Coverage of the World Cup left out few African stereotypes

2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa -- Cameroon vs Netherlands at Cape Town Stadium. Photo: Mikkelz/Flickr

On the weekend the 2010 FIFA World Cup ends here are a few reflections...

Four years ago, Canadian viewers of the Soccer World Cup were treated to colour commentary on how the Togolese might struggle with 26 Celsius heat of Northern Germany. Although sports commentary frequently has such inanities, coverage of this World Cup, in South Africa, has had more insidious issues particularly regarding the portrayal of African nations. Canadian media coverage is damaged by continued ignorance of Africa, stereotyping and double-standards which are at times dehumanizing.

The myth of one Africa

The 2010 World Cup in South Africa as continuously been referred to as Africa's World Cup. Although ostensibly accurate as FIFA had decided that the World Cup would go to an African country and only accepted bids from African committees, the idea has been used differently. The Africa's World Cup idea is used to claim that awarding of the tournament to one country is a victory for the whole continent.

This supposed victory framing negates the fact that South Africa bid only against other African nations and that the World Cup was given to the continent to reflect the fact that the first 18 tournaments avoided it altogether and just perhaps it was Africa's turn and a just thing to do.

This framing of Africa's victory also makes it difficult to discuss the fact that most South Africans let alone the rest of the continent will be confined to watching at home or in communal setting on televisions. For them it will be the same as any other World Cup. A sub-message suggests this as a singular event. It has a sub-message that this is the only World Cup Africa will host, a result of the as yet unsubstantiated belief that the remainder of Africa is incapable of hosting such an event. World Cup in 2002 in Japan and South Korea was the first Asian World Cup; World Cup 2010 is Africa's World Cup.

The Africa's World Cup idea aligns with a conceptualization of Africa as just one, homogenous place. This idea permeated the pre-tournament coverage. Pepsi's ad was filmed in Kenya and CBC did a documentary with stops in Egypt and Niger. These productions both felt comfortable attaching a World Cup spin to them despite being thousands of kilometres away. To recognize the oddity of such an idea one can imagine Pepsi doing their World Cup 2002 ad in Bangladesh just to get some Asian faces on the screen. One could also imagine CBC doing a documentary with stops in Portugal and Albania as part of their Germany World Cup 2006 warm-up series. Clearly this uniting of Africa into one monolithic centre is diminishing in a way unacceptable for other continents.

The consideration of Africa as one entity is also seen in the commentary on the relative success of African nations. Despite being made up of many Europe-based players who speak other languages and grew up in different climates, African teams are consistently suggested by commentators to have some sort of home advantage. No one claimed six years ago how lucky England were to be playing in Germany, or that Iran would be able to rely on the Asian crowd in 2002 as they played in front of a virtual home crowd. In fact, the idea that the crowds will be heavily in favour of African sides, though somewhat true with regards to the South African contingent who have appeared to largely support the other African sides, the number of travelling fans reflecting relative economic position that heavily favours Europeans, and the largest contingent of travelling fans who were from the United States.

The Coke advertisement

On CBC, Coca-Cola has an advertisement seemingly on a loop. The advertisement is ostensibly about the history of goal celebrations featuring the Cameroonian legend Roger Milla. The ad begins by introducing Roger Milla as an African. The blatant double-standard and appeal to ignorance is astounding when one looks at how similar legends are referred to. Imagine Coke introducing Pele in an advertisement as the great South American. Imagine them referring to any Zinedine Zidane as the great European, ignoring that many commentators seemed to become much more interested in his North African heritage only after he head butted Materazzi in retaliation.

What is more disturbing however is the assertion in the advertisement that Milla's dancing celebration was one "no one had ever seen before." This assertion is that Milla had been playing in front of non-persons or that dancing to celebrate is only done by non-persons is disturbing. Video widely available on the internet shows whole crowds of people dancing to celebrate goals. Although Milla did make the dance celebration world famous the assertion that if Europeans and North Americans don't see it then no one ever has is still a dehumanizing one.

Deservedness

In 1966, 16 African nations led by Dr. Kwame Nkrumah's Ghana boycotted the World Cup in England to protest the splitting of a single spot between Africa and Asia. Although this boycott did not mar the official record the way the Olympic boycotts did in the 1980s the mentality that Africans and often Asians as well, need to be grateful to what opportunities they get remains ingrained.

An example of this is the claim made in a May CBC blog post. The post asserts that the qualification process which already allocates a disproportionate number of places to Europeans should be thrown out in favour of some rank based system to ensure the "best" teams are in. Ignoring the qualification processes and describing a victory over Bahrain, who finished fifth in a confederation representing well over two billion people, as a false indicator of ability stems from a Eurocentric ideal of the world.

Parallel claims that weaker nations are at the World Cup for development reasons is extremely insulting. North Korea, Algeria, Argentina and England are all at the World Cup for the same reason, because they qualified, not because FIFA wants to help in their development.

Discipline and disgrace

Notably on air, however, is the continued insistence that the African teams are filled with big physical players who lack discipline. Dave Zirin's article on the All-White Basketball league outlines a similar theme regarding the North American media's struggles with blackness and sport.

CBC's coverage seems to give tacit approval to an idea of the big physical undisciplined African. Despite African teams averaging less than a goal against them in each one in their opening games, nearly all were challenged as having possible issues with a lack of defensive discipline. Going into the Nigeria vs. Argentina match, CBC's Nigel Reed claimed that Nigerians would be physical and challenge the Argentines. In actuality the Nigerians committed only one more foul than the South American team.

When dealing with simulation or diving, the issue is more than just Canadian commentators' tendencies toward the Anglocentric mentality that views the avoidance of injurious tackles as a greater crime than the committing of them. The comparison of two exaggeration incidents, however, shows most clearly the double standards. During Greece vs. Nigeria, Nigerian Sani Kaita kicked out at a Greek opponent, catching him in the thigh in a moment of needless aggression. The Greek player dropped to the ground, but clutching his face rather than his leg. The CBC commentary jumped all over this incident. The moment was a chance to trot out the claims of indiscipline and refer to Sani Kaita as a disgrace. That the rest of the Nigerian team still managed to commit fewer fouls despite being outnumbered, and that Greek player clutching his face after being caught in the thigh was forgotten.

Compare this to the double-standard treatment of Kaká in the Brazil vs. Cote d'Ivoire match. When Brazilian Kaka placed an elbow into the chest of a running Kader Keita, Keita did what the Greek player had done, dropping to the ground and cheekily clutching his face in the same way that the Greek had done against Nigeria. Although anatomy experts will doubtless note that the chest is much closer to the face than the thigh, the intention of both the Ivorian and Greek players was the same to exaggerate the contact in an attempt ensure sanctions to the opponent.

The CBC commentators, along with many British and American commentators, jumped on Keita this time for his exaggeration and calls for a crackdown on diving were raised. Luis Fabiano's double-handball goal and Kaka's 40-yard walk away from the site of the contact, a classic indicator of a player who believes they may get caught but is not yet sure, both ignored in the clamour to challenge diving and exaggeration in the game.

In other diving incidents the referee has been the central issue. Previously, when the German Mesut Özil dove without contact the referee was praised for his spot-on call that penalized Özil. When Italian Daniele De Rossi threw himself to the ground commentators rightfully questioned how a shirt pull from behind could be understood by the referee as a reason to fall forwards. When an African player was involved however the issue becomes not the referee's actions but the African's discipline. How dare the Africans play like others to win -- they won by getting the World Cup why can't they just be happy with that?

Leif Maitland is an unofficial soccer lover and an officially sanctioned soccer official. He is currently in between degrees in planning, the first at the University of Waterloo and the next at University of Toronto where he'll being studying issues of culture, race and class in public participation.

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