The World Cup is well underway. I know because I’ve been gorging myself on a visual diet of several games a day. Maybe you have, too. They’ve been pretty exciting, since many of the teams expected to sail toward the next round have instead been stumbling: Germany, the defending champions, fell to Mexico; France just barely edged past Australia; Spain, Brazil and Argentina all tied in their first matches.
But there’s been one thing that’s disappointed me: This surge of the less-favored countries hasn’t included any from Africa. The first four to compete — Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Nigeria — all lost. It was always a long shot, but now the dream of an African team holding this trophy aloft seems further away than ever.
I was born and raised in Britain but I’ve often shared that dream. Whenever England is eliminated from the World Cup, my affections go next to the best African team. That’s not just because my parents moved to England from Uganda. It’s also because Africa, having suffered centuries of colonization and exploitation, has so long been denied an equal place on the global stage.
There are several reasons no African country has ever got past a quarterfinal. One is that, well, this is the World Cup. Most of the teams are good; this is serious competition. As Al Pacino’s character says in his famous speech in the 1999 movie “Any Given Sunday,” the difference between glory and failure is “inch by inch, play by play.” (Yes, I know the movie is about the other “football.”). In 1990, Cameroon was just seven minutes away from reaching the semifinal, when England scored and dashed their hopes; in 2010, Ghana would have gone to that stage, too, if only the team had scored a last-minute penalty against Uruguay.
But as always with this tournament, there’s more going on than what you can watch on the pitch. Let’s remember world history: Most of Africa was at some point colonized by Europe’s empires, which subjugated these societies and stripped them of their resources.
This legacy has left many of the countries of Africa poor and politically fractured — not exactly fertile ground for intense training and football greatness. And then there’s the issue of migration and lost talent: After independence, many Africans migrated to the richer countries of Europe. Several of their children have ended up playing for the European countries where they were born or spent their formative years. Some of them — like France’s Patrick Vieira, who was born in Senegal, or Portugal’s legendary striker, Eusebio, who was born in Mozambique — are among the greatest players the World Cup has ever seen. Sometimes I take this train of thought further: How many of Brazil’s five titles does the country owe to the descendants of enslaved people who came from Africa?
Naturally, there are contemporary problems, too. Some of Africa’s leading football nations have, I’m sorry to say, compounded historical setbacks with modern-day mismanagement of their players and resources. (I’m thinking of Nigeria and Ghana especially.) But as France, Germany and Spain have recently shown, the path to World Cup victory these days relies on patient investment in the national team over the course of several decades, and then a substantial helping of luck.
Maybe someday. Sports can be a powerful symbol of progress. Remember when Muhammad Ali’s fast fists and swifter tongue ruled the world? On some level, I can’t wait for the day an African country lands a knockout blow.
Musa Okwonga is a poet and writer based in Berlin. He is the author of two books on football, A Cultured Left Foot and Will You Manage?