The International Writers Magazine: Football and Politics
Empires of Football
One of my favorite athletic activities is Latin Dancing, which my gym offers as a form of aerobics. Believe me, it’s a workout, and, unlike regular aerobics and step classes, it’s a useful social skill that you can use in the clubs or on vacation.
This morning, as I was sweating through an hour of intricate footwork, booty shaking, shimmying and throwing my arms around, my mind was half a world away, in South Africa, where the World Cup is set to commence. As I frantically attempted to keep up with the choreographer’s instruction, I had an epiphany as to why the Brazilians are so successful at football. I suddenly saw the game of Pelé and Reynaldo as a form of samba, with its intricate footwork, false starts, jumps, turns, acrobatics and breaks. I recalled the dancing children in the classic Franco-Brazilian film “Black Orpheus”. All the kids in that movie lacked was a soccer ball to weave around.
That the Brazilians long ago made the connection between dancing and sport, there can be no doubt. The martial art of capoeira, which the African slaves developed many centuries ago to deceive their European overlords, incorporates the fighting arts and African dance. A longtime martial arts devotee, I have tried capoeira, dancing and kicking to the rhythm of native instruments. Let me tell you, it is a gruesome, backbreaking workout, though it looks cute and charming to the spectator. Given this insight into the Brazilian psychology, it’s obvious that some of these choreographic elements have spilled over into football. It’s not amazing that this insight into the connection between Brazilian culture, dance and athleticism has eluded the sporting press, which is mainly dominated by obese, sedentary, alcoholic European males.
The sporting press! They would be more appropriately be employed composing euphoric paeans to the beers of the world. Like the political analysts, financial writers and fashion experts employed by the media, they are only qualified to recount what has already occurred. Their total lack of insight is definitive and complete. Basically, they are hired for their adherence to the constricted parameters of conformity and for their slavish devotion to convention. No sports writer has ever advanced the art of athleticism even one iota. In fact, they are agents of reaction, jumping to condemn any innovation with the zeal of a pack of wild dogs tearing apart a stray Reebok on the African veldt.
This African-American woman I met on one of my work assignments, who cares not a whit for sport but is totally wrapped up in identity politics, complained to me that The New York Times, in its handicapping of the World Cup, declared that no African nation was capable of prevailing, and what did I think of their prognosis? I told her flatly: Africa has many world-class teams: Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria to name a few. The Times doesn’t know any more than anybody else, except for what they manufacture from the depth of their own psychosis.
This exchange set me to thinking: with all the great African players, who are employed by virtually every European football team, why are their national squads ranked low in the world standings? The answer is obvious. The African continent is so Balkanized into so many countries that the distribution of star players is diluted to the point where each national squad can only field a handful of exemplary athletes.
It’s the old principle of divide and conquer. The same can be said for Europe, which is similarly divided into 25 separate political entities. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the European Union decided to assemble a European dream team composed of its greatest stars. Such a team would constitute an invincible, monolithic leviathan, a world-dominating empire of sport that would dominate world football for a thousand years, like the Roman Empire. No existing sports stadium would be splendid enough to encompass its glory! Architects would be forced to go back into history and consult some of the monomaniacal designs that Rudolph Hess composed for Hitler to house such a monster team.
Naturally, without the motivational propulsion of a mad dictator such a consolidation of talent remains an ephemeral proposition, but Europe has been making baby steps in that direction. The fact of a borderless Europe, with free movement of populations and goods is an established fact at this point, though, as the current economic entanglements have demonstrated, a united Europe is still an unfinished work in progress.
Europe was once briefly unified under French despotism. Napoleon ruled an empire extending from the Atlantic to the Russian border, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. For better or worse, the continent was unified under a single rule of law, but the crowned heads of Europe acted in concert to undo Napoleon’s empire, and with it the French Republic, restoring the ancien régime. In the meantime, Europe reverted to a Balkanized hodgepodge of tiny countries, leading to unparalleled war, destruction and human suffering on a horrific scale, at least until French president de Gaulle and German chancellor Adenauer, mortified by the slaughter, determined to begin the process for another unification. Whether it succeeds or not will depend on the continued unification of finance under the European Central Bank, not to mention a revolution in attitudes, which is by no means assured.
For Africa to achieve a similar venture would require no less of an effort. Basically, to assemble an African football team of world-class standing must require no less of a political unification. The present African geopolitical system is the result of the same destructive manipulation that was developed to enslave Europe to serve oligarchic interests, and that continent is subject to the same distortions and contradictions that Europe has suffered. Now, of course, the crowned heads of Europe have been replaced by the multinational interests that control Africa’s resource and development industries, which is perhaps an oversimplification when you consider that the descendants of the ancient European monarchies currently dominate the boards of directors of those aforesaid multinationals, deriving vast amounts of wealth in the form of dividends. Plus ça change etc.
So you see, African football is a symptom of an antiquated system of imperialism that is extent to the present day. What is required to field a pan-African national team is no less than a redrawing of that continent’s national boundaries. History has shown that the only force powerful enough to achieve such a goal is military force, commanded by a charismatic military leader, an African Napoleon, who would address the yearnings of African populations at the grass roots. Such a leader would necessarily have to also be a superb diplomat, who would have the leadership qualities to form alliances with the disparate tribes and clans that populate the map of that great continent, a tall order. Try to imagine the power of all those resources concentrated in the hands of a focused, determined leadership!
Could such a leader emerge, who would be powerful yet nuanced? It could happen today or in a hundred years’ time. One thing is for sure, though: he would have to emerge over the objections of the multinational corporations that hold the whip hand, and their paid agents.
The most ardent football supporters willingly profess that the game of football is no less than human existence itself, distilled to its most basic essence, and an examination of the difficulties confronting the fielding of a pan-European or pan-African team must necessarily confront the results of the past 500 years of human civilization to arrive at a satisfying analysis.
© Dean Borok June 2010