World Cup’s unhappy Africans, and my other favourite things

Wednesday June 20 2018


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The World Cup is here. So are the tears.
Because of the non-winning opening of the African teams (this was written before Senegal faced off with Poland), many good Africans fell into despondency, fearing that nearly 4 billion people were about to see Africa embarrass itself.

New Vision’s Robert Kabushenga offered, and many Africans of little faith agreed with him, that we should just stay home playing our village football until we have done the serious work to be competitive on a global stage. Lol!
On current form, there is no cup winner from Africa.

But all is not lost. We are already getting some interesting insights about our world from the World Cup. If you have watched the World Cup without fail for the last 32 years, the changes are truly remarkable.

1. The world is getting browner; mixed. If you look at the 32 teams there are very few that are formed of just one “tribe” – white, black, yellow. That is the result of globalisation and migration. Watching the World Cup in 1986 things were different.

The result is that African teams are now the “purest”. Again that speaks to the direction of migration. Though most Africans still migrate within the continent (17 million left the continent last year, vs. 19 million who migrated around Africa), there are relatively few non-Africans coming to live on our lands.

That is probably a good thing for those who are suspicious of outsiders, but there is a sense in which outsiders who are very different from you help enrich your knowledge and view of the rest of the world which, I suspect, are good for football.

2. The main differences among the peoples of the world are cultural, and racial (even though that it is an unscientific thing) and how in turn that informs their philosophical outlook, the way they organise their politics, the way they manage their economies, how they love, hate, and such things.

But when you look at World Cup players, and other sports people and cultural workers, you cannot help but feel that tattoos will soon define us. We shall know a people by their tattoos; and the world will be separated along the lines of those who have tattoos and those who do not, and what that means.

For one, it is a generational issue. The Digital Natives are heavily tattooed, more than us their parents. But tattoos make sense as a form of expression, and if there is a means of distributing the statements they make. And that is plentiful, thanks to Facebook, Instagram, and related social media platforms.

Same with hair. Having your unique thing not just helps you stand out, but if it goes viral can translate into a lucrative billboard advertisement.

3. The wonderful Malcolm Gladwell in his book “What the Dog Saw” writes of a trend in sports where people who played video games as children and got immersed in it somehow internalise the “superhuman” moves in the games, and some are now unconsciously re-enacting them into real life when they become players in the sports they lost sleep over on the computers.

I am obsessed with this aspect of our modern lives; birds that lose their natural song, and take to singing the sounds they hear in the cities; animals that learn to pick locks in order to break into houses and steal their lunch, and so forth.

What television has done, for example, is alter football considerably. The game has become faster, but also more linear. There is programming logic to it; you pass to the next guy; you don’t kick it over him as you probe waiting for an opening. Also because television demands goal action, which in turn generates the prize shots of crowds celebrating.

The result is that today giants have been largely eliminated from football, because they are not fast or nimble in an adrenalin-inducing way. It is the age of the small players, although you will still have the encounter of big Icelanders against the smaller Argentinians, who get befuddled by the size of their opponents.

4. One of the biggest differences in this World Cup than previous ones, is the number of regular women you see in the stands and children. There were always “football girls”, a small group of diehard fans, who were often the attention of sports photographers and TV editors, as they were offered up as eye candy.

But we are in a #MeToo world, and there is far less sexualisation of female football fans, a development to be celebrated.

But it also seems globally, football has become a “family spot” in deeper ways. The soccer moms have actually changed the world through their determined trips taking children to “kids league” football.
Some things do not change though. Football will always have its high priests; Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Mohamed Salah. It is not an egalitarian universe.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa visualiser and explainer site [email protected]