World Cup: The Games Begin, at Last

By Harry Browne · 14 Jun 2010

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Picture: Jose Goulao
Picture: Jose Goulao

After a good opening game that finished 1-1 between two teams which won't go far in this tournament. South Africa's players were mourning a win that might have been, and Mexico's were also reflecting on a game they should have won, though they scored only after they had lost control of the play, in a moment when the South African defense seemed to go for a quick nap. The important thing for the World Cup is that the hosts didn't lose in Johannesburg, and will live to fight another day. In every World Cup there is a strange, overwhelming dread of the home-country being eliminated, and on Friday evening South Africa were definitely still in it.

Holding the World Cup in South Africa has certainly given the journalists some local color to write about in the days leading up to the tournament. In contrast to Germany 2006, where the challenge for the wordsmiths was to make stories out of "clean and efficient", sports journalists have been able to reach into the rich vocabulary of the foreign correspondent encountering the developing world and tell us, again and again, about "the stark contrast" between dusty townships and gleaming stadia, not to mention the "enormous gap" between rich and poor.

A few unlucky Spanish and Portuguese reporters even got a close-up view of South Africa's crime problem. As Reuters reported on Wednesday, thieves rifled through rooms of sleeping reporters to steal equipment and cash. "It was the scariest thing that has ever happened to me," said Portuguese photographer Antonio Simoes, who woke up and was held at gunpoint.

Inequality of a sort that can turn dangerous might not seem like the story that the sport's international governing body, FIFA, wants to have told by journalists at its flagship event. And perhaps the soccer bureaucrats would honestly prefer if the tournament were being held somewhere blander. After all, the African soccer federation only rose to prominence in the game's international structures in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, when it had the wind of postcolonial nation-building in its sails as well as the backing of the Soviet-bloc states. With those factors now gone, couldn't the game's European and South American powers simply have kept the World Cup for themselves, just occasionally dropping into those first-world countries (e.g. Japan, USA) where football's marketability needed a boost?

The answer is, apparently, no. Not only is FIFA, for all its flaws, probably the one important global organization in which -- after that crucial Cold War boost -- Africans wield power that is at least proportional to their numbers, but the cold fact is that images of poverty, "stark contrast" and unbelievably-enthusiastic-despite-it-all fans are central to soccer's self-image.

No international image-producing industry, including cinema, has such a potent aesthetic of poverty as does soccer and its attendant commercial hangers-on, particularly FIFA's World Cup sponsors. Usually, except when there is charitable fundraising to be done, little brown children in shanty towns are among the most invisible inhabitants of our planet of slums; but they certainly come out to play on our TV screens when the World Cup comes around. Along with all the TV advertising, check out the recent Sports Illustrated cover on 'The Beautiful Game'. In contrast to the hyper-realistic action close-ups or player portraits that usually grace that space, here is soccer embodied by a photograph of anonymous African boys playing football, its tonality and composition drawn more from the language of art than of sports photography.

This is the archetypal image of soccer, the fundamental basis of its claim to be the world's game, part of the romance that attracts people to football even in places, like the US, where it is not among the leading professional sports. The beauty of holding the World Cup in a place where images like this can be found is not only that they illustrate the "stark contrast", but that they make a connection that is not entirely dishonest between these poor children and the rich men, mostly former poor children, playing for the TV cameras in the gleaming stadia. (The fact that some brutal 'slum clearance' took place to prepare for the games doesn't negate the point, though it heightens the irony.)

The World Cup in Africa is, in short, a brilliant piece of marketing, not least because what it communicates about soccer, if not about the bureaucrats of  FIFA, is at least partly true. For those Japanese and American potential consumers of soccer, it may be more attractive, more soulfully appealing, than having the World Cup on their doorsteps -- which can be, let's face it, a bit of an anti-climax, given the tense and intense boredom that permeates so many high-level soccer games.

It takes more than the proximity of township street-soccer to explain why the World Cup is in South Africa rather than somewhere else where the children are brown and love football. Italian journalist Filippo Ricci explains rather cynically, but doubtless accurately, that nowhere else in black Africa fits the bill:

It was urgently necessary to show the world that Africa was capable of organizing a World Cup and, as far as the organization of major events is concerned, for the rest of the world Africa could only mean South Africa – a country of big hotels, golf courses, wine, safaris and clean, well-appointed beaches.  Seen from the north, it seemed to be the least African country in Africa, hence the most reassuring, the best organized, the best prepared, the closest to western standards.

Nonetheless, there are more, and more positive, reasons beyond tourist-appeal that South Africa is a fitting venue. African football has long been a vehicle for genuine anti-colonial and anti-racist action, and South Africa has often been at the forefront. As David Goldblatt writes in his staggeringly detailed 'global history' of the game, The Ball is Round:

In South Africa football clubs and African and Indian football organizations became closely linked to the emerging nationalist movement. An African football association was set up in Durban as early as 1916 under prominent nationalists Charles and William Dube. Albert Luthuli, later president of the ANC, was its vice-president, while the Johannesburg FA was controlled by Dan Twala, nephew of one of the co-founders of the ANC. The political element of football in Africa, and the power of black Africans in its administration, was underlined when apartheid South Africa (which refused to field an integrated team) was kicked out of FIFA in 1961, nearly a decade before the International Olympic Committee followed suit.

In the post-apartheid era, the country's 1996 triumph in the African Cup of Nations did more to instill national unity than the 1995 rugby victory memorialized by Clint Eastwood in Invictus. And there's lots of talk about this World Cup revisiting that spirit.

Then again, do South Africans really need 'national unity'? Today the ANC continues to enjoy a close relationship with South Africa's soccer officialdom, but there is more than a whiff of corruption and patronage about it. President Jacob Zuma, who looked so creepily cadaverous as he opened the tournament on Friday, is a close pal of the chair of the World Cup organizing committee, Irvin Khoza; Zuma has even had a child (his 20th) with Khoza's daughter. Whatever the World Cup's rhetorical and image-inary connection to those poor brown boys, the tournament's benefits, as always, will be reaped by a few rich men, of various hues. As much as one hates to resort to denunciations of the circuses served up by national elites to distract from the shortage of bread, it is surely relevant here, notwithstanding what is sure to be the serial wheeling-out of the sainted Mandela.

Friday's opening ceremony and game had to do without Mandela after the death of his 13-year-old great-granddaughter in a car-crash after the pre-World Cup concert in Soweto on Thursday evening, a sad aftermath to a show that had, among many other things, highlighted the 'African' in African-American music. The sight of South African teens belting out sentimental lyrics about New York with Alicia Keys, who then morphed "New York" into "Africa" and "World Cup" was, in equal measures, (1) sweet and (2) more evidence that there is nothing corporate culture won't try to own.

Rhetorically at least, this World Cup is very much hosted by 'Africa' as well as South Africa. However, it will be intriguing to see if any residue of pan-African sentiment survives the games. Xenophobic attacks on Zimbabweans in South Africa have been reasonably well covered over the years. More pertinent to the World Cup is the position of Nigerians in the country, since Nigeria is actually playing in this tournament. Will South Africans support them? Even among black South Africans, Nigerians have been subject both to occasional violence and to the sort of racist stereotyping that also trails them across Europe -- mainly accusations that they are schemers and scammers. Then last weekend Nigerians were blamed when a friendly match involving the Nigeria team, and for which tickets were free, saw a stampede outside a suburban-Johannesburg stadium that injured 16 people. While few tickets for this World Cup have been bought in Africa outside South Africa -- a fact that has caused some complaints and soul-searching about the ticketing process -- there is little doubt that many of the uncounted thousands of Nigerians living in South Africa, legally and otherwise, will be present in large numbers for their team's games. A second-round game between the hosts and Nigeria is possible, albeit unlikely, and it would presumably test the good-will of both sets of fans.

As the games begin, the focus moves to the playing fields, and for six hours a day the only signal that we are in South Africa will be the incessant wail of the plastic vuvuzelas blown by the local crowds. (The noisy horn has been right up there with "stark contrast" and "enormous gap" in the pre-tournament bag of journalistic tricks.) Nonetheless, the World Cup will entail probably the closest global focus on any event in Africa since Mandela walked free. The beauty of sports is that despite all the corporate money and image-making that has brought us to this point, the meaning of this World Cup, like the meaning of South African freedom, is still up for grabs.

Harry Browne lectures in the School of Media at Dublin Institute of Technology and is author of CounterPunch’s Hammered by the Irish. His previous articles in this World Cup series have looked at Argentina, Spain, Africa, England, Holland and Germany,  France and Italy,  Brazil and the U.S.A and the final squad selections. He can be reached at [email protected].

This article was originally published by CounterPunch and is republished by SACSIS with the author's permission.

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