By Luke Power
Concerning England’s friendly against Ivory Coast, the notion arose that England were encountering an unfamiliar footballing culture. This was, after all, England’s first game against non-European opposition since they played the USA in November 2018, back when Fabian Delph, Harry Winks, and Dele Alli constituted a Three Lions midfield.
Prior to the game, Gareth Southgate claimed that “there are definite attributes, traits, and styles that do have cultural differences” across continents. After the first whistle, it only took four minutes for the clichés to start, with Alan Smith suggesting that England would find it useful to test themselves against an “African style”.
The question consequently tickles the tongue: what, exactly, is that style? Do the managers of Africa’s 54 FIFA-affiliated nations gather every year in a plush Nairobi hotel for a symposium to agree on tactics? Does Aliou Cissé propose, to thunderous applause, a homogenised set-piece strategy, or does Rigobert Song advocate a universalised approach to using half-spaces?
The answer is ‘no’. Unless a pundit comes forward and clarifies what the style looks like, explains how Ivory Coast might embody it, and pinpoints how it is distinctly different to football played anywhere else, it seems to be nothing better than lazy and anachronistic rhetoric.
The idea of ‘African’ styles and traits running in the blood of this team is even more ridiculous when you consider that only four of Ivory Coast’s starting players against England have ever played professional club football in the continent. Only the goalkeeper, Badra Ali Sangaré, has played there since 2015. Some players, such as Nicholas Pépé and Sébastien Haller, have never even lived in Africa.
This article is no attack on Southgate or Smith; they seem pleasant chaps, meant no malice with their words, and did not anticipate being examined under this microscope. Their comments are typical of football talk and buy into a comforting idea. People like to think that different nations and regions are imbued with an entirely distinctive footballing DNA. Supposedly, Brazilian players, feet animated by scorching seaside sands, possess a samba-inspired flair that Scandinavian players could never match; Argentinian teams all share the foxiness and ferocity of Maradona and Simeone; Geordie fans “love their football” far more than enthusiasts in Birmingham, Bromley, or Biggleswade.
Such thoughts are not always untrue and are often built on the legacies of the great players, teams, and trends of footballing history. They become frustrating, however, when applied thoughtlessly and with broad brush strokes, the talents and tactical intricacies of players and teams swept into a platitudinous void for the sake of convenience.
Stereotyping in football discourse can be harmful. In 2020, RunRepeat published their analysis of racial bias in commentary from across leagues in the 2019/20 season. They had found that over 63% of criticism was aimed at darker-skinned players, while just under 63% of praise was about lighter-skinned players. They had also found that darker-skinned players were several times more likely to be talked about and praised in terms of power and pace, while lighter-skinned players were substantially more likely to be discussed and praised in terms of factors like intelligence, quality, and work ethic.
Building on a history of academic studies, the findings are too marked and consistent to signal mere coincidence. One article in The Conversation argues that the racialised stereotypes in football commentary can be traced back to social Darwinism, raising alarming questions about the biases that still exist in thought and speech today. Not only does resorting to stereotypes undermine our appreciation of football and its individuals, but it has concerning implications about how people view other cultures.
Speaking with Palatinate, Aaryaman Banerji, a candidate on the FIFA Master Programme, agrees. “The myth of the existence of some form of homogenous ‘style of African football’ is entrenched in racial stereotype and crass assumption,” Banerji tells Palatinate. “The pervasive idea that African football sides are reliant on physical attributes such as strength, speed and stamina can be seen as an extension of wider, critically archaic views on African society and its population.”
Banerji, who has researched and written about football in various African nations, continues: “As close followers of the African game are attuned to, the continent is in fact home to a divergent and pluralistic football culture, with a range of top-level tactical ideologies in line with those of other continents.
“There is little to compare, for example, between the sharp counter-attacking fluidity of current AFCON champions Senegal – spearheaded by their rockstar coach Aliou Cissé – and the fabled cynicism of Héctor Cúper’s Democratic Republic of the Congo, nor with the often brazen attacking initiative of recent Cameroon sides. The same is true at club level.”
A questionable impression of African football was evident in coverage of the recent Africa Cup of Nations. So often, it was framed in the context of the ‘bizarre’; a quick scan of headlines and titles in youth media reveals an ‘out of control’ AFCON and a tournament of ‘absolute chaos’, while the profusion of memes ridiculed every mishap. While there were amusing moments as in any football tournament, it was treated too much as a carnival, as a pageant of the bonkers and uncontrolled, and that angle was all too gratefully lapped up by the masses.
Ian Wright was also right (living up to his surname) to speak out against the tournament being disrespected as an inconvenient subplot to the European football calendar. Sébastien Haller was asked by one outlet if he’d rather remain playing in the Netherlands than participate in the tournament. Contrastingly, the 2022/23 season is being restructured to accommodate the Qatar World Cup, nations grovelling at the feet of a tournament smeared with corruption and abuse, ardent for some desperate glory.
While these portrayals are certainly influenced by wider culture, one suspects there are phantoms within the sport itself which subconsciously rationalise stereotyped coverage. One might look back to impressions of the Cameroon side of the 1990 World Cup, who opened the tournament by racking up 28 fouls and two red cards in a 1-0 victory over Argentina.
Without a doubt, those numbers are extreme – for comparison, Watford have, on average, the most fouls per game with 12.31 in this season’s Premier League. By the time Cameroon were playing England in the quarter-finals, they had acquired a reputation as ‘wild players’, The Times reported. Decades on, perhaps the print of that memory lingers; only three years ago, a writer for The Guardian compared the tactics and fouls of Cameroon’s female players against England to ‘nursery’ behaviour in a shockingly mocking article.
If we’re to progress towards fairer and more insightful representation of individuals and teams in sporting coverage, the onus is on journalists and consumers to rewrite their impressions using present evidence rather than falling back on mythology or cliché. Recognising flaws is key – I know I, as a Liverpool fan, have been too easily frustrated at the timing of the Africa Cup of Nations in the past, implicitly buying into the arrogance of European football.
We must rip up the blueprint given to us and constantly re-evaluate what we think we know. That’s how you spot originality. We must leave our expectations at the door, lest we miss out on appreciating the unexpected.
Image: Ben Sutherland via Flickr