For the past month or so British football has been battling its way along snow-covered motorways and sodden pitches. While this has its own peculiar pleasures, you may, like me, prefer your football in the sun; that is what has been on offer in South Africa, where the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations draws to a conclusion on Sunday.
This year’s tournament was planned to be Libya’s show, but the conflict there made staging the Cup impossible. Step forward South Africa, host of the 2010 World Cup. This time around, South Africa was free of Fifa’s micro-management and the often jaundiced attention of the European press. Putting on the Africa Cup of Nations has been much more relaxed: locals can afford the tickets, no one complains about the vuvuzelas or obsessively polices market traders.
However, just beneath the surface a whole host of questions about football in Africa is stirring. The tournament has given South Africa’s fabulously expensive football infrastructure another outing. While some of the stadia – like the fabulous Soccer City in Soweto – break even as multipurpose venues, there are in Cape Town and Durban some enormous white elephants.
South African football in general has not been looking too good. The national team, Bafana Bafana, were grateful of the automatic place in the tournament that hosting brought, given their consistently poor qualification record.
But in the weeks before the event, a swathe of senior officials at the South African FA were asked to stand down while they were investigated for involvement in matchfixing. And in the South African press, the gap between tournament facilities and the pitiable state of grass-roots soccer remains unaddressed.
One aspect of the tournament that the TV coverage, however good, cannot convey, is the world of VIP boxes and team’s hotel lobbies where much of the business of football is done by scouts, agents, middlemen and managers. In Africa, the key business is players and the contracts they might sign if they can make it to the wealthier European leagues.
A continent of young hopefuls looks to the likes of Togo and Tottenham striker Emmanuel Adebayor and dreams of following in his footsteps (via Metz, Monaco, Arsenal, Manchester City and Real Madrid), banking millions on the way. A good performance at the Africa Cup of Nations can transform a player’s career and the life of his family.
For an insight into this world and all the complex relationships and journeys between African and European football, it is worth taking a look at a newly released film Afrika. This beautifully shot documentary follows the stories of two players: South African striker Kermit Erasmus and Cameroon midfielder Ndomo Sabo.
Erasmus was playing for Excelsior in the Dutch city of Rotterdam and, though it brought financial security to him and his family, the Netherlands looks a cold and lonely place for a young man barely out of his teens.
But Erasmus was the lucky one. Sabo had been approached in his home town of Yaounde by an “agent” who persuaded his family to sell their inheritance – land in the countryside – to fund a €3,000 fee and air tickets to France. Once there, Sabo trained, got injured and was abandoned in a doss house, without money or connections. He survived, barely, on the wintry streets of Paris before being helped by the extraordinary NGO Culture Foot Solidaire.
Run by retired African professional footballers, NGO Culture Foot Solidaire finds and supports dozens of trafficked youths in Europe every year – although they only reach a fraction of them. In the film, Sabo restarts his career in Cameroon and then with Deportivo La Coruña in Spain, but tellingly fails to make the Cameroon national team that’s heading to the 2009 Under-20 World Cup when he cannot afford the bribe to be part of the squad.
In this, Africa is not unique. There is plenty of grit beneath the glitter of every football culture, but there are few that can do the glitter so well. That will be on show over the weekend as the final games of the tournament are played. Enjoy the glitter, but don’t forget about the grit
David Goldblatt is the author of The Ball Is Round: a Global History of Football.
The DVD of Soka Afrika is available at sokaafrika.com for £11.65 including p&p.