Africa is not a country: football and nationhood

As submitted to The Daily Maverick.

In the minutes before Ghana took on the USA in the first round of 16 game, a friend and I were discussing where our support lay. She wanted Ghana to win, and I expressed a preference for a USA victory. I wanted the American team to win on grounds of their footballing culture, in that the approach the USA has taken to professional football of late seemed a better example of what the South African team and football administrators should aspire to.

I can understand why South Africans, and Africans in general, like the idea of one of “our” teams doing well. But it doesn’t quite make sense for me, as a football fan, to support teams simply because they represent an African nation, because there is much about Africa that is difficult to support. From female genital mutilation in Egypt and homophobia in Malawi, to assorted human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, there are things about this continent that clearly expose a fundamental divide between Africa as a collective concept, and the sort of world I’d prefer to live in.

As an example of African football, Ghana is of course also a complicated example, given that only one of their squad of 23 actually plays football in Ghana. When the vast majority of the national team lives and works outside of the nation reflected on the covers of their passports, to what extent does it still make sense to think of them as representatives of Africa?

Furthermore, perhaps there are legitimate concerns around buying into a condescending stereotype when we are proud of an African team doing well. In doing so, we acknowledge that we are surprised, and that we expected less. The comparison between “Africa” and “Europe” exposes this – we don’t speak of European teams doing well, because we expect them to. If a marginal (in footballing terms) European nation were to do well – Andorra, for example – we’d be surprised at the achievements of Andorra, rather than speak of their achievements as a triumph for Europe.

This is because a continent is a largely meaningless way of carving up the world, except of course in the literal sense of actually being how the world happens to be carved up. But we nevertheless speak of Africa, or Europe, or North America because they represent some unity of purpose, or some other identifiable feature that makes it sensible to agglomerate them – despite the vast cultural differences between, say, France and Germany, or even Canada and the USA.

So on the one hand, the idea of “Africa” makes little sense to me outside of geography, and outside of things I’d prefer not to be associated with, like homophobia, genocide, and being newcomers to the global economic party (with all of the troubles that may accompany that, such as being useful sources of cheap labour for those who might sometimes exploit our naiveté and lack of economic clout).

Similarly, a country being spoken of as representing a continent makes equally little sense when discussing positive achievements. If something is worth emulating, it should ideally serve as a model for everybody and every nation that has similar issues – not simply those on the continent it happens to be part of.

So, South Africa’s liberal constitution, often held up as an example for Africa to follow, should to the same extent be the model that we should prefer North Korea to follow. It’s even the model we should prefer the USA to follow in areas such as same-sex marriage and the death penalty, where significant violations of liberty and justice are disguised by the rhetoric and mythology of a developed state.

Speaking of the “plucky North Koreans” or the “courageous South Africans” (insert your preferred underdog) can be said to embrace a condescension, especially when it allows us to ignore broader aspects of culture by encouraging a meaningless association of one nation with continental neighbours that might be entirely dissimilar – or, more importantly, might not be the ideal model to emulate. And Africa is not a country, for all that we pretend that it is whenever we support an African team, no matter who their opposition might be.

As a South African, I can’t shake the desire for South Africa to do well in events like the World Cup. This is despite the fact that I’m fully aware that my own arguments about nationhood can just as easily be deployed to make nations themselves divisible, and so leave me unable to defend and endorse any idea of South African-ness – and by extension national pride at South African achievements. Such is the apparent irrationality of patriotism. But this clinical approach ignores the motivational aspect of patriotic feelings, or the social cohesion that these sorts of narratives can give rise to.

And this is exactly why I wanted the USA to win. Even though both Ghana and the USA have relatively poor track-records in the FIFA World Cup, Ghana is an established force in African football, and the second most successful African team, after Egypt. The USA, by contrast, hardly fielded a national team for much of the 1980’s, and was struggling to get a functional national league running until 1989, when they were awarded the hosting rights for the 1994 World Cup.

A simplified account of the years leading up and following the 1994 World Cup speak of what is possible when a sport is well-resourced and professionally administered. In a team that has few stars, they showcase how teamwork, discipline and dedication can result in a team that is a serious contender for international honours, despite a near-complete lack of historical success.

This is a lesson that South African football needs to learn, and perhaps one that African football more generally could benefit from learning. For all the joy the win over France in the last group game brought, it’s not only the fact that most of the French players on the pitch were effectively boycotting the game that we should remember. We should also remember that an inspirational exit from the first stage of the competition does not tell us that South African football is healthy, or has laid a firm foundation for future growth and success.

The USA may never go on to become a force in world football. But as an example of professionalism and dedication, their modern footballing culture contains elements that South African football might do well to emulate. We’ve gone some way along that road already, for example in discarding at least one notable ego from the South African playing squad. But the work is far from done. And one can’t help but wonder whether a loss to France may have made this more obvious, and have been a better result for the long-term health of South African football.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.