Before a controversial ban on some eight African countries by the US and several countries in Europe because of the discovery of the Omicron Covid 19 variant by scientists in South Africa, the European Club Association (ECA) had written to FIFA to express concerns over how rising cases of Omicron could endanger the participation of Europe-based African players at the African Cup of Nations coming up in January. But this provocative move as well as the more recent angst over the African Cup of Nations rehashes needless anxieties that play into a historical pattern of disrespect for Africa and the continent’s sporting traditions.
That the European Club Association board expressed its “deep concerns” about whether players would be safe may be reasonable but it concurrently invokes a culture of disdain that is normally encountered in the weeks leading to the all-important African Cup of Nations (AFCON). If we managed to ignore for a minute the current negative coverage of AFCON in the English press—including the Sun’s claim that Covid cases may leave the tournament in tatters, and the Daily Mail’s headline that pejoratively screams a coming AFCON terror —we may get a fuller sense of what is actually at play over the letter sent to FIFA by the ECA, led by English premier league clubs, namely a hypocritical defence of players welfare that is used to hide an insidious logic of capital which ultimately governs a so-called proposed boycott of the African tourney. If EPL clubs indeed cared about the spread of the Omicron during the tourney, they would have completely paused, rather than postpone EPL matches now and choose the wellbeing of players they believe it is “the clubs’ duty to ensure” and properly protect as they write in their letter to FIFA. But, of course, like we saw—even though without fans—at the onset of the pandemic, premier league clubs voted to continue matches despite the protestations of some players and coaches.
A double-speak about the wellbeing of players aside, what is really at stake is precisely a condescending attitude towards AFCON which is ingrained in the culture of several European clubs and it is one that former Arsenal captain and coach of Premier League side Crystal Palace, Patrick Vieira recently decried when confronted with the fact of being without three players—Wilfried Zaha (Ivory Coast), Cheikou Kouyate (Senegal), and Jordan Ayew (Ghana)—when the tournament begins.
Insisting that AFCON deserves more respect from European football authorities and their media outlets, Vieira explains that he respects and understands “the passion and the importance to players to go and represent their country” and will, therefore, “never stop any player going to play the Africa Cup of Nations.” But Vieira gets to the crux of the matter when he also demands that the “competition needs to be more respected – because this competition is as important as the European Championships.” It may be the case that the former France international is merely 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 guys to cover the Africa Cup of Nations a little bit more and to go to Africa and interview people to really understand what it means for every single one of them,” Vieira argues in his tacit denunciation of this AFCON condescension that is, frankly, now tiring. And It needs to be said that Vieira’s response is one more reason why diversity enriches an EPL (and indeed Europe’s top five leagues) that has a very limited number of Black managers who, having played as professional footballers at the highest level and obtained UEFA coaching licenses, remained underrepresented.
Like Vieira, former West Ham United striker Sebastien Haller, now with Ajax, expressed frustrations to De Telegraaf when asked if he preferred remaining in the Netherlands in January to going to Cameroon. “This statement shows the disrespect for Africa,” Haller says, asking: “Would this ever have been presented to a European player towards a European Championship? Of course, I will go to the Africa Cup to represent Ivory Coast. That is the highest honour.”
But Vieira and Haller, sadly, are not alone in calling out the discourteous attitude of some European clubs towards the African Cup of Nations. In 2013, a now-former chief sportswriter at the Daily Mail, Oliver Holt similarly wrote that “the attitude to [AFCON] from English clubs is still dominated by double standards…. The tournament – which has been in existence 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 says in a video posted on Twitter that the media coverage of players travelling to the Africa Cup of Nations is “tinged with racism”. Wright’s question is telling: “Is there ever a tournament more disrespected than the Africa Cup of Nations?”
In a pandemic era, this pathetic idea of AFCON as a tourney of inconvenience is being reiterated and mobilized to consolidate trite and twisted narratives about Africa as a place of crises and terror from which the rest of the world has to be protected. This is despite the fact that Europe’s flagship football, the Euros, was hosted across ten countries in the middle of a pandemic that has claimed fewer lives in Africa. As things stand, that the pandemic becomes a pretext to, again, construct Africa as a sporting other returns us to a metaphysics of difference in which the continent is always already imagined as strange, different and dangerous. This is the ideological subtext for that tweet by the Daily Mail that suggested “there are real dangers” and “real risk of attacks in all AFCON venues.” To put it mildly, it’s all a twaddle. It is the same and unending single story of woes and troubles that becomes projected to the continent as a marker of Europe’s persistent condescension; of Africa, as the continent that would undoubtedly be devastated by COVID, that has played out since the pandemic started that is bursting its seams in the arena of sports.
Of course, like anywhere else, some African countries have growing Covid numbers, as well as social and pollical challenges, but the Covid situation has been well managed on the continent where the social production of everyday pleasures from theatres and restaurants to stadia has neither been significantly curtailed nor totally abandoned because of some nightmarish predictions for Africa. While there is an ongoing conflict in the host nation for AFCON, the 60-year history of the tournament shows 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 was experienced by the Togolese team in 2010, but it is also the case that soccer could become the means by which warring actors become permanently placated. In 2007 when Ivorian legend Didier Drogba asked that a game be played in Bouake, a rebel stronghold, he got on his knees & pleaded with rebels to drop their arms. Scoring a goal for Cote d’Ivoire that helped them win the match against Madagascar, Drogba, it is believed by many, contributed to the eventual termination of a 5-year civil war in his country. Whether it’s the Honduras and El Salvador match that kicked off a war or the famous Christmas soccer truce during World War 1, sports and conflicts have, all over the world, co-existed in mutual tension. To treat Africa as different because of them or a pandemic is disrespectful.
Beyond the symbolism of a soccer event that has the potential power to undo unrest,
there are certainly other material realities here, including whether condescension towards the continent is hinged on Africa’s infrastructural power and economic fortunes. Rather than become reactionary and endlessly complain about the ways Africa is narrated or covered in the media, though, we do need not only to write our stories but take ourselves seriously as people with agency to transform our countries.
In the meantime, we must call out those who remain tethered to a single, incomplete narrative about us. The 2021 AFCON poses danger is simply a disingenuous tactic that reprises a biennial tradition of disrespect to African football by the European soccer elite, as we have seen with clubs like Watford and others who chose not to release players for the tourney. As Omicron intensifies worldwide, African football authorities, in consultation with scientists and public health experts need to decide what they wish to do with AFCON. Similarly, any change in the timing of the tournament, which comes up from time to time in relation to the so-called disruption of European leagues, has to be a determination of CAF. Not some European clubs and journalists holding on to a warped understanding of the continent. Based on FIFA regulations, the rules of the game are clear. If Covid permits and the risk to public health are minimal, then let the games begin!
A slightly different version of this article was first published by New Frame