Africans: such childlike, spirited footie fans!

The idea that all Africans have a ‘rainbow continent’ duty to support Ghana in the World Cup is patronising guff.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Imagine if, following England’s 4-1 drubbing by Germany on Sunday, England fans were told to switch their allegiance to the Germans for the remainder of the World Cup, on the basis that ‘we’re all Europeans’. We are all from the same continent, most of us are white, our languages are fairly similar (German sounds a bit like English being shouted), so why shouldn’t England fans get behind Germany and cheer them all the way to cup-lifting victory?

If anyone suggested that, you’d think they were mad. You would think they didn’t understand football, where it’s generally not considered normal to switch to supporting a ‘second team’ if your ‘first team’ gets beaten, and where it’s still acceptable to indulge in a bit of nationalistic rivalry with old foes (but don’t worry, commentariat: England fans’ hatred of the German football team does not translate into real-world hatred of German people).

And yet, African football fans are being encouraged – if not morally pressured – to perform precisely this PC trick of reinvesting their hopes and energies into some other national team once their own national team gets knocked out. ‘All of Africa will be behind Ghana’ said Adrian Chiles on ITV’s World Cup show, Ghana being the only African team left in the final 16 of the World Cup.

Again and again, people in Cameroon, Nigeria, South Africa, Algeria and the Ivory Coast – the five African nations knocked out of the competition – are being told that they should go wild for Ghana because a ‘victory for Ghana is a victory for the whole continent’. And they’re being branded as ‘beyond the pale’ if they refuse to do this and instead do what is considered perfectly acceptable and even quite fun in Europe, Latin America and Asia: boo other national teams.

Ever since the opening ceremony, when Shakira did tribal dancing and sang ‘waca, waca Africa!’ (‘shine, shine Africa!’), we knew this World Cup would serve up a massive dollop of patronising guff about Africans. The media haven’t disappointed, always focusing on what a cynical pop-star character in the new film Get Him to the Greek refers to as ‘Africa Face’: the big toothy grin of a happy-go-lucky African fan which serves to remind us over-stressed Europeans that we shouldn’t take football so seriously. But the idea that everyone in Africa, a continent with more than 50 countries, has some kind of pan-Africanist, ‘rainbow continent’ duty to support whatever African team happens to be playing is the most patronising claim yet.

‘The whole of Africa is aglow with glee’ at Ghana being in the final 16, trilled the Daily Express. In fact, ‘the whole continent is dancing in the streets’. Bless ’em – so happy despite all their hardship. Ghana is ‘floating on a cloud of passion… as the great African hope’, said another football reporter in the great competition between hacks to see who can most gushingly describe the wonderfully childlike spirit of the African people.

According to the Guardian, African fans could educate the rest of us about how to be a decent footie fan. The World Cup is ‘giving the continent a new sense of common identity and pride’, it reports. ‘Not for them the local rivalries that would prompt a Manchester City fan to cheer for Anyone But United in the Champions Leagues. [This] is Africa United, they’re in this together.’ Because they’re so happy-go-lucky, you see: they have Africa Faces (grinning) rather than Mancunian Faces (sneering). The World Cup is making Africa a ‘rainbow continent’, the Guardian continues, borrowing Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s description of South Africa as a ‘rainbow nation’, patronisingly treating Africa as one country full of smiling people as if there are no local tensions, national rivalries or political differences. Like when Paris Hilton or some other dizzy celeb says: ‘My favourite country is so totally Africa.’

The worst thing about this happy clappy footballing rainbow continent rubbish is that it isn’t true. Of course lots of Africans will have been delighted when Ghana thrashed the most powerful nation on Earth: America. But in Africa, as in all other continents (with the possible exception of Antarctica), there are major national footballing rivalries. There has been a long-standing antagonism between Nigeria and Cameroon in the Beautiful Game, which has been compared to the rivalry between Brazil and Argentina. The African Cup of Nations, which has been running since 1957, is sustained by heated competition between everyone from the Arab countries in the north of Africa to the Francophone countries in the west to the post-colonial nations of the south.

Yet when anyone points out this basic, unsurprising, uncontroversial fact, they are shouted down. ‘Don’t piss on the rainbow continent!’ Writing for the BBC, Ghanaian journalist Elizabeth Ohene questioned the idea that
there’s some unique ‘continental passion’ in Africa that means the Africa Faces can easily shift their grins from one country to another. ‘[It seems] there is a team competing in this tournament called “the African team”’, she complained, pointing out that Western journalists seem not to understand ‘how hard it is for different African teams to love each other’.

‘Why should I love the Desert Foxes of Algeria for example?’, she asks. Or Cameroon. ‘Does anybody remember that when Ghana staged the African Nations Cup in 2008, it was this Cameroonian team that knocked us out at the semi-final stage and robbed us of winning?’ Ohene says the idea that she might one day switch her support to Nigeria is really ‘difficult to stomach – who on this continent doesn’t find the Nigerians insufferable?’

Many of the online commenters welcomed Ohene’s piece. ‘You’re right that the whole world assumes that Africa is one big country and that we all speak Swahili’, said one. Yet others, probably the more reasoned and responsible normal BBC readers, accused her of unnecessarily stirring up national rivalry in the rainbow continent. Likewise, a writer for the popular sports website The Bleacher Report says we should ‘naturally expect that Africans would support other African nations [in football]’ (er, why?) and mourns the fact that ‘Ghanaians have been known to rejoice at Nigeria’s defeat at international competitions’. ‘Rivalry is understandable’, he says, ‘but to rejoice at the failure of a nation representing the whole continent goes beyond the pale. It is unacceptable.’

The subtext of these attacks on perfectly normal, passionate Ghanaian, Nigerian or Algerian fans is that they are ruining Western hacks’ fantasy rainbow-continent project – they are sullying smiley, toothy Africa Face and replacing it with Angry Face.

And that is the real problem: we all know where Angry Face can lead in Africa. We all know what unhinged passions and national one-upmanship can cause in that continent. Whisper it: Really Bad Things. The flipside to seeing Africa as one big country where toothy smiles spread from town to town like a happy disease is seeing it as one big cesspit of potential unrest where violence can spread like a virus, too. So when, in the run-up to the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola earlier this year, the Togo football team were attacked by guerrilla forces, there was widespread fear that something similar might happen in the World Cup in South Africa, or to the Nigerian team in Nigeria or to the Cameroonian team in Cameroon, because, of course, Africa is the same from north to south, from east to west: a bit unpredictable and strange. In Western observers’ simultaneous fretting about Africa’s Angry Face and their overexcitement about its more chirpy Africa Face, we can see that the Kiplingesque view of foreign peoples – that they’re ‘half devil, half child’ – is alive and well.

Yet the fact is that in Latin America, in Europe, in Asia, millions upon millions of people are perfectly capable of distinguishing between their feelings towards foreign football teams (whom they sometimes hate) and their feelings towards foreign people (whom they don’t have a problem with). Why do we assume that Africans aren’t capable of the same?

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume argued that supporting England has nothing to do with ethics. He also asked what we’ve learnt from the phoney World Cup war. Tim Black objected to the coverage of the attack on the Togo football team. Julie Hearn looked at Kenya and the myth of Afrian barbarism. Or read more at spiked issue Africa.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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