The most depressing feature of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) has been the mean-spirited attack of so-called ”white, foreign coaches” by leading soccer figures, commentators, players and fans. This reveals an outdated ethnic, tribal essentialism or nationalist view and the inability of some leading soccer figures to articulate and promote non-racism and international brotherhood through soccer. What’s been most disturbing is that it’s been perpetuated by credible, multiaward-winning analysts like SuperSports’ Thomas Mlambo and special guest Ruud Gullit.

Perhaps the fact that this Afcon is taking place in Nelson Mandela’s country demands that we raise the level of political discourse on the beautiful game.

South Africa not only has bent backwards financially to host this soccer festival but it offers an opportunity for us to live up to the values, principles and ideals enshrined in our world-renowned Constitution. We need to remind ourselves that this is a constitutional, non-racial democracy where origin, race, skin colour or ethnic identity has no place. After all, this country belongs to all who live in it.

It is for this reason that a crude discourse about alleged racism — however subtle or nuanced — and nationalism in soccer should be confronted with courage and honesty. In fact we have to fight all forms of discrimination that makes anyone feel unwelcome.

The failure of influential soccer leaders, if you like, to deal with the twin problems of ethnic essentialism and false nationalism was manifest in the line of questioning that Nigerian coach Stephen Keshi was subjected to after his Super Eagles beat Mali.

A lot of time was wasted on racialising the outcome of the match. It was a good thing Keshi insisted he is “not against any white man” much as he acknowledges that he — as an African — would rarely get a coaching job in Europe.

Prior to Keshi’s press conference, SuperSport anchor Mlambo and his guest Gullit spent much time trying to bring in a racial perspective into what was obviously a clean game.

Gullit expressed chauvinist views about the coach having to not only represent but understand the local style, thinking, dreaming, behaviour and culture of the soccer team before he can get them to do the right thing. This is, obviously, voodoo logic.

Also, Sunday Times rugby writer and Kaya FM sports presenter Simnikiwe Xabanisa made remarks on Bob Mabena’s show about the need for teams that have been knocked out of the tournament to quickly pack up and go back where they come from.

We don’t need this, especially in the Afcon. This is the same nonsense that was spouted by Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger, for instance, during the 2010 World Cup.

He was one of the many voices reported as saying superpowers should be coached by their own nationals.

“For the big developed countries, the manager should be from that particular country.”

“Why should Brazil, for instance, go get a foreign coach,” Wenger has said.

These sorts of remarks must not be left unchallenged. In fact they fuel false, nationalistic sentiments.

Few have had the courage to say publicly that this way of thinking is racist and xenophobic.

It makes it easy to say that Bafana coach Gordon Igesund is not the right person for the job because he is not black and thus cannot understand the style of his team that largely comes from a township background.

The struggle for an all-embracing African identity, non-racism and anti-nationalist sentiments was one of the most significant principles and ideals that underpinned South Africa’s struggle for a just and equal society.

A deeper understanding of this moral stance should compel figures that are acquainted with the history of the South African struggle to challenge views that undermine the spirit of this country.

Former Bafana Bafana coach Carlos Parreira did not come from this country but the soccer fraternity felt the Brazilian was the most qualified candidate, regardless of his language, race or nationality to lead the South African team to the World Cup.

The most important criterion is that he holds a distinguished record as a soccer coach. He left Brazil to develop, train and influence the playing style and nous of a team outside his continent. Of course his performance not only boosted the confidence of young stars, often riddled with self-doubt and an inferiority complex, but ignited the hopes of a nation.

Of course there will always be individuals who blame the ”foreign, white coach” when their team is not living up to expectations.

But as Keshi hinted, he is “not against any white man”.

We have to accept that Ghana or Cape Verde were not guaranteed victory simply because they were coached by their own nationals. We should learn from France that was able to field a dominantly black team in the 2010 World Cup. Where does that put so-called French nationalism?

How did these sentiments that border on racism find expression on a powerful media platform like SuperSport?

The claim to national authenticity is false. In a global world the fact that you are black does not automatically qualify you to be part of an African team.

The fact that the Nigerian coach is black does not mean he won the game against Mali because of his phenotype, if you like. The issue of nationalism or identity has become much more complex in the 21st century.

And the idea of African teams being led by an African coach is outdated and primitive. It is Africa’s own problem if soccer fraternities reserve coaching jobs for white Europeans.

This Afcon, which has been delivered at a great cost to all the people of this country, cannot get lost in a vulgar form of racial reasoning that promotes division and discrimination.

It should not matter where you come from, as long as you use the beautiful game to make the world more beautiful.



Sandile Memela

Sandile Memela is a journalist, writer, cultural critic, columnist and civil servant. He lives in Midrand.

Leave a comment