Ructions in the French Camp

R.W. Johnson · 'Soccer Colonialism'

Today's match between Portugal and North Korea has stirred memories of the encounter between the two teams in 1966. Today the South African Communist Party formally wished success to North Korea as fellow Communists but what mattered more in 1966 was that North Korea played its matches up in England's north-east and their plucky performances – especially the victory against Italy – won the hearts of Sunderland, Newcastle and Middlesbrough fans and they flocked to cheer them on. That game was more of a contest than today’s 7-0 thrashing: North Korea led 3-0 before Eusébio scored four and Portugal won 5-3.

Eusébio is still a name to conjure with here – yesterday's City Press carried an article accusing Europe of ‘soccer colonialism’, with Eusébio a prize exhibit alongside Thierry Henry, Zinedine Zidane and other stars born in Africa but 'stolen' by Europe. There was no mention of the fact that Eusébio went to Portugal of his own free choice, that he was happy to stay there, that he was paid and treated far better there than he would have been in his native Mozambique, and that his soccer skills were brought to a higher level by European trainers and competition. The article displayed a powerful sense of victimhood, but it is highly doubtful that Eusébio would regard himself as a victim of colonialism. Perhaps England should be lamenting the players it has lost through emigration to Australia and New Zealand, but although things are at a pretty low ebb in the England camp no one seems to have thought of this excuse yet.

But it might be wise to brace ourselves to hear more about ‘soccer colonialism’ for the large-scale exit of African teams at the first round is likely to stir such grievances yet again, particularly since Fifa has made it clear that any chance of increasing the number of African qualifiers in future will depend on African performances now. Of 2010's six African qualifiers, only Ghana seems likely to go through, so the argument will doubtless turn in favour of more teams from Asia – it already seems odd to have a world event lacking Russia, China and India. But the key moment will, of course, come with tomorrow’s France v. South Africa match which is likely to see the exit of the hosts even if they win. For while the willingness of South Africans to enjoy a good party even after that should not be doubted – rather as England enjoys Wimbledon every year well after all English players have been eliminated – the atmosphere will nonetheless change, for the coming of the World Cup has been the realisation of a dream and Bafana Bafana have been very much part of that dream.

At present their hopes hang heavily on the extraordinary ructions in the French camp following the expulsion of their key striker, Nicholas Anelka (an interesting case for the soccer colonialism lobby, that). In truth anyone who has followed Anelka's career knows that he has left club after club in acrimonious circumstances, so his departure is less of a surprise than the reaction of the French camp as a whole. The larger point, of course, is that Uruguay and Mexico only have to draw 0-0 for them both to go through at the expense of both South Africa and France, a result one could easily imagine being agreed over a beer. But for locals the drama still fastens on the France v. South Africa contest, with everyone hoping that the French will continue to fight among themselves. It may not be enough. One thinks back to the episode of the Goon Show in which the British army in North Africa have to play football against the local Arabs and, in an attempt to guarantee victory, Major Bloodnok and Moriarty manage to pass large quantities of alcohol into the normally teetotal Arab camp. ‘The result was a foregone conclusion: British garrison, 12; Drunken Arabs, 68.’


  • 21 June 2010 at 4:11pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    I'm backing South Africa to win against La France und General Napoléon, who must be the the most incompetent manager on display. Have we seen worse decisions than Domenech's to leave Henry on the bench when they needed really needed a goal? What dies Zidane think of this?

  • 21 June 2010 at 10:34pm
    Bob Beck says:
    "The article displayed a powerful sense of victimhood, but it is highly doubtful that Eusébio would regard himself as a victim of colonialism."

    Doubtful indeed -- but isn't that to miss the point? What was good for Eusébio -- and I wouldn't begrudge him success anywhere he chose to go -- was less so for his countrymen and -women.

    It's easy to mock the charge of "soccer colonialism" -- perhaps in this case "soccer capitalism" would have been nearer the mark, though I suppose in 1966 Mozambique was still literally a colony -- and no doubt it's less harmful than the political-economic kind. But one can still argue that it's an insult, howbeit unintended as such, on top of an injury.

    • 22 June 2010 at 3:00am
      pinhut says: @ Bob Beck
      I can't find the article in City Press, but the quote Bob Beck pulls up struck me as flimsy evidence to counter the charge of 'soccer colonialism'. We could have the same conversation about the grammar school system and the 11+, sure, for those working class children who made it, it was no doubt in many instances a godsend, but was it good for their communities, that a large part of success amounted to integrating themselves into a different social class.

      No matter. The issue still deserves consideration. Perhaps FIFAs weighting of African performances could be tweaked so that African-born players representing European teams, for example, could count towards their success. I'm only half-joking, it seems rather a shame to see Switzerland and Germany fielding players rather incongruously naturalised from Latin America or Africa, as if the major economic powers did not enjoy impressive advantages already, without nicking the raw materials from those further down the pecking order.

    • 22 June 2010 at 3:26am
      Bob Beck says: @ pinhut
      I agree (and of course, on the off-chance it was unclear, the quotation I "pulled up" was from RW Johnson's blog entry, not City Press; nor was I myself trying to counter or dismiss the charge of "soccer colonialism").

      I live in Canada, the good burghers of which sometimes grumble about US-based hockey teams luring Canadian players away with higher salaries. Even were I a nationalist, I'd have a hard time taking this complaint seriously. These are two wealthy countries, after all -- the US being just slightly wealthier.

      A better comparison -- Canada, like the US, having been built on the principle of immigration -- is Canadian, and US, recruitment of doctors, nurses, tradespeople, engineers and so on trained and educated in India or Africa. Good for these individuals, if they can put their training to use in their new homes (which they can't always do); good for Canada, or the US; not so good for the nations whose scarce resources went into training them.

      You can make a case that athletics is of less tangible value to a struggling country than medicine or engineering. You'd have a hard time showing that it's of little or no importance, at least to struggling citizens of that struggling country.

    • 22 June 2010 at 3:26pm
      Locus says: @ pinhut
      I don’t know about the Swiss team, but as far as I can see, the “Africans” playing for Germany were born in Berlin and Stuttgart. Are you suggesting they shouldn’t play for Germany? Their sole Latin American became a German citizen after living and working in the country for ten years. In any other walk of life this would be regarded as the smooth functioning of a progressive immigration system. And he was born in Brazil, which can hardly be regarded as a have-not nation in footballing terms.

    • 22 June 2010 at 5:50pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ Bob Beck
      That phrase 'rather incongruously naturalised from Latin America or Africa, does make it sound as if you are trying to pin down some sort of Tort in the rules (of Football or Immigration - take your pick). Cacau, the German-Brazilian, is now being built up as the new German hero. That can't be bad, can it?

    • 22 June 2010 at 5:55pm
      potyondp says: @ Locus
      Ah yes, but a Brazilian player, even one who does not make his own birth national team, is still a Brazilian.

    • 23 June 2010 at 12:40am
      pinhut says: @ Locus
      "Are you suggesting they shouldn’t play for Germany?"

      What do you think?

    • 23 June 2010 at 5:57pm
      Bob Beck says: @ Geoff Roberts
      No, but your choice of quote level makes it look as if I, not pinhut, used the phrase "rather incongruously naturalised, etc.". That's now how I think or write (and is radically inconsistent with what I've been saying all along). This blog software is a bit less than intuitive, but please to get the attributions right.

    • 23 June 2010 at 6:01pm
      Bob Beck says: @ Geoff Roberts
      I meant of course (below) "that's *not* how I think or write".

  • 22 June 2010 at 5:42pm
    potyondp says:
    Henry was born in Paris, no?

    • 28 June 2010 at 4:53am
      Prairie Oyster says: @ potyondp
      Yes, he was. What's more, his parents are from Guadeloupe and Martinique, which are both departments of France. Neither island is allowed to field a team for the World Cup, because they are governed by the Fédération Française de Football and therefore their players must represent France. (The two islands do field teams in CONCACAF play, but even if they were to win the conference, they would not be able to appear at the World Cup.) So their status is very similar to that of Mozambique in the 1960s.

      To say that Thierry Henry was born in Africa is utter nonsense--my guess is that you would have to go back six or seven generations in his family before you found anyone born in Africa.

  • 22 June 2010 at 5:54pm
    potyondp says:
    Well, after thinking on it a bit, I think one cannot reject totally the claim of "soccer colonialism." However, success at the World Cup is a complex mixture of culture (Brazil has won more than anyone else for reasons related to this), history, population, and economics. How else does the US become even as good as it is today?

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