental and physical preparation in a purely physical fashion. This meant that the African teams had already lost before they even stepped on German soil for their first pre-match acclimatization practice game. The psychological preparedness that is so often lacking in so many areas of African effort, not just soccer, should have included drilling in assertiveness or aggressiveness when required, a belief in one’s potential and abilities, willingness and ability to measure and take risk and so on. I thought these critical elements of winning were largely lacking in the type of play engaged in by the African teams, and that this is also a large part of why Africa is lagging behind in so many other areas.

We generally want to be polite and likeable despite many centuries of experience of how those “nice” qualities can be detrimental to our interests when naively practiced. We are usually only aggressive against each other instead of against “the other.” As a result we are masters at scoring own goals and missing opportunities, while being weak and ineffectual in competition against the outsider. For evidence of this, look to the mess that generally are African politics and economics, and how so often we cede advantage to our rivals and competitors. How this disadvantaged us may have been most glaringly apparent during the several hundred-year era of subjugation and colonization of Africa by Europe, but it is really no less so now, in the so-called “post-independence” era. The pattern continues. Witness the witless, naïve way Africa is engaging with rising star Asia. Africa’s voluntary relations with Asia are not substantially different from how we were at the disadvantaged, weak end of our involuntary, oppressed relations with Europe.

African rulers are so naïve about how the world works that they will settle for a military parade, a “state visit”, the stroking of their egos and the receipt of a few alms from an ascendant Asia, instead of strategizing for a new, mutually beneficial type of relationship. So while the partners are different, Africa’s role continues to be that of weaker partner and provider of raw materials over which it gets very poor trade terms. The relationship with our economic partners is one of silly sentimentally instead of hard-nosed pragmatism and self interest. As a result there continues to be a massive net outflow of wealth from Africa, with continued grinding poverty and decreased ability to thrive and compete.

It is interesting to me how so many African soccer players thrive and blossom when playing for European and other teams, but play averagely for African teams. The reasons are complex of course, not least among them the far better extra-continental remuneration than they can expect at home. The oppressive general environments in many African countries affect performance of all types and at all levels including sport. So with the same raw Africa talent, European teams are able to make winning teams that African nations have failed to properly nurture! This is despite the racism and alienation that is as much a part of the African’s reality in Europe as are the positive parts of one’s experience there. Is it not ironic and a shame that Europe appears to be more of an enabling environment for the African soccer player than his own motherland? But this situation is very much part of the sad overall African reality. As a result of Africa’s failure to nurture and retain its own pool of human talent, an already desperately lagging continent that can ill afford this loss gives up its best and brightest to the rest of the world!

Another aspect of the psychological factor in regards to African soccer performance is the naïve, innocent belief in the magic power of a European coach. It is deeply ingrained in the African psyche that any coach or “technical advisor” with a white skin, will have some mystical skill to impart to them and give them at least some slight advantage. Yet a coach’s main job is arguably to be chief motivator, disciplinarian and mentor, not to impart technical or physical skills. If I am right, then it is a sad remnant of the long-term damage to the African psyche resulting from a long legacy of oppression that we believe that a white coach almost automatically is better equipped to play these mentoring roles than one of us.

I call this the African belief in the “white mystique.” We have had long enough experience now to know that a European coach will not automatically make a difference to a team’s abilities over a local coach, but shhh, don’t dare suggest this to the Africans, they might cut off your head in enraged indignation at this suggestion! So the old European coach long past his prime (who often was never good anyway) is welcomed with open arms as a conquering hero by one African country or another. His every wish is honored, he is feted like a king, the country’s young women line up outside the old man’s hotel room. The country is convinced that with the hiring of the latest of a long string of European “mentors,” soccer glory is surely at hand. Never mind that the glory never seems to materialize-maybe if we just pay the foreign coach more money and kowtow to his every whim, one day we might score some goals!

The improvements we are beginning to see in the performance of African soccer teams in relation to their world counterparts is to do with the gradual, too-slow but welcome lifting of the psychological veil of believing we are not good enough. To me it is not all surprising and coincidental that the strongest African teams are from nations that have had longer periods of self-rule and therefore psychological confidence training than those from newer nations. Whatever problems Ghana has, after 50 years of political independence they are a proud, confident society with a more solid psychological grounding in their nationhood. Johnny-come-lately nations like South Africa and Zimbabwe who still have deep psychic scars from the particularly long, vicious and recent oppression they experienced are soccer basket cases.

Fundamental questions about who they are and what direction they wish to go are far from being tackled, let alone resolved. South Africa is not even sure whether it is really an African country or not; that’s how deep the scars of its experience of oppression run! The oppression-caused confusion about identity of countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe extends to their politics, their economic models (or lack thereof) and even to their pathetic soccer performance. Ivory Coast has in recent years made the discovery that they are actually an African country, not a province of France as they had largely been fooled/fooled themselves into believing for a long time. I predict that with this flowering in self-confidence and pride in their unique identity will come better performance in all areas of endeavor including soccer.

In soccer and in every other activity, Africa needs to do a lot of soul-searching and psychological, mental and spiritual healing before even attempting to go out onto the actual practice field. If we do not learn to be self-critical and analytical in these respects, my fellow Africans, we will forever be losers and also-rans in soccer and in every other field. Sending a physically talented African player to soccer camp without paying special and prior attention to the effect of the severe damage to the African psyche from the events of the last few hundred years is misdirected. To leave out this critical soul-healing and confidence training while hiring half-baked, worn out foreign coaches and providing bright, colorful uniforms and boots is to waste time and resources.

Africa, it is time to wake out of our slumber.

Chido Makunike
I am a Zimbabwean in Senegal.

Posted by Administrator at July 6, 2006 01:11 PM


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