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The World Cup: from impossible dream to an African victory within reach Africa

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On 18 December 2022, the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 was played out at the Lusail Stadium in Doha, Qatar.

The final, one of the most exciting in the history of the sport, between the Argentinean team and the French football team, ended not only with the victory of the Argentinean Albiceleste, but also with the consecration of two icons: Lionel Messi and Kilian Mbappé.

These two champions, whose technical acumen had amazed the world, have in common that they have the same employer, PSG, owned by QSI (Qatar Sports Investments).

The two players, by their exploits during this World Cup, have largely contributed to the reputation of their employer, the organizer of the tournament on its soil.

“Quality is priceless” as the great Franco-Malian footballer Jean Amadou Tigana likes to say. No one will be able to measure the price of the contribution of these two football geniuses to Qatar’s soft power (influence policy).

The two PSG players mentioned above added an unexpected but no doubt hoped-for sparkle to this well-oiled organisation with their flashes of brilliance and the virtuosity of their play.

Of course, in this great moment for diversity, we will remember that Japan finished first in its group, that Saudi Arabia beat Argentina (in the group matches). We will remember that at least one representative from each continent was represented in the round of 16 (which is a first), that an African country (this is not anecdotal!), Morocco, reached the semi-finals and that finally this World Cup in Qatar was the most prolific in terms of goals scored.

The competition was watched by almost a million spectators and several billion television viewers around the world during the three weeks of the tournament and almost as many for the final alone.

As an illustration, a French newspaper recalled, 81% of French people who watched television between 4 and 6 pm on the day of the final were on the leading French television channel (TF1), i.e. nearly 30 million viewers. These figures do not take into account the attendance of other broadcasters, such as BeIN Sport.

However, this success was not guaranteed.

The awarding of this major international competition to Qatar on 10 December 2010 came as a surprise to many observers.

The almost all Western critics of the host country argued that:

– the award process had been tainted by corruption

– The construction of the stadiums for the games in this competition has cost the lives of thousands of workers (African and Asian).

– the carbon footprint (some stadiums are air-conditioned) of this World Cup could not be neutral.

These criticisms, to which one can only be sensitive, are, it must be acknowledged, the comet tail of regional conflicts, initially specific to the Arab-Persian Gulf, which have taken root in the West and more particularly in France.

The ‘Gulf’, a small piece of sea in the Indian Ocean, is surrounded by eight countries – Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman. It is referred to as “Arabian” by the Arab populations of the region, and as “Persian” by tradition since antiquity, as well as by the United Nations.

A key location for trade links between the European and Asian continents for decades, this region, which alone contains 60% of the world’s oil reserves and 40% of its natural gas reserves, is strategic.

The energy needs of the West, in particular, which must maintain its industrial model, have made the Persian Gulf a territory with international but also regional stakes.

Several wars took place there (Kuwait war, Iran/Iraq war…).

Since Qatar broke away from Saudi Arabia in 1990, the two countries, which have political agendas at odds with each other, have entered a period of tension and rivalry.

Saudi Arabia supports the powers that be, while Qatar is reproached for supporting the revolutionaries of the Arab world and particularly the Muslim brothers.

Saudi Arabia’s allies, opponents of Qatar, accuse it of supporting terrorism and of having allied itself with Iran and Turkey.

This situation degenerated into a diplomatic crisis (2017 to 2021) with the closure of Saudi Arabia’s borders with Qatar, a blockade of Qatari airspace, the breaking off of diplomatic relations…

It was not until 5 January 2021, a year before the World Cup, that Doha and its neighbours signed a treaty to ease tensions in the region.

The spectators of the World Cup matches were able to see the results of the appeasement: Saudi Arabia has reserved dozens of boxes in each stadium of this World Cup. It has also rented hundreds of hotel rooms near the venues.

The country’s most senior officials attended several of the competition’s matches in situ.

The victory of the Saudi Arabian team over Argentina (the eventual winners of the competition) in the group match was obviously more than just a sporting victory for the entire Arabian Gulf, including Qatar.

Many of the grievances levelled at Qatar in the months and years leading up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup are rooted in the above-mentioned events. So football was not always the concern of Qatar’s critics!

At the moment of assessment, it should be recognised that the organisation of this World Cup, despite the extreme hostility that was unleashed, was a success in every respect. The quality of the infrastructure (hotels, roads, metros, airports, etc.), the very close proximity of the game sites (allowing fans to attend several matches in the same day), and the ease of domestic travel gave this tournament a unique dimension.

A famous editorialist recently summarised the ‘score’ of the prior and parallel match between Qatar and its ‘opponents’ as: Qatar 1/NGO 0.
“Whether you say good or bad things about it, when everyone talks about it, it’s a success” wrote Boris Vian.

Qatar’s detractors have unwittingly contributed to the success of the World Cup in their own way, which is paradoxical in many ways.

This is also true for Africa!

From an African perspective, the characteristics and history of the World Cup can explain the results

The 1st FIFA World Cup was organised in 1930 in Uruguay with the participation of 13 teams (7 South American teams plus Mexico and the USA) including 4 European teams (France, Yugoslavia, Romania and Belgium).

The length of the journey, which could only be made by boat, had dissuaded federations outside the American continent from travelling.

It was a “World Cup of America” with four European guests. The host country’s team, not surprisingly, won.

From 1934 to 1978, 16 teams took part in the final phase (there was no prior qualification process, strictly speaking). The next four editions, until 1994 (USA), saw a confrontation of 24 teams, to finally arrive at the current format with 32 teams, in principle, qualified in the six continental zones called confederations (Europe – UEFA, Asia – AFC, North America and the Caribbean – CONCACAF, South America – CONMEBOL, Oceania – OFC and Africa – CAF).

Six organisers were the winners. It is safe to conclude that the host team has a serious chance of winning the final.

Another observation is obvious from the continents where this competition is well attended: the possibility of participating in this event is much more uncertain for some than for others.

For example, although they are members of FIFA, the teams of the Oceania Confederation (OFC) are occasionally and very punctually given a play-off place, which guarantees its members almost no effective participation in the World Cup.

At the same time, Asia (47 member federations) had one place for a long time until it was awarded 2 places from 1986 and 3 in addition to an extra one in the play-off in 1998, then 4 places since 2002.

The South American Football Confederation, which has 10 members, is represented by five teams at this competition, i.e. one member out of two. The teams from this confederation are thus almost automatically qualified. These countries are, in our opinion, exempt from the pressure, fatigue and other worries and hassles of the tedious qualifiers of other confederations. It is likely that this freshness explains some of the sporting results of the South American teams.

Europe, since the break-up of Yugoslavia (June 1991), and Africa have approximately the same number of members (53 for the European confederation and 55 for the African Confederation of Football). Despite this apparent equality, the European contingent of teams at the World Cup was 75% (12/16) of the participants in the final phase during the first editions, to be today 25%; while at the same time no African team (with the exception of Egypt 1934 and 1938) was invited to this competition during the first editions, for reasons essentially linked to history. We then went from one place, allocated by FIFA, in 1970 to 2 places for Africa in 1982 (Algeria – Cameroon), then 3 in 1994, and finally 5 places in 1998, that is to say today 9% of African national teams.

Does this mean that in its current format, no member of the AFC, CONCACAF and/or CAF can harbour the hope of one day lifting the precious trophy?

A proportional representation, taking into account the number of members per continent affiliated to FIFA, would, in our opinion, better characterise the universalist nature of the World Cup. In any case, it would be more egalitarian and would ensure greater sporting equity. What would happen if Europe, like Africa, were represented by only 5 qualified teams? The same questions can be asked with even greater acuity for South America. The rights acquired by this confederation seem, in fact, to come from a favourable treatment which would have been reserved for it at the time of the governance of Mr Joao Havelange, former president of the Brazilian Football Federation who became President of FIFA between 1974 and 1998.

The history of this competition also seems to tell us that you have to be a European team participating in a World Cup organised by a European country in Europe in order to exponentially multiply your chances of becoming a football world champion.

Eleven times a European federation has organised this global event. Ten times a European team has been victorious.
The last few World Cups, and even more so the 2022 World Cup, show that the field can hold many surprises. The dream is therefore within reach. Unrepresented for many editions, the African qualifiers are now on the doorstep of the final.

World Champion: An African dream now within reach

Argentina has just won its 3e World Cup. The African viewer has become accustomed to seeing no black players in this team, which has almost always qualified for every World Cup, which is surprising to say the least.

On closer inspection, there is an explanation for this situation. The Afro-Argentine population, during the 18th and 19th centuries, constituted more than ½ of the population of many of the country’s cities.

An identity posture of the nation’s ideologues, inhabited by the myth of the white and European nation, has made black people invisible.

Shocked by the remarks made in Argentina about the African origins of part of the French team and by racist remarks against him, coupled with homophobic insults, broadcast live on Argentine television, on the pay channel TyC Sport, Mr Fabien Palem wrote on 18 December 2022, the day of the final in Doha, on the website Slate.fr that “Argentina has a problem with colour”.

He reported the analysis of Gisèle Kleidermacher, a sociologist at CONICET, the Organisation for the Promotion of Science and Technology in Argentina (the Argentine National Centre for Scientific Research), who specialises in African migration in this South American country. It wrote, “the country has historically denied its African roots and invisibilised the black immigrant population. This trend of invisibilisation also affects the players of the national team”.

This country, though said to be warm and welcoming, is the only one on the continent whose team has featured only four black players for over a century (Alejandro de Los Santos, a striker who appeared for the national team in 1920; Hector Rodolfo Baley, a substitute goalkeeper for the victorious 1978 team; Oscar Felix Nogueira, a left-winger in 1970; Ernesto Picot).

No black player has appeared there for ages. Perhaps these black players are the only black players in the whole of South America who do not possess any qualities that would allow them to be selected for the national team.

The Argentine Albiceleste team presented at the Doha final was therefore a photograph, in colour, of the state of Argentine society on the issue of the invisibility of Afro-Argentine players.

The wise man of Bandiagara, Amadou Hampâthé Bâ, a Malian writer and ethnologist, had, in his time, acquitted the chameleon of hypocrisy. He said that “if the chameleon changes colour it is not because it is hypocritical, but because nature abhors uniformity”.

The French team, runner-up at the 2022 World Cup, has been put together without duplicity. Its composition is a reflection of French society. It represents the opposite example of its Argentine counterpart. In this team, one can be white, Jewish, black, Christian, mixed race and/or Muslim… and French at the same time.

France, because it is a country of multiple mixes, as Arsène Wenger recently recalled, has been “remarkable in the integration of immigration”. It has been and remains at the forefront of the training of young players.

It understood early on that football should be a political lever that the authorities could use to influence society.

The country has opened structured training centres throughout its territory. It has put in place mechanisms to detect talent, which is then taken care of by an organised and dynamic amateur football system in which competent educators supervise the young players.

France has had incredible talent for several decades.

Football has one advantage: it only rewards “merit”, the result of the addition of talent and hard work. Is this sport not ahead of the French school system? Shouldn’t certain state institutions throughout the world follow suit? The social lift would certainly no longer be out of order.

The sporting results achieved by France demonstrate, as the Director of World Football Development at FIFA, former coach of French Ligue 1 team Monaco and Ansenal in the English Premier League, Mr Arsène Wenger, reminds us, that “there is a mathematical correlation between the quality of training for children, the quality of competitions, the quality of the development programme, the quality of the coaches, the quality of the technical directors and the results of the national team”.

Africans, because French football is assimilated with the history of immigration, particularly African, are attached to the French team.

The ingredients used in France, with the results we know, are a source of inspiration for many players in African football.

Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana, the first countries to have reached the ¼ finals of a World Cup, have multiplied the creation of training centres and football academies. They have encouraged educators to train and tried to structure amateur football to encourage the emergence of young talent.

Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and many others on the African continent have followed the same path.

The Atlas Lions of Morocco, the first African country to reach a World Cup semi-final, also illustrate this.

The Moroccan team is made up of young players, many of whom have graduated from the Mohammed VI Football Academy inaugurated by the King of Morocco in 2009.

Many Moroccan internationals have also played for various local clubs, including Widad Casablanca in the local league.

The glittering success of the Moroccan national team is therefore not surprising.

This team was not expected to be at this level of the competition.
The above historical and statistical observations show that there are indeed specific obstacles specific to African teams.

Despite all these obstacles, African football is now on the verge of the World Cup final and why not of a victory in this competition.

The last hurdles, mentioned here, placed in the way of the African teams to the final title, are being bypassed on the ground. However, no one can say with certainty today that the new format of this competition, with its 48 qualified teams, which seems to have been designed to dissuade any African country from any desire to bid to organise this extraordinary competition, will guarantee the effective sporting fairness so much demanded.
28 March 2023

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