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Chris Thurman’s World Cup Diary: Entry Three (It’s the New Iago of World Football, Luis Suarez, vs 1 Billion Africans!)

Special to BOOK SA, writer and academic Chris Thurman presents his thoughts on the first ten days of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Thurman will contribute in a similar vein on an ad-hoc basis as the tournament progresses – watch out for more soon!

Chris Thurman, Jyoti Mistry & Florian SchattauerSport Versus ArtGuy ButlerThe quarter-finals have come and gone – and with them, Ghana’s participation in the tournament. Despite the reservations I expressed in my last post, I found myself cheering fanatically for the Ghanaians because I desperately wanted to see an African team progress to the penultimate round.

The manner of their exit was, of course, mortifying. Luis Suarez (he of the illegal goal-line save that led to the penalty that led to … well, we don’t like to talk about what followed) has demonstrated throughout the tournament that he is a particularly dislikeable footballer – such a skilled player, yet one who exhibits petulance and sheer treachery in equal measure every game. Come to think of it, he’s not entirely different to another South American handball specialist we all love to hate.

But on the whole, the Uruguayan team aren’t a bad lot; frontman Diego Forlan has been one of the stars of 2010, captain Diego Lugano is an admirable defender and the rest of them are just a bunch of sportsmen happily riding a wave of good fortune (including keeper Fernando Muslera, with his pseudo-Catholic desire to have the Soccer City goalposts canonised). And – more importantly – although I haven’t been to Uruguay, I’m willing to bet that it is populated by living, eating, breathing humans just like the rest of the planet. About 3,5 million of them, in fact. You can’t condemn a nation because of a single sporting indiscretion.

I guess the problem is that the figure of 3 500 000 is tiny compared to an enormous number like 1 000 000 000. A billion people: that’s how many people live in Africa, even according to conservative estimates. So if Ghana is seen, metonymically, to represent Africa, it’s not hard to conclude that humanity would have been better served by a win for the Black Stars. “The greatest good for the greatest number” … well, you do the maths.

It gets a little tricky, however, when we ask the awkward question: does the success of a single football team actually affect the day-to-day lives of people across Africa? Should it? Does sport really matter that much? In Sport versus Art, Dan Nicholl’s essay makes a bold claim in affirming that, in this country at least, it does: “In South Africa, sport is something fundamental. The mood of the country rises and falls with the back page headlines; so much of what we love and celebrate can be calibrated in runs and goals and tries.”

Undoubtedly, Africans collectively would have been happier had Ghana gone through. Undoubtedly, we are sadder because they didn’t. But I worry, sometimes, about investing sport with too much significance. If Ghana had won, would the HIV/Aids rate have decreased? Would fewer people have gone hungry over the next ten years? Perhaps – if a Ghanaian victory could have changed global consciousness by shifting international perceptions about Africa, or affecting the actions of we billion who live in Africa. This World Cup may have the potential to do just that; but if it does, it will be because of what has happened off the field (in terms of organisational successes, infrastructural development and the various benefits of hosting an event of worldwide interest) rather than what has happened on it.

Moreover, the real indicators of positive change or negative stasis in Africa – and South Africa in particular – are things that have nothing to do with the World Cup. On the same day that Uruguay beat Ghana, former police chief Jackie Selebi was finally found guilty in what will probably prove to be a landmark case in South African legal history. On the same day that Uruguay beat Ghana, an oil tanker exploded in the DRC and over 200 Congolese people were killed in an accident that, it seems, is attributable to the poor state of the country’s roads following years of civil war. The future of Africa hinges on such indicators, not on whether or not Asamoah Gyan can take a penalty when it counts.

A final thought: we seem to be consoling ourselves over the loss by telling the Ghanaians how well they did. Madiba had them round for a reassuring cup of tea. Parades were organised in Johannesburg to celebrate their achievement. I am convinced that the members of the Black Stars squad found this all rather cringe-worthy and wished the ground would swallow them; they are hugely disappointed and will be largely inconsolable for some time. And so they should be.

Ghana did not break any ground – having an African team in the quarter-finals is not a new achievement. If we think that they should be feted for what they did, we are selling ourselves short; implicitly, we are suggesting that the mediocre is acceptable for Africa. The literary world doesn’t celebrate Ayi Kwei Armah or Ama Ata Aidoo for being Ghanaians who wrote or write fair but unremarkable books. We don’t say that The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born and Changes are good novels “by African standards”.

So: if we are going to insist that football really does matter in Africa and to Africans, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that Ghana’s performance in 2010 was good enough.

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