Archive for the 'African Cup of Nations' Category

Feb 05 2013

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

A Moth for Mali

The Western-most tip of Africa seemed like as good a place as any to watch the Mali vs. South Africa quarter-final in the African Cup of Nations. On Saturday, I was at the Pointe des Almadies in Dakar, a tourist stop and hang-out with a beach carpeted with black stones and hand-holding couples. On offer there were grilled fish, birds, paintings made of butterfly wings, ham and cheese crepes and beer, Bob Marley renditions — and a tiny television tuned to the match. We stood packed behind a bar watching. Everyone, as usual, was both coach and expert tactician. “Mali is leaving way too much space for the South Africans – they are fast!” “Why can’t they hold the ball?” “Only Keita is worth anything.” Some went on offence: about the South African coach Gordon Igesund: “That white man needs to calm down! He’s going to be more tired than his players!”

“Who are you rooting for?” a man turned and asked me suddenly. “Mali!” “With everything that’s happening there they need it,” he tells me. “They’re our neighbors,” another adds. We all turn back to the screen in time to see South Africa slip through the saggy Mali defense and score. Generalized hissing. “They’re going to get crushed. Crushed,” a man declares. For a while I think he’s right. But then: Keita, angling his header down for the bounce just enough to pass over the falling goalie. Stabilizing the boat.

I was in Dakar at the CODESRIA conference Afrika’Nko. Mali was on everyone’s mind. The conference was originally to take place in Bamako, but moved to Dakar because of the conflict there. Much of one afternoon was consumed by a heated debate about a statement condemning the recent burning of ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu. The signs of the intervention were visible in city, too. Wandering through the crowded center of town, I fell in behind a group of uniformed French soldiers winding their way along the street. From the sidewalk a man said to them: “Vive la France!” The soldiers looked back a little cautiously, not totally sure whether the statement was sarcastic or not. But the man seemed quite sincere, and the soldiers nodded.

During the Cup of Nations games, life in Dakar didn’t exactly stop. But it did proceed to a single soundtrack. On the upper floors of a cloth market and factory, the shops each had a small TV turned to the games. I sat in one for a while where, fed up with the French language commentary from the TV, a young man muted the volume and then cranked up the radio commentary from Dakar. In rooms nearby where men worked at sewing machines, the radio blasted the game, and there was enough time for them to dash over to a TV to see replays if something big happened. On the street, a man wandered out into an intersection, slightly oblivious, holding his phone to his head – listening to the streaming radio of the match. And each of Dakar’s often beat-up yellow taxis that drove by had the same soundtrack.

When much of a city and much of a continent is watching something, you can almost feel the collective shifting of moods. There was that moment of seeping dread, late in the second-half game of Mali vs. South Africa with the score skill locked 1-1, when everyone realized that overtime was coming, and after that, most likely, penalty kicks. But Mali’s players, and goalie, controlled the shoot-out from the beginning. Each of them went in, it seems, knowing that if there was a moment to proceed without fear and with hesitation, this was it. Gracefully, they dispatched South Africa without even needing to shoot the full five shots. The cheers were immediate and uproarious: “Mali!”

I was so deep into the African Cup of Nations that, when I returned on Monday to the U.S. and someone asked me whether I’d seen the game last night I said enthusiastically, “Yes!” But I thought they meant the Burkina Faso vs. Togo quarter-final — not the Super Bowl, which I had forgotten was even happening, and whose unfolding had barely registered in Senegal. I quickly learned the essential take-away from that event — the Beyoncé is totally fabulous — but realized that those who, here, found Burkina’s progress into the semi-final a notable historical event would be few and far between.

Tomorrow Mali goes on to face Nigeria in what is sure to be a difficult match. After last year’s amazing and emotional victory by Zambia, though, anything seems possible. And a victory for Mali in the midst of the war in the country would be a meaningful one. The conflict there has created, both within the country and among those watching and worrying from Senegal and other parts of the region, a powerful sense of dissonance and fragmentation. History is bearing down on the present: the long and complex history of Islam in West Africa, of the relationship between the desert regions of countries like Mali and the more populated cities, and of course of the history of French colonialism and neo-colonialism and the ambiguity of a population largely celebrating an intervention by France.

That there is a place, on the pitch, where “Mali” seems relatively straightforward – 11 players with one goal, though also with an infinite number of ways to reach it – is perhaps a kind of comfort. And so to is the idea that, at times like this, the game has a chance to be more than itself. At one point in the game, the one woman in the bar where I was watching pointed in surprise and wonder – above the ball, in a slow-motion close-up, you could just barely see a moth fluttering its wings.

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Dec 02 2012

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

Palestine on the Pitch

“It is unacceptable that children are killed while they play football.” So declares a statement by 62 professional footballers protesting the recent Israeli actions in Gaza. Posted on the website of Frédéric Kanouté, it includes some of the best known names in global football, notably Didier Drogba and Eden Hazard. It is a striking gesture, one with few precedents. It highlights how powerfully football and politics are increasingly intertwined in Israel and Palestine.

The statement expresses “solidarity” with the people of Gaza, and specifically mentions the bombing of a football stadium that resulted in the deaths of four teenage boys. (The Israel Defense Forces claimed the soccer stadium was being used as weapons depot and launching site by Hamas). The footballer’s petition also mentions the arrest of two professional Palestinian footballers. And it insists that it would be immoral, in this context, for Israel to host the upcoming UEFA U-21 Championship. Having this event in Israel, the statement argues, would be a violation of “sporting values.”

There have been such protests before by footballers. The Egyptian international Mohamed Aboutrika famously bared a shirt saying “Sympathize With Gaza” during the African Cup of Nations in Ghana in 2008 (below), and Kanoute had similarly shown a shirt that read “Palestina” after scoring a goal for Seville in 2009.

Still, the new petition represents a more sustained action that draws together a powerful group of players. The size of the petition suggests interestingly some of the ways in which the exchanges and connections built within locker-rooms and on the pitch can become the basis for political mobilization.

The petition is part of a much longer history. The Palestine Football Association was founded in 1928 and became a member of FIFA in that year, and competed in tournaments during the next decades. When Israel was founded in 1948 the Association was replaced by the Israeli Football Association, which joined the Asian Football Confederation in 1954. The AFC covers the largest geographical area of any in the world, stretching from Japan to the Middle East, and it became the site of increasing political pressure against Israel which culminated in the expulsion of the state from the Confederation in 1974.

This action followed the precedent set by the African Football Confederation, which had expelled South Africa in 1958. The African nations were ultimately successful in pressuring FIFA to refuse South African membership, and the country was unable to compete in international competition until it fielded a multi-racial team in the early 1990s.

The situation with Israel was different, since FIFA did not officially outlaw the Israel Football Federation, which occasionally participated in competitions, despite the fact that it did not have a Confederation to play in. By the early 1990s, the IFA petitioned successfully to join UEFA, gaining full membership in 1994. That inclusion is, of course, weighted with symbolism: like Turkey, Israel competes in UEFA competitions such as the European Cup, while the countries that surround it continue to compete in the Asian Football Confederation.

And what of that other Football Federation — that of Palestine? Though it too traces its genealogy back to the 1928 Palestine Football Association. But it was only in 1998, with the creation of the Palestinian National Authority, that a separate Palestinian Football Association was founded. Accepted by both FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation, Palestine has fielded national teams in the years since then.

The story of the team’s campaign to qualify for the 2006 World Cup is documented in a film called Goal Dreams. That team, bankrolled by local businessmen, was about as cosmopolitan as it gets, bringing together local players from the West Bank and Gaza with Palestinians in Chile and one university player from the U.S. Descendants of Palestinian immigrants, they believed in the mission of the team. But on the pitch, their playing styles clashed, and they didn’t even have a common language to speak. Their practices were at times rendered impossible as certain players were unable to get in and out of the West Bank. In telling this story, Goal Dreams serves as a kind of anti-sports film: as it begins, you think it might be the story of triumph over adversity and the capacity of sport to unify and heal. Instead, it’s a case study in how limited means, political pressure, and the lack of a sustainable athletic program can fritter away dreams of athletic glory.

Many, including Michel Platini, have over the years dreamed that football can help bring peace and understanding to the region. In 2011 a new stadium was opened for the Palestinian Federation, funded by several European countries and FIFA. Lilian Thuram went on a goodwill tour to the region and attended the opening of the stadium. And yet the day when we will see a goodwill Palestine vs. Israel match seems quite far off.

The situation in Palestine today interestingly parallels that in Catalonia where, as Sid Lowe recounts in an excellent recent video aspirations for autonomy have long found a powerful expression on the football pitch. As demands for autonomy increase there, football continues to play a critical political role. In addition to it’s de facto “national” team, Barcelona, Catalonia also has it’s own “national” team made up of volunteers, who have in the past made a good showing on the pitch.

But Palestine, of course, is not Catalonia. That two Football Federations, and indeed two Football Confederations, co-exist so uneasily within a tiny part of the world is just one symptom of the endless, churning, complications of the story of Israel and Palestine.

The prior examples of Algeria and South Africa — and more recently events in Egypt — teach us that football can at times play a critical role in broader political change. But it’s difficult to predict how this will play out in the case of Palestine. Will the petition of the 62 footballers end up being part of some kind of shift in the political debate? How will UEFA respond in some way to the demand posed by these footballers? In the end, the petition is likely to end up little more than a footnote in a larger, tortuous history. But if it helps establish the idea that footballers can and should speak their minds on political issues, it may be part of a meaningful shift in the way athletes think about their political selves, and their political roles, in the roiling conflicts to come.

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Feb 13 2012

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

Football as Humanity: Zambia 2012

I think all of those who watched yesterday’s African Cup of Nations Final match between Ivory Coast and Zambia share my feeling: we were privileged to be allowed to participate in one of the more remarkable moments in modern sporting history. It was one, of course, that went largely under the radar in the U.S.: it was not aired here, there was little coverage in our press, and if you tried to grab someone excitedly on the street and shout “Zambia won!” you probably would have gotten a blank stare — though of course it depends on what street.

Jonathan Wilson, who provided excellent coverage of the tournament, wrote this beautiful match report for The Guardian. And Peter Alegi has written a striking account of the experience of watching the game, which includes videos of the grueling and intense penalty kick shoot-out. There was a tenderness, even love, to this experience that was truly remarkable: one felt that the teams were, in a way, suffering through this moment together, and deeply. All knew that any victory would mean suffering for the other team. When Zambia’s goalie Mweene took and made a penalty kick, the Ivory Coast goalie shook his hand afterwards. And singing, prayers, looks upwards, accompanied each step of the ordeal.

There is plenty to worry about with regards to African Football, as Achille Mbembe noted in a sharp interview entitled “Un tournoi de nains” — “A Tournament of Dwarves?”  Yet Zambia’s victory was significant, among other things, because nearly all the players on the team are based in Africa (notably in South Africa) rather than in Europe. It was a striking contrast to the Ivory Coast team, with a star-studded roster of names familiar to anyone who watches the English Premier League. The victory should raise new questions in the long running debate about what the best way for African nations to cultivate successful teams on the international level.

The historicity of the moment, of course, had everything today with the those who haunted it: the 1993 Zambia football team, nearly all of whom had perished in a plane crash just off the coast of Gabon on their way to the Cup of Nations in that year. Leigh Montville wrote a remarkable piece about that for Sports Illustrated. And you can hear the 1993 BBC report about the deaths here. A generation of Zambia’s greatest footballers was decimated. And, as Al Jazeera reported, the 2012 team prepared for yesterday’s final by making a pilgrimage to the coast to lay wreaths in memory of the dead.

As Paul Darby — a brilliant historian of African football – noted in a comment on the Football is Coming Home Blog, the contrast with what happened the day before within the super-monetized spectacle of the Premier League could not have been more striking. “A tale of two handshakes – the one that never was between Suarez and Evra and the one between Mweene and Barry during the penalty shoot out – highlighted the gulf in class between events in Libreville and planet Premiership.” It’s worth taking some time to think through precisely what the intersection of these two events means about the current state of global football, and it’s possible futures.

Perhaps the most remarkable moment of the evening came afterwards, though. Joseph Musonda, a 34-year-old veteran of the team who knew this would likely be his last chance to play in an African Cup of Nations final, was hurt in the opening minutes of the game. He had to watch, in pain, powerless, from the sidelines for the next 2 hours. But his teammates made sure he could ultimately celebrate a victory. And his coach, Herve Renard, made sure that he could be amongst them as they prayed in thanks, honoring the generations who had brought them to this moment.

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