The recently-ended World Cup will go down as one for the ages for several reasons. Video-Assisted Referee (VAR), doubling the previous record for most own goals in a tournament, Russia’s impeccable hosting, Croatia’s incredible run and, of course, France’s ultimate triumph.
Of the several narratives that have emerged about the French heroics, none has been pervasive as “Africa Won the World Cup!” This is no whimsical claim: 16 of the 23-member squad that conquered the world are of recent African descent (either born to African immigrants or migrated at an early age themselves). While Black players are a dime a dozen at these tournaments, the French player’s distinct aesthetic and names gave the team an unmistakable African feel. It is thus no surprise that the victory elicited much celebration from the global African community, spiteful comments from France’s enduring rivals, and many a meme and commentary.
My Pan-African sensibilities, for one, were not particularly moved. Don’t get me wrong; I am from the Issa Rae school of thought in rooting for all Africans- diasporic or continental. I also concede that the team, led by the exploits of Kylian Mbappe et al, played excellent football. However, I refuse to join the “French Team = Africa” bandwagon. Here’s why.
First, there hasn’t been any doubt as to Africans’ ability to play football. From Eusebio to Jerome Boateng, George Weah to Samuel Eto’o, Roger Milla to Mo Salah, African players have nothing left to prove in regards to their abilities. Africa’s lack of success at the World Cup has hardly been about the quality of players we have at our disposal- but we’ll get back to that.
The idea that Western nations lean heavily on Africa’s finest resources for their own aggrandizement is the most consistent narrative in the global relations of the past five years. African labor built the Americas, African land sustained the Western European empires, and African minerals fed the capitalist machine at which we still marvel today. In fact, it is this dynamic of the past few centuries that has, in large part, necessitated the immigration of these players and their families to the colonial metropole that is France.
Thus, to take unabashed pride in how this is “Africa’s World Cup” is to concede the continent’s eternal role as feeder to the empire.
This World Cup didn’t represent an African triumph; it did just the opposite. For the first time since 1986, not a single African team made it to the knockout stages of the World Cup. So, despite an abundance of African talent (as shown by the French team, among others), Africa herself continues to flounder. While the finest parts of the continent continue to feed the narrative of Western victory culture, we regress.
And perhaps that’s the double-edged legacy of this World Cup. How has a tournament at which first and second generation Africans (worth mentioning that third placed Belgium has a significant number in their squad as well) were nothing short of triumphant also produced the worst showing by African teams in recent history? There is a fundamental disconnect here; one with critical implications for more than just football: for the global world order.