African football, with all its colour and drama, has a heady allure that’s all its own

2009-10-03 00:00

AFRICAN football has been disparaged and demeaned for far too long by far too many people around the world; in South Africa, among some whites, it is too often dismissed as “black soccer”.

Now the tide is turning. 2010, she is coming.

With fine timing, writer Ian Hawkey has produced a book that discovers, uncovers and celebrates the joy and hope, the skill and passion that lie at the heart of this continent’s favourite game, which bursts forth each weekend from the Cape to Cairo and which will thrill the world next year.

In his prologue to Feet of the Chameleon, published last week by Portico, he writes: “Football casts light here and there on how Africa works; or how it doesn’t work. Africa fails sometimes and its shortcomings tend to command more news space than the areas at which it thrives. This is not a book about a continent doomed, or to be pitied. It’s about something Africa enjoys, generously shares and is very good at.”

This is not a textbook, not a dull directory of matches won and lost. Much more interesting and engaging, it’s a calabash full of anecdotes and stories, overflowing with vitality and colour. Not a sterile CV of African soccer, the text reveals the raw spirit of something that means so much to so many.

Hawkey is a convert. An Englishman fresh out of Cambridge University, he was contributing to the Fulham FC match programme in 1991 when he accepted an opportunity to work in the sports department of the Sunday Times in Johannesburg. In an era when most white SA sportswriters were heading to the Wanderers or Ellis Park, he excitedly took his pencil and notepad to Orlando, Mamelodi and Vosloorus.

It’s strange: some “outsiders” travel to the townships and return to the suburbs relatively unmoved by what they have seen and heard; others are profoundly touched by the experience, enthralled by the spirit in adversity, the sense of community and the overwhelming sense of untapped potential.

Hawkey fell into the latter category, enamoured by the tales and legends of Pirates, Swallows and Chiefs, of great players and great personalities, and his curiosity soon took him across the country and then right across the continent, through more than 25 nations, discovering more clubs, meeting more heroes, listening and noting down more wonderful sagas and stories... and now, they’re all rolled into this book.

He tells of the ongoing rivalry between Ceuta and Melilla, two clubs ostensibly rooted in Moroccan soil but playing in the Spanish second division because, as the last European colonies on the mainland, the towns officially belong to Spain... and of Larbi Ben Barek, the first African superstar, the first ‘black pearl’, who emerged in the 1930s and made his name with Marseille and Atletico Madrid.

He tells of nomadic coaches like Philippe Troussier, known as Le Sorcier Blanc (white witchdoctor), guide of Bafana Bafana at the 1998 World Cup: “For a coach from Europe or South America, it can appear easy to get a good job in Africa,” he writes. “It may be difficult to keep it for very long, but chances are there will be another one around the corner. And another one. And another one after that.”

He tells of legends such as George Weah, Roger Milla, Abedi Pele, Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o, in their own words, and relates the achievements of national teams such as the Lions of the Atlas (Morocco), the Mighty Elephants (Ivory Coast), the Super Eagles (Nigeria) and the Indomitable Lions (Cameroon).

He writes about Kalusha Bwalya and the tragedy of April 27, 1993, when a Buffalo plane exploded in the sky and, in an instant, Zambia lost its national team.

Bwalya was not on board. “There’s not a day that passes without me thinking about what happened that night,” he tells Hawkey.

He tells the stories of Jomo Sono, Kaizer Motaung and Lucas Radebe, and of Bafana Bafana’s success in the 1996 African Cup of Nations and their trials and tribulations ever since.

Throughout, he eschews the statistic and brings forward the passion and the drama. As a result, this book becomes an ideal appetiser for the feast in 2010.

Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author, former CEO of SA Rugby and general manager of SABC sport, and has been involved in various SA bid campaigns.


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