European clubs and media who wanted the tournament postponed amid a rise in Covid cases were serving their own selfish interests and repeating the old ‘darkest Africa’ narrative.
Ahead of a controversial ban on eight African countries by the United States and several countries in Europe due to the discovery of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 by scientists in South Africa, the Association of European Clubs (ECA) had writes to world football governing body Fifa to express concerns about how the rise in Omicron cases could jeopardize the participation of European-based African players in the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) from January 9.
But this provocative decision as well as the more recent Afcon angst resurrect unnecessary anxieties that play into a historical pattern of disrespect for Africa and the continent’s sporting traditions. That the ECA board has expressed ‘deep concern’ about player safety may be reasonable, but at the same time it invokes a culture of condescension one normally encounters in the weeks leading up to the very important Afcon.
Negative coverage of the Afcon in the English press abounded and included The Sun’s claim that Covid cases could leave the tournament in tatters and the Daily Mail headline pejoratively screaming an Afcon dread to come. But what is really at stake in the letter sent to Fifa by the ECA, run by English Premier League (EPL) clubs, is a hypocritical defense of player welfare that serves to hide a logic insidious capital, which ultimately governs a so-called proposed boycott of the African tournament.
If EPL clubs indeed cared about the spread of Omicron during Afcon, they would have completely suspended, rather than postponed, EPL matches. They would have chosen the well-being of the players which they consider to be “the duty of the clubs to ensure” and to protect properly, as they write in their letter to Fifa. But of course, as we saw at the start of the pandemic, Premier League clubs voted to continue matches, despite protests from some players and managers.
An ingrained attitude
Aside from double-talk on player welfare, what’s really at stake is a condescending attitude towards AFCON that’s embedded in the culture of several European clubs. It’s the one former Arsenal captain and Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira recently decried when faced with the absence of three players – Wilfried Zaha (Ivory Coast), Cheikou Kouyate ( Senegal) and Jordan Ayew (Ghana) – during the tournament. begin.
Insisting that AFCON deserves more respect from European football authorities and their media, Vieira explained that he respects and understands ‘the passion and importance for players to go and represent their country’ and that he will therefore “never prevent any player from going to play the African Cup of Nations”. But Vieira gets to the heart of the matter when he also asks that ‘the competition should be respected more – because this competition is as important as the European Championships’.
The former France international may just be in some kind of sentimental league with his Senegalese roots, but his challenge to European journalists is clear: AFCON deserves more respect and positive coverage. “It might be important for you to cover the Africa Cup of Nations a bit more and go to Africa and interview people to really understand what it means to each of them,” Vieira explained in his tacit denunciation of this CAN. condescension that is, frankly, tiring now.
It must be said that Vieira’s response is one more reason why diversity enriches an EPL – and indeed the top five European leagues – which has a very limited number of black managers. Although many have played as professional footballers at the highest level and obtained coaching licenses from UEFA, they remain underrepresented.
Like Vieira, former West Ham United striker Sebastien Haller, now with Ajax Amsterdam, expressed his frustration to De Telegraaf when asked if he would rather stay in the Netherlands in January than move on. go to Cameroon. “This statement shows the lack of respect for Africa,” Haller said. “Would this have ever been presented to a European player for a European championship? Of course, I will go to the Africa Cup to represent Ivory Coast. It is the greatest honour.”
Racism and condescension
Vieira and Haller are not the only ones to denounce the discourteous attitude of certain European clubs towards the CAN. In 2013, a former Daily Mail sports editor, Oliver Holt, also wrote that “the attitude towards [the Afcon] of English clubs is still dominated by the double standard… The tournament – which has been around longer than the European Championship, by the way – is treated as a giant inconvenience.”
The persistence of these double standards is why former England and Arsenal striker Ian Wright said in a video posted to Twitter that media coverage of players going to AFCON was “tainted with racism “. Wright’s question is telling: “Is there ever a tournament more disrespectful than the Africa Cup of Nations?”
In a time of pandemic, this pathetic idea of the Afcon as a tournament of inconveniences is reiterated and mobilized to shore up the mundane and twisted narratives about Africa as a place of crises and terror that the rest of the world must be protected. This is despite Europe’s flagship football championship, the UEFA Euro, being staged in 10 countries amid a pandemic that has claimed fewer casualties in Africa.
In the current state of things, the Covid is once again becoming a pretext to build Africa like any other sportsman. This sends us back to a metaphysics of difference in which the continent is always already imagined as strange, different and dangerous. This is the ideological subtext of a Daily Mail tweet that suggested “there are real dangers” and “a real risk of attacks at all Afcon sites”. To put it mildly, it’s all nonsense. It is the same single, never-ending story of woe and turmoil that was projected onto Africa as the continent that would undoubtedly be devastated by Covid. This story has been unfolding since the start of the pandemic and is now bursting its seams in the sports arena. All of this serves as a marker of Europe’s continued condescension towards Africa.
Of course, like everywhere else, some African countries have growing Covid numbers as well as social and political challenges, but the pandemic has been well managed on the continent. In many countries, the social production of everyday pleasures from theaters and restaurants to stadiums has neither been significantly curtailed nor totally abandoned due to some nightmarish predictions for Africa.
Africa takes care of itself
Although there is ongoing conflict in the AFCON host country, the tournament’s 65-year history shows that it has always managed to overcome social unrest, even serving as a unifying factor in some cases. Admittedly, players and entire teams sometimes become vulnerable, as the Togolese team experienced in 2010, but it is also true that football can become the means by which belligerent actors find lasting peace.
When Ivorian legend Didier Drogba demanded in 2007 that a game be played in Bouaké, a rebel stronghold, he got down on one knee and pleaded with the rebels to give up. Scoring a goal for Ivory Coast that helped them win the game against Madagascar, Drogba, many believe, helped bring about the eventual end of a five-year civil war in his country.
Whether it was the game between Honduras and El Salvador that sparked a war or the infamous Christmas football truce during World War I, sports and conflict have coexisted in mutual tension all over the world. To treat Africa as different because of them or a pandemic is disrespectful.
Beyond the symbolism of a footballing event that has the potential power to quash The Troubles, there are certainly other material realities here, including whether condescension to the continent depends on infrastructural might and fortune. economy of Africa. Rather than becoming reactionary and constantly complaining about the way Africa is told or covered in the media, we must not only write our stories, but also take ourselves seriously as people who can transform our countries.
In the meantime, we must call out those who remain attached to a single, incomplete narrative about us. To claim that this edition of the AFCON poses a danger is simply a dishonest tactic that picks up on a two-year tradition of disrespect for African football by Europe’s footballing elite, as we have seen with clubs like Watford and others who chose not to release players for the tournament.
As Omicron ramps up around the world, African football authorities, in consultation with scientists and public health experts, must decide what they wish to do with AFCON. Likewise, any changes in the tournament schedule, which arise from time to time in connection with the so-called disruption of European leagues, must be a decision of the Confederation of African Football and not of certain European clubs and journalists who s cling to a distorted understanding of the continent. Based on FIFA regulations, the rules of the game are clear. If Covid permits and the risk to public health is minimal, then the games begin.