The first of my weekly short summaries about the culture and politics of football. A pivot for this substack, which mostly consisted of podcast episodes until now.
• I’ll start with some shameless self-promotion. I kvetched about African football (“Beyond the Field: The Rise of African Football") on a virtual panel for the The Africa Center in New York City. The Moroccan international affairs scholar, Hisham Aidi, was the other guest. Tunde Olatunji of The Africa Center moderated. Watch it here.
• The Dutch newspaper, NRC Handelsbad, recently reported that the average black men’s football player in the Jupiler Pro League, the local equivalent of the Premier League, is “… more likely to play in attack, and much less likely to be deployed as a defender or as a goalkeeper” by his coach. Black players are substituted more often or start from the bench. There’s more chance of a black player being issued a red card by a referee than his white teammate. And it starts in youth teams. These conclusions come from a study by Jeroen Schouder, a sports sociologist at KU Leuven, a Catholic research university, into discrimination in professional football in Belgium. What’s behind it? Schouder doesn’t want to call it racism. He prefers “stereotyping” on the part of coaches, referees and football administrators. The wider context: In 2022, there were more than five hundred reports of discrimination in competitive football in Belgium. Of those, 90 percent had to do with racism.
• Tostão, legendary Brazilian footballer (he was a member of the 1966 and 1970 World Cup squads; watch his great goal at the link) and these days a columnist for the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo, writing about the middling performances of the Brazilian men’s national team:
One of the main reasons for the absence of the Brazilian team in the final of the last five World Cup, is a lack of individual talents. I disagree with the common view that Brazil continues to produce a large number of stars. The country produces many good and excellent players, but few exceptional ones that are the best in the world at their positions.
On the same topic, Juca Kfouri, the great Brazilian football journalist and also a Folha columnist, thinks the veneration of Brazil’s national team as football royalty, should stop. Brazil has won the World Cup five times, the most by any country. Kfouri reminds his readers that the last time was 2002; twenty-one years ago. Brazil hasn't made it past the quarterfinals since, "and when it does, it lets in seven [goals] in the semifinals." Kfouri blames mass player exports to European clubs (to the detriment of the local professional league) and widespread corruption at the Brazilian FA, the CBF. Brazilian football has not kept up with innovations in football management or tactics. Finally, he also believes the country’s football has been stripped of its improvisational spirit ("beach soccer started to have timetables").
• European or African national teams regularly take advantages of diasporas or recruit the children of migrants. Morocco’s success in Qatar was partly a consequence of this strategy. What about Latin America? There are countless stories of players with Latin American heritage playing for European national teams, mostly from Brazil and Argentina. But what players moving in the other direction or players shifting allegiances between Latin American countries? The case of Ben Brereton, who won an Under-19 European championship with England in 2017 (he was top scorer), and who chose to play for Chile (he was heavily recruited), is usually cited. Then there’s the Argentinean, Rogelio Funes Mori, who chose to play for Mexico, after representing Argentina at youth level and in a friendly in the senior team. (Funes Mori’s brother represented Argentina in two Copa Americas. Then there are the cases of Gianluca Lapadula, born in Italy and now in his early 30s, who played in two friendlies for the Italian national team, and then decided to switch to Peru in 2020 (his story was recently featured in El Pais), and Santiago Ormeño, born in Mexico and who made his career in Mexican club football, who is one of Lapadula’s Peruvian national teammates. Something to keep an eye on.
• Walid Regragui, Morocco’s national team coach, to El Pais (Diego Torres wastes time asking why children of Moroccan parents won't play for European national teams) about tiki taka and Pep: “There are City games that make me fall asleep.” Sometimes, Regragui, tells El Pais, he prefers Diego Simeone’s “fighting football.”
• Successful careers as club owners or chairmen (think Silvio Berlusconi and Mauricio Macri) and players (Ahmed Ben Bella, George Weah, Romario) have worked as stepping stones into political office, but I don’t know of many (or any) cases of former state presidents using football to get back into politics. That is apparently what Evo Morales, former president of Bolivia, wants to do. He was driven into exile following election-rigging allegations from right-wingers (the charges proved to be baseless) and a military coup. Following elections, his party is back in power, but he is not. Evo is back in Bolivia and in his home region, where he became chairman of a football club, Palmaflor del Trópico, owned by his old trade union. (The club used to be known as Municipal Vinto and then Club Atlético Palmaflor and moved cities twice, before the union bought its rights from a businessman.) Palmaflor del Trópico plays in Bolivia’s Primera (first) division and last I checked, they were third in the league this season. Evo regularly tweets about the team and his involvement. El Pais recently reported that Evo wants to be president again. He is publicly feuding with the current leader of his party and the paper reported comments from within Bolivian (it could also be gallows humor) about how football may facilitate his way back into politics: "His plan A for him is to become president of Bolivia again, but his plan B is to be president of the Bolivian Football Federation ... maybe it's the other way around.”
• Ahmed Musa is the most capped Nigerian men’s international player, with 108 caps. He made his national team debut in 2010. He is also 30 years old. The Everton player, Alex Iwobi, made his debut for Nigeria in 2015. He came on as a substitute for Musa in a game against DR Congo. Recently, Iwobi was interviewed by the UK football podcast, The Beautiful Game. There’s a short section (around the 51 minutes in) when Iwobi talks about the national team. I doubt most of the media and the blogs listened to the actual episode since most of them “reported” the same clickbait comment about the quality of pitches ("We don’t know if we are going to have a nice pitch to play”). Football coverage is like a herd. In any case, there’s more to the interview. Iwobi talks about the atmosphere at national team games: “It’s like playing in a carnival or a festival. There are three choirs battling each other, playing different songs.” Iwobi was born in Lagos, but grew up in London (“from ends”) and was selected for England’s various youth selections between the ages of 16 to 19, before Nigeria approached him for Olympics trials. He “really enjoyed it” (trying out for the team), but Arsene Wenger, his then-coach at Arsenal, discouraged him as it overlapped with club commitments. Iwobi took Wenger’s advice as his senior club career was just getting underway. The pitch-comment was in response to a question about “what needs to change for Nigeria to be successful;” that is, to qualify for Afcon or the World Cup on a regular basis. Iwobi would prefer Nigeria to play its home game in one place and not shuffle between different cities in Nigeria. Finally, Iwobi is less forthcoming about politics (he gets asked about elections and rigging; Nigerians voted earlier this year and the winner, Bola Tinubu, is widely considered to have rigged results), choosing the standard African footballer tactic: “I keep myself out of it. I am a footballer and that’s what I focus on.”
• On Monday, April 10th, fan voting for the English Premier League’s Hall of Fame closed. The Hall was started in 2021 and 16 players have been inducted already. Among them Didier Drogba, Thierry Henry, Vincent Kompany, Ian Wright and Patrick Vieira. Fifteen players were nominated this year. Only three will be inducted. Jermain Defoe, Sol Campbell, Andy Cole, Ashley Cole, Les Ferdinand, Rio Ferdinand and Yaya Toure, are among them. Should Yaya make it, don’t expect Pep Guardiola to celebrate. The results will be announced on May 3rd.
• Staying with Pep. Vinicius Jnr, the black Brazilian player of Real Madrid, has been the subject of a number (La Liga counts eight cases already this season) of instances where rival Spanish club fans have racially abused him from the stands. Writing about the long history of racism in La Liga, The Guardian writer Jonathan Liew reminded his readers of this late 1990s incident:
In 1997, Roberto Carlos was racially abused while playing his first clásico for Real Madrid. Barcelona fans made monkey chants every time he touched the ball, held up racist banners and even scratched the word “monkey” on his car as a special treat for him to find later. No charges or punishments were issued and if, after complaining publicly, Carlos was hoping for a little professional solidarity at this most harrowing of moments, he was out of luck. “This man talks a lot, he talks too much, he doesn’t know our fans and he hasn’t been here for long enough to justify these things,” Barcelona’s central midfielder retorted that day, a Spain international by the name of Pep Guardiola.
• If the Gio Reyna saga at US soccer was an academic thesis, its title should be: “On race, class and entitlement in US soccer.” Basically, we learn that the US national team set-up is controlled by a small group of white, former players and their families, that the entitlement starts young. That’s all.
• Quick hits: Why is FIFA is making the cancellation of the Under-20 World Cup about Indonesia and not about Israel? "Potential sanctions (against Indonesia's FA) were mentioned." And what is with the Guardian framing the story as Indonesia shortchanging its football fans? • Samuel Chukwueze vs Everybody.Samuel Chukwueze vs Everybody. What a performance for the Nigerian men’s national team player for his club Villareal against Real Madrid in La Liga • Former Belgian international, Vincent Kompany, has coached Burnley Football Club to promotion from The Championship (effectively the English second division) to the English Premier League, with seven games left in the season. His team includes the South African Lyle Foster and the Congolese Samuel Bastien. Kompany has had a remarkable football journey as a player and now as a coach. Not bad for the son of a Congolese immigrant father who became the first black mayor of a Belgian town • When Hugo Sanchez arrived in La Liga (at Atletico; later Real Madrid) in 1981, rivals fans insulted him ("Indian, bastard"). El Pais, noting it's still going on (ref: Vinicius): "Spanish sport has not been able to banish, 30 years later, demeaning expressions from stadiums." • The Arsenal F.C. player, Ben White, saying he does not watch football - he isn’t passionate about a game that pays his wages; it is like any other job - and the reaction to it (from neutral to viewing him as eccentric) reminds me when the French-Cameroonian footballer Benoit Assou-Ekotto was ridiculed for saying that football was a job and that he played for the money. At the time he was playing for Tottenham Hotspur • With Eid coming next week, these images of the Mit Roumi Ramadan Football Tournament in Dakahlia, Egypt, one of the oldest streets football tournaments in that country and first played in 1975. The first championship cup was made of pottery; by Mahmoud Khaled and Ayman Gamal. Till next week.
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