An African Parable
For African teams, it’s often after qualifying for the World Cup that the real challenge begins
What follows is a generic African football story. There are no names in it and no teams you will recognise by the colours of their shirt or their nicknames. But you will recognise the story because it is so common as to be representative.
There is a green and rolling African country, partly Christian and partly Muslim. They speak English and French and a variety of indigenous languages. They play many sports but by far the most popular is football. The national team — nicknamed the Bobcats — qualifies for the World Cup. There is great elation from the population at this qualification but the excitement and pride is tempered by the fact that the majority of the Bobcats' best players play in Europe. They play at good European clubs with good (mainly European) coaches. The fans feel as though the players are partly of their country but they also have a foot elsewhere. The feeling can be difficult to articulate but it is present everywhere, like mist.
Despite qualifying for the World Cup there has been a nasty subtext throughout qualification — the local Bobcats' coach is not good enough. Some of the local papers — egged on by certain players — say that he will be exposed at the World Cup by those canny Europeans, those sly South Americans. The national football federation reads the papers. With six months to go to the World Cup, they begin to get jittery. Maybe such-and-such, much as we like him, much as he is one of us, will not do us any favours at the World Cup? Another faction in the federation cautions against hasty judgments. They say qualification was assured in some style. Go with the local man is their motto. Some think this faction in the federation and the local coach are from the same tribe.
As the World Cup draws closer, the federation loses its nerve. Some European players don't arrive for a high-profile friendly planned on a national holiday. A weekly football magazine publishes a 2000-word feature with the Bobcats' glamour player (European-based, of course). Said player earns in a week what a village in the hinterland earns in a year. (And that is when the coffee and the ground nut prices, fixed in Europe's capitals, are high.) The population fete the player as a God. He is worshipped, and so when he speaks they read the magazine, circulating it amongst themselves and reading it by candlelight. Words from another world. In the magazine the player says that the local coach played no role in securing World Cup qualification. It was the players, using the methods they have grown used to in Europe, who should be thanked. They succeeded despite the coach. What is needed now, the player intimates, is a top European coach.
The influential members of the national federation read the interview. It is what they have been waiting for. Privately they start making enquiries about the availability of respected European coaches ahead of the World Cup. The work is difficult. They don't want to attract too much attention. Many coaches are unavailable. They contract an outside agency to help them find a coach the players will respect, someone who has up-to-date European methods at his disposal. They find such a man and quickly (time is of the essence) fire the local coach. He is understandably bitter. He goes to his favourite newspapers and complains about the players. They are disrespectful; they are womanisers, secret (and not so secret) drinkers. Finally — the rhetorical coup de grâce — they have lost touch with their roots.
His interviews are eagerly-read but soon dismissed. Perhaps we do need a foreign coach, the people think — to keep up with all those fancy foreign teams. The notion of foreign here gets mixed up in people's minds. It comes to be associated with what is good. This is what the federation think too. The outside agency finds a foreign coach. They are pleased. He has coached many African teams. He is white but he has a feel for Africa. His parents were once traders; or were they missionaries? Perhaps they were both. Their pasts are pliable, finds the new coach, like mud.
At his first press conference he speaks a few words in an indigenous language. This is a masterstroke. He is one of us, think the people. Here we get the best of both worlds, think the sharper minds in the federation: a foreigner who is actually a local. The foreign coach's first training session is attended by tens of thousands. The players are happy. He's one of us they say — and we like his methods. The players play well in the first friendly under the new coach. The nation looks forward to the World Cup with a hope so sharp it is indistinguishable from pain.
For the second friendly before the start of the World Cup, the coach plays several players out of position. This is dismissed as a frippery — "Here's a guy with a sense of humour" — but the players don't like it. The national team lose the match. Still, they go to the World Cup with excitement. It feels like the first time they were capped for their country. They vow not to womanise, or drink; not to sing the national anthem badly, to meet their obligations to the local press. They have been drawn in a difficult group, but hey, everyone has been drawn in a difficult group. With this foreign coach they will go far. He understands them. He is up-to-date with his practice and methodology. His parents know Africa. They were traders. Or missionaries. Or both.
The team gathers and flies to the World Cup venue. They do not like the hotel their federation have booked them into. Twenty-four hours of haggling and confusion follow. The team is moved at great expense. Privately some in the federation complain that too much money is being spent. The nation gets slightly restive. This is tempered by hope, big and growing — like a raincloud. The federation's fears are mirrored by the players. They are beginning to realise that whether the coach had parents who were traders or missionaries (or both) doesn't matter. He isn't as good as they had been led to believe. His training methods aren't that dissimilar to those of their former coach, the bitter local, who is now a pundit on the national television station, criticising players he said he loved when they qualified for the World Cup.
They train and work hard and behind cupped hands and closed doors complain. The time finally arrives (the waiting is over) for their opening match. The African team plays against a relatively unfancied Asian team. They take an early lead and hold on until the final minutes when defensive disorganisation costs them a goal from a free-kick. The players get confused about who is marking whom and where they are meant to stand. The ball is whipped across the defensive wall. It leads to an equaliser.
Everyone, including the nation, the federation, the players and the coach say they are disappointed with the draw. Secretly they are relieved. They feared the Asians would be too quick for them. They go into their second World Cup match still living inside their relief. It makes them tentative, apologetic. They concede a goal, another before half-time. At the interval the coach, searching for some inspiration (he doesn't know these players very well, after all) tells them of his parents. But he cannot remember whether they were traders or missionaries. The players snigger. They go out through the tunnel wishing they were back with their old coach. They huddle inside the centre circle, talking. Those watching back home on television think they are trapped within the centre-circle but they do not see it. During the talk they decide to win the match for the old coach. He is commentating at the time and berates them. They vow to win for him and they lose.
They go into their last World Cup fixture with five changes, needing a win. The nation sits around the television more closely than ever, as though the television could offer warmth. The team draws the match. They are out of the World Cup. Everyone is unhappy. The people are unhappy. The players, although they earn fat salaries and hide behind iPods with headphones the size of elephants' ears, are unhappy. The former coach is unhappy because he doesn't have an object for his bitterness. He is not only unhappy but empty. The new coach is also unhappy. But what is he unhappy about? He must finally make up his mind, he decides. Were his parents missionaries? Or traders? Or both?
This article appeared on Episode Nineteen of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.