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Africa’s World Cup – Beyond the playing fields

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In keeping with the African tradition, the 2010 World Cup of football will undoubtedly be the most colourful in the hallowed history of the event. Already the hundreds of thousands of players, officials and fans arriving for the tournament are being overwhelmed by the warmth of the welcome.{{more}} Africa’s culture and hospitality are on show, and South Africa is expected to make the legendary Nelson Mandela very proud of its hosting. Indeed, all Africa looks to a successful 2010 World Cup to firmly imprint its signature on the world of sport, forever.

The colour and vitality of Africa’s Cup 2010 is going a long way to compensate for the enforced absence of some of the world’s leading players on account of injury. Two of the host continent’s biggest stars, Michael Essien, of Ghana, and his Chelsea team-mate, the Nigerian Jon Obi Mikel, have both been ruled out of the tournament. African anxiety was further heightened when the African Footballer of the Year, Didier Drogba of the Ivory Coast, was himself injured in practice and seemed likely to miss any appearance. Drogba is, however, now thought likely to play at some stage. Worrying, too, was a row in the Cameroon camp with another high-profile player, Samuel Eto’o threatening to withdraw. Fortunately, we will most likely have the pleasure of their presence. We will have to do without the likes of Germany’s captain Michael Ballack, David Beckham, and Rio Ferdinand, of England, Portugal’s skilful winger, Nani, and Andres Pirlo, of Italy.

It should not surprise anyone following the game that most of those forced to withdraw from the World Cup by injury play their football in Europe. Those money-driven leagues seem hell-bent on a suicidal path which is not only detrimental to the health of the players themselves, but also to the health of the game. In spite of several calls to the contrary, the European Leagues stretched into May, a mere month before the World Cup, giving players, some of whom have been playing weekly since July last year, precious little time for rest and recovery after the gruelling season. Big-money club football, not playing for country as we naively believe, is the driving force of the international game.

True, in the course of this, the top players make fantastic sums,(a lot of which is squandered in wild consumerism and gambling), and statistics for the English Premier League reveal that 67% of club revenue goes into paying players wages. But there is much inequality here, for while the top earners are multi-millionaires, thousands of professional footballers are not so lucky. In the case of Africa, the success stories of the Drogbas, Essiens, and Eto’os are trumpeted by the international media. But there is another side. That is the virtual human trafficking of young African footballing talent. “Entrepreneurs” and “talent scouts”, primarily from Europe, scour the continent looking for young African players. They recruit them for their academies for training and then SELL them to clubs in Europe. Hundreds of these academies dot the African landscape, welcomed by governments and people alike as the escape route out of poverty. That is true for those who make it, earning vast fortunes. But the vast majority of the young ones so recruited are not so lucky. They end up knocking from pillar to post in cold Europe, exploited, having to endure racism, with few rights, fewer privileges and no security. African footballers now constitute the majority of the footballers in Rumania and more than a third in such unlikely places as Ukraine. According to David Runciman in the GUARDIAN (UK), in 2006, more than 20% of all transfers between European clubs were of African players and, he says, “Cheap African labour is now the staple diet of the lower reaches of the European game”. One author even refers to these unfortunate players as the “lumpenproletariat” of professional football.

I make these references, not to detract from Africa’s moment of glory, but to use the opportunity of the publicity afforded the World Cup to raise social issues which rarely get in the spotlight. Football brings much joy and entertainment to hundreds of millions of adoring fans, but the world game is a big money-spinner controlled by some not-too-innocent folks and from which huge multi-million corporations rake in a fortune. FIFA itself will profit handsomely from the venture. One example of whose interests are paramount can be gleaned from the current row about the ball being used for the 2010 games. Many top players, coaches and officials are complaining about the quality of the ball to be used. FIFA awards a tender for an official ball every World Cup. ADIDAS is the manufacturer of the 2010 version and it is estimated that it will make a profit of US$ 1.7 billion in this way. But although ADIDAS is a German company, the balls are being made in Pakistan. A report published this week accuses ADIDAS of paying below a living wage to workers stitching the ball, equivalent to US$72 per month. Glorious capitalism that!

Having digested those issues, it is back to the fields of South Africa and the intense competition for the ultimate prize. As persons predominantly of African origin, there will be much goodwill for African teams to do well and the traditional overwhelming support for Brazil, along with the teams of the big stars, Argentina with Messi and Ronaldo’s Portugal. Yet let me leave you with another interesting perspective. European teams, who number 13 of the 32 competing, will hardly have had a more comfortable environment. This is South Africa’s winter season, and therefore cooler than the European summer. Predictions are that this will be the coldest winter there on record. The matches will be played at the times when most European games are played, so the supposed “home advantage” of African teams will not count as much. The dices are heavily loaded in a particular direction.

Nevertheless, root for your favoured team and enjoy the tournament.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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