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On African Football

On African Football

Senegal's Demba Ba. Credit: Alexander Klein/AFP/Getty Images

Jonathan Wilson might be the greatest football writer working today. If nothing else, he’s in the conversation. So it was with great interest that I read his recent lengthy post for the Guardian Sports Blog on the state of football in Africa. The title of the post poses the question: “Is African Football Progressing?”

His answer leans toward the negative. Yet I’m not sure his evidence leads to that conclusion. First, I’m not sure what his baseline of quality is — he seems to be putting forward an idealized view of what African football should look like, perhaps fueled by African football boosters or his own liberal projections of what he’d like African football to be (an ideological leaning that I share) and thus is posing: African football could be Y, instead it is X, and X falls short of Y, so this is disappointing. That is perhaps fair, but I’m not certain it is the only frame of reference.

By Wilson’s own estimation there are more great African players in the world’s elite football leagues than ever. There are more stars among those players (just look at the Barclay’s Premier League sides taking a hit from losing Africans who are from countries competing in the upcoming African League of Nations Tournament).

And while Wilson seems bent (albeit reluctantly and from a place of sadness and not schadenfreude) on disparaging the (perhaps slower than desired) accomplishments of African teams in the World Cup, one need only look back to the not-so-distant 1970s to recognize that even as the world’s game has improved, African teams are competing within that world far better than ever. As recently as 1978 an African team had never won so much as a World Cup game. We are a long way from those benighted days. To be sure, 2010 saw its share of disappointment for African sides, but even then Ghana came within the dastardly reach of the Hand of Fraud of advancing to the Semifinals and for the second World Cup in a row Cotê d’Ivoire found itself trapped in the Pool of Death and even then only failed to advance on goal differential.

His points about the Cup of Nations — that the quality of play has been dreadful — may or may not be true. I’ve heard enough people say as much that I suppose I must believe it (finding television coverage of the CAF is nearly impossible in the US — suggestions welcome) but it is hard to know exactly what that means since in the Cup of Nations African teams play one another and so it tells us little about the relative level of the African game. Teams tend to adapt to playing circumstances. Bad football does not necessarily equate to bad footballers or even to bad teams. Teams play the game in front of them, not some idealized game in the mind’s eye of a sportswriter or fan.

I am not here to assert that Wilson is wrong so much as to wonder whether or not we need to define the terms of the debate far more clearly than he has done. Has African football fallen short of some ideal that we have built for it? Perhaps. But has it actually fallen short relative to the performance of players and teams that exist in the real football playing world? I’m not so certain that is the case and I think a strong argument can be made that the opposite is true.



Derek Catsam

Derek Catsam is a Professor of history and Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He is also Senior Research Associate at Rhodes University. Derek writes about race and politics in the United States and Africa, sports, and terrorism. He is currently working on books on bus boycotts in the United States and South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s and on the 1981 South African Springbok rugby team's tour to the US. He is the author of three books, dozens of scholarly articles and reviews, and has published widely on current affairs in African, American, and European publications. He has lived, worked, and travelled extensively throughout southern Africa. He writes about politics, sports, travel, pop culture, and just about anything else that comes to mind.

Areas of Focus:
Africa; Zimbabwe; South Africa; Apartheid