Morocco team celebrates in 2022 World Cup. (Photo: JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)
The quadrennial football World Cup is the focus of worldwide attention. But African nations have fewer opportunities to participate, and Morocco's success has made it favorite of the African diaspora. The World Cup and other international sporting events are opportunities for celebration but also for "sports washing" that hides international inequalities.
Morocco is the first African country to reach the World Cup final four.
And yet still, even as a casual soccer (it’s called football everywhere else in the world outside of the United States) fan, it is hard for me to watch the World Cup without wondering why this success has taken so long to happen for an African Nation. It is the most popular sporting event worldwide. Despite African-born or heritage players on many teams, especially European teams, no nation from Africa has ever won the cup. Despite the events widely acknowledged greatest player in its History, Brazil’s Pele, being himself of African descent and forecasting that an African nation would win the cup by 2000.
Some will cite a structural reason that is clearly biased toward Europe. There are 54 countries in Africa and yet it is only allocated five slots in the World Cup tournament. Conversely, Europe has 50 countries and gets 13 slots.
Still, others will cite the same old racist dog whistle analysis to explain why African countries have not succeeded to the level of its enormous talent and resources; bad governance, undisciplined players, etc. I would call it Neo colonialist governance and it does compound the issue. I only argue that they are not at the root. At the root are the same factors responsible for the continent’s underdevelopment in general and that is the exploitation by foreign interests, especially Europe.
For a point of reference, look at how U.S. baseball pillages Latin American baseball talent. Compound that worldwide and that is the extractive relationship between European countries and African countries for African players.
To be fair, European countries are not the only culprits. Qatar, the 2022 World Cup host country, has indulged as well, under the guise of humanitarian motivations with its Aspire Academy, which recruits young African soccer players to their country in their effort to build a World Cup contender.
However, my primary focus is Europe, due to its wider history of exploiting Africa for both human and material resources, and the wealth it accumulated as a result.
The Industrial Revolution would have been impossible without the wealth generated by slave labor. Britain’s major ports, cities, and canals were built on invested slavery money. Several banks, including Barclays, as well the Church of England, built their wealth on the trade of African free labor.
Indeed, as the great Trinidadian scholar Eric Williams illustrates clearly in “Capitalism and Slavery,” you cannot speak of one without speaking of the other.
When it comes to African people, there is this tendency to adopt the “let bygones be bygones” approach. This mindset was on blatant display when the British offered to “lend” Nigerian art back to Nigeria, art it stole during the colonial era.
This exploitation has not been limited to Africa and continues to this day. Since Qatar was awarded this year’s event in 2010, anywhere from sixty-five hundred to seven thousand migrant workers, mostly from south Asia, have died preparing for the event. A hard number is difficult to come by due to “sports washing,” which is the process of downplaying criminality or unappealing reality in order to give the event cover. And yet the overwhelming bulk of the capital that will pour into Qatar will be siphoned off by a small elite as is the standard operating procedure of Capitalist ventures.
I should make it clear that the indifference to the life of labor and overall corruption is more the norm for the World Cup and related activities and is hardly unique to Qatar. This week several European Parliament members have been arrested on corruption charges related to the Qatar games to include the Vice President of the European Parliament. The former president of the European soccer governing body (UEFA) was arrested in 2019 as a result of an investigation into the awarding of Qatar. Brazil put aside its long and well documented loathing of Black skin to bring in hundreds of Haitians to use as cheap labor in preparation for the 2014 World Cup which it hosted. The sports writer Dave Zirin talks about this in his book “Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics and the fight for Democracy.” He not only documents the false promises of the espoused progressive governments of Brazil but also the massive public push back against the governmental accommodation of Olympic and World Cup demands at the expense of the people.
So, while the African people in Morocco will no doubt celebrate this event, those of us who view sports as an instrument and platform to bring attention to far larger and more important issues must do our jobs. In this case, it is to shine a light on the Moroccan 47-year occupation of the Western Sahara or as some call it, Africa’s last colony and Europe’s continual pillaging of the continent in general. Both issues will require serious struggle from all hands and will not be solved by games.
Gus Griffin is a DC area based independent sportswriter, a member of the Black Alliance for Peace Africa Team and the Ujima People’s Progress Party.