Saturday

The Africa Cup of Nations continues today in South Africa with runner-up match between between Ghana and Mali to decide who will take third place.  The final tomorrow will be played between Nigeria and Burkina Faso.  I’ve been following the tournament closely since it began two weeks ago.  To supplement my viewing I’ve been reading a couple of books about soccer in Africa.

Africa United by Steve Bloomfield is a summary tour of the continent with ten chapters introducing thirteen of Africa’s national teams.  Bloomfield’s book was published a few years ago, just before the 2010 World Cup finals hosted by South Africa.  A few things have changed since the publication of the book, but it’s still current enough that it doesn’t feel dated.

Bloomfield writes more about the recent history of these African nations than he does about their soccer teams.  Soccer is the entry point for Bloomfield’s treatment of the social, racial, economic, and political upheaval in these countries.  And it turns out that soccer is an ideal unifying thread for Bloomfield’s narrative since soccer and each country’s national team is a central part of public and social life.  Politicians and dictators associate themselves with successful soccer teams in order to bask in reflected glory.  But when those same teams lose matches, those who value power above all else unjustly seek to punish and degrade failure.

The other book I’m reading is called More Than Just a Game.  The subtitle explains, “Soccer vs. Apartheid”.  The authors are Chuck Korr and Marvin Close.  The narrative reads like it’s a pitch for a film and is full of tired narrative shorthand phrases.  Even if the literary quality isn’t so high, I’m intrigued by the story and the level of organization that the political prisoners on Robben Island committed themselves to when they decided to play soccer during their free period on Saturday.  The prison league structure had a constitution complete with governing boards, each club had its own written constitution and laws of operation.  There was a referee union and courts of arbitration.  The impression I get is that the jailed South African blacks were intent on demonstrating that they could govern just as well as the whites.  Better perhaps since they would be adverse to mete out cruelty so casually as the white prison guards.  Soccer, for the prisoners, became a training ground for self-governance and self-determination.

South Africa lost their quarterfinal match against Mali.  Because South Africa is the host nation and my reading list, I was sympathetic to South Africa and hoped that they would progress to the final match.  But it was difficult to begrudge Mali the win.  Mali could use some happy news at the moment.  A win over Ghana might give them a moment of joy and something to celebrate.

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