I seem to have stirred up a hornet’s nest by referring less than respectfully to the notion of ‘soccer colonialism’. Perhaps the subject is broader. No doubt the gladiators who hacked one another to pieces for the delectation of the ancient Romans were heavily drawn from colonised races. What is certainly true is that the team photographs of any of the leading European squads look very different today from the way they did in 1966 when – it’s hard now to credit it – neither of the two finalists, England and Germany, had any players of colour in their ranks.
And, as we know, it isn’t only football that’s changed, though in cricket England’s reliance on Asian bowlers is surpassed by its white South African recruits. British sprinters and hurdlers have almost all been black for a generation now and at the Olympics the sprints are essentially contests within the West African slave diaspora to North America and the Carribean (and hence Britain). This closely parallels the scene in football for it is the diaspora that triumphs, not the stay-at-homes: Nigerians and Ghanaians do not win the Olympic sprints. And this isn’t just because superior management, training, facilities and financial back-up do all count: after all, the Carribean countries have no advantages over the West Africans in that respect but Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, the Cubans and even the Bahamians and Barbadians outclass anything West Africa has seen.
Before South Africa’s game against France yesterday there was considerable murmuring that the coach wasn’t picking players from KwaZulu-Natal (i.e. Zulus) whereas the complaint in France was that no wonder the team was behaving disgracefully because it was full of black and mixed race players, ‘mercenaries’ rather than true Frenchmen. For some reason no one grumbled about this when they won France the World Cup in 1998. A more apt use of the term mercenary might apply to East African runners who migrate to the Gulf states for a large cash payment, adopting Islam and Muslim names so that they can run for Bahrain, Kuwait or the UAE but of course those who use the term ‘soccer colonialism’ want to bash the Europeans, not the Arabs. Similarly, the fact that Brazil has benefited from so many black players from Pele on draws no adverse comment.
In fact what those who inveigh against ‘soccer colonialism’ are really against is the free movement of individuals. After all, football players aren’t like the Roman gladiators – they’re not prisoners but rich and pampered men. And they can only be kept in Mozambique, Algeria or Senegal if European countries all adopt the equivalent of a ‘White Australia’ policy – which would draw far greater wrath from the Third World. They’re also not mercenaries – their national teams don’t pay them, their clubs do – and if it’s objected that they only end up with, say, Manchester United because they pay more, this is just as true for Wayne Rooney who would never otherwise have left Everton.
The results? Well, South Africa went out but it was still a fairytale ending, beating the former World Champions in front of a delirious crowd. That Uruguay v. Mexico was unexpectedly hard fought was mainly a tribute to Argentina, for both teams were eager to avoid Señor Messi and his men who went through untroubled by any opponents. And South Korea completed a miserable World Cup for Nigeria while France go home to face a furious press, public and president.