Those who imagine Africa’s World Cup is about to get a lot less African (that means you, Bill) are forgetting something: Africa has won the World Cup five times, and we’re a good bet for a sixth. Never mind the fact that South Africa, Cameroon and Nigeria are all looking hopelessly subpar, Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire have started well despite being in groups of death that make passage to the knockout stages a longer shot. But even if they fail, we’ll still have our other team. You know, the one with Robinho and Luis Fabiano, Felipe Melo, Maicon, Juan, Bastos and all those other great great great great-etc. grandsons of Africa, just like Pele, Jairzinho and Garrincha.
Brazil is the world’s largest African country, much of its population descended from slaves brought over in chains by the Portuguese from Angola and West Africa. That’s why in all the years before Roger Milla’s Cameroon and the 2002 Senegalese and Drogba’s Ivoirians gave us some homegrown thrills, football fans across Africa and the African diaspora embraced Brazil as our own. Mamelodi Sundowns, the team of South Africa’s striker Kathlego Mphela, are known as “the Brazilians” because the team plays in the same yellow shirt and blue shorts — a color scheme associated with football excellence.
Pele’s exploits captivated all of Africa, and a ceasefire was declared in the Nigerian civil war in 1971 to allow people to watch him and his Santos team in a series of exhibition matches. Bob Marley, the Jamaican reggae music legend, loved nothing more than football. “Football is a whole skill to itself. A whole world. A whole universe to itself. Me love it because you have to be skilful to play it! Freedom! Football is freedom.” And, needless to say, his team was Brazil.
Nor was it only Africa and the African diaspora — you can hear the same sentiment expressed from Iran to Indonesia. Brazil has always been the proxy team for the whole Third World. And nowhere more so than in Africa.
African hearts will be torn, just a little, on Sunday, when Brazil faces Cote D’Ivoire in a must-win game for the Elephants. The Brazilians have long been Africa’s standard bearers in the international game, but lately, teams from West Africa — Cameroon, Senegal, Ghana — have begun to emerge as serious contenders. But when Brazil played Ghana in 2006, many African fans treated it as a kind of derby.
(And, besides, many of the current Ghana squad were in the Under-20 side that beat Brazil in 2009 to become world champions.)
But it won’t be a particularly painful choice for many Africans. Because at the end of the day, whatever the result, Africa wins — because, as Peter Tosh reminded us all those years ago, “Don’t care where you come from, as long as you’re an African”.