May 31, 2010


World Cup winners (Simon Kuper, May 29 2010, Financial Times)

The European colonisers, especially the British, taught Africans football for their own good. “It is our hope in these our games to stiffen the backbone of these our boys by teaching them manliness, good temper, and unselfishness – qualities ... which have done so much to make many a Britisher,” wrote a missionary doctor in Kenya in 1909. But Africans soon made the British game their own. Black South Africans, for instance, adapted their tribal traditions of “praise names” to give favourite players nicknames such as Junior Certificate, Kalamazoo or Scotch Whisky.

Later, the sport helped turn randomly created African territories into nations with a shared nationalism. The lines that colonialists had drawn on old maps became independent states in the 1950s and 1960s, but often it was the national football teams that gave these new states a shared national feeling. Sometimes the national team was about the only thing that bound the different ethnic groups together. The historian Eric Hobsbawm, recalling watching his initial homeland Austria play in the 1930s, wrote: “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people.”

The Algerian case is striking. In 1958, as the country fought France for its independence, 10 Algerian professional footballers based in France snuck home and founded a “national team” of the FLN, Algeria’s National Liberation Front. One player, symbolically, abandoned the French national team then preparing for the World Cup. The FLN team played fundraising matches as far afield as North Vietnam, attracting global attention. When they played, writes Alegi, “the imagined nation of Algeria was made real for 90 minutes”.

The question is whether the increasing multiethjnicity of national teams can break down the intrinsically ethnic character of the very idea of a "nation."

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 31, 2010 6:11 AM
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