Politicians | To Mbeki, Bafana Bafana impugns nation’s honor

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Thabo Mbeki. Link to South African Press article.Kroonstad, South Africa | Even after today’s record-breaking penalty shootout between Cameroon and Ivory Coast in the African Cup of Nations (Côte d’Ivoire advancing 12–11), we are still thinking about the rough treatment meted out by zealous followers of losing sides. To an outsider, South African President Thabo Mbeki sounded menacing with his excoriation of Bafana Bafana following their exit from the tournament. South Africa lost all three first-round games without scoring. In a speech on Jan 29 to the African National Congress Youth League, Mbeki said “we cannot be a losing nation in the way that Bafana Bafana lost in Egypt.” Still more bracing, he contrasted the team’s string of failures—they also failed to qualify for the upcoming World Cup finals—with the courage demonstrated in the Soweto uprising in 1976. Those brave souls, Mbeki said, aimed to create a “winning nation.” The youth league was celebrating the 30th anniversary of events in Soweto. Bafana² was booed on its return to Johannesburg on Feb 1, although one woman had grace in her heart: “I also wanted to boo them, but then I saw their faces.”

World Cup qualifiers Togo, Ghana and Angola also endured criticism as they tumbled out in the Nations Cup group stages. Togo’s experience was especially instructive. Les Eperviers (Hawks) “literally sneaked into Lomé under the cover of darkness,” writes Ebow Godwin of the Ghanaian Chronicle. The players returned via bus from Accra, entering Togo at Aflao on Ghana’s eastern border. They confounded supporters who had gathered at the airport in Lomé, Togo’s capital, and who were “strategically sent on a wild goose chase” by the team’s maneuvering. One man, Kossigan Kaglan, a plumber, castigated the team for pushing for bonuses before the tournament:

I do not know what came over them. The players wasted four good days in Lomé struggling and haggling with the authorities over huge sums of monies when they should be in Cairo. In the end, they went to CAN 2006 to amuse themselves with the booty they extorted from the government. They are nothing but exploiters.

Update: A more reasonable postmortem comes from Kenneth Kaunda, the first president of an independent Zambia who, in a newspaper editorial, calls for moderation in assessing the national team’s 11th-place finish. He rejects the calls for coach Kalusha Bwalya to step down and reminds the nation that Bwalya, spared a place on the 1993 plane trip that killed much of the national side, has worked hard to rebuild the program. At 41, Bwalya even inserted himself into the lineup in a World Cup qualifier against Liberia in 2004, scored a game-winner and temporarily led the team to the top of its qualifying group. A tendency toward ingratitude, writes Kaunda in the Sunday Post of Lusaka, was also evident when authorities in the 1980s demolished Dag Hammarskjöld Stadium in Ndola.

This stadium … was of course named in honour of the late United National Secretary General … who, before our independence, died in a plane crash in Ndola. He had been on the way to deal with the Congo civil war. The stadium was razed down, with ministry of sport and Football Association of Zambia officials thinking they could build something else….

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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