- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Soccer leaders

“Imagine an alternate reality of the United States in the 1960s, where the collective experience of the political elite had been formed in all-black baseball leagues. The country is led by President Jackie Robinson, Vice President Satchel Paige, and Secretary of State Willie Mays. Sounds crazy? Replace baseball with soccer, and you’ve got South Africa, a country that has given new meaning to ‘political football.’

“Much attention has been paid to President Nelson Mandela’s role in South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup triumph, captured in the film ‘Invictus.’ But Sean Jacobs, a Cape Town native, historian, and author, describes that tournament as ‘a blip’ in South Africa’s history of racial conflict. ‘The real story,’ he says, ‘is soccer.’

“And the real story begins several miles from the site of Cape Town’s swanky new stadium - on Robben Island, which will be clearly visible to billions of TV viewers as they tune in to this month’s World Cup. The island prison colony was home to thousands of South Africa’s political prisoners during the apartheid era. …

“Their ranks include current President Jacob Zuma, opposition leader and former Defense Minister ‘Terror’ Lekota, Minister of Human Settlements ‘Tokyo’ Sexwale, and Kgalema Motlanthe, who completed former President Thabo Mbeki’s second term. Mandela never participated; he watched the early games from an isolation block until the authorities built a wall to obstruct his view.Zuma had the distinction of doubling as a referee. Leave it to a future president to play one weekend and arbitrate the next.”

- Nicholas Griffin, writing on “How Soccer Defeated Apartheid,” on June 7 at Foreign Policy

Not so anti-U.S.

“It’s become clear to me lately that being an England soccer fan (and typing the word ‘soccer,’ by the way, still feels weirdly like something between a compromise and a betrayal) is just about the best way I still have to connect to the place I grew up. …

“Until recently, an essential part of this stance involved taking an attitude of either disdain or utter apathy (I could never quite settle on which) toward American soccer. The whole idea of U.S. soccer success seemed vaguely like a threat. When the U.S. lost 2-1 to Iran in the 98 World Cup, I cheered disgracefully along with the rest of the crowd in a Middle Eastern restaurant in Paris. I even was pleased when the Americans fell 1-0 to Germany (Germany!) in 02.

“But lately that feeling has waned. That’s in part because the American approach to soccer is less mechanistic, less soul-crushingly system-oriented, than it once was, as players like [Clint] Dempsey and [Landon] Donovan demonstrate. But it’s also partly because, for whatever reason, the whole topic feels less fraught today, the need to take a stand against some other part of myself less pressing.”

- Zachary Roth, writing on “England vs. USA,” on June 8 at the New Republic blog the Goal Post

African trade

“There are many football academies in Africa. Some people see them as a blessing, others as a curse. Schools like the one in Bamako train the players which professional clubs in Europe have expressed an interest in. They are young, technically adept, athletic - and cheap.

“Footballers from Africa, the continent where the World Cup begins on June 11, are a hot commodity. European clubs have been going to Africa to look for talent since the 1950s, and in recent years the search has become a hugely profitable business. About one in four foreigners playing for a top-division European club comes from Africa. It is a business that trades in hope and is run by serious managers. But unscrupulous traffickers also have their fingers in the pie.

“Africans are drawn to Europe because they believe that everything there exists in abundance: work, money, confidence. Some players make it and become stars, players like Mahamadou Diarra with Real Madrid, Samuel Eto’o with Inter Milan and Didier Drogba with FC Chelsea. But for most the dream of achieving a better life as a professional footballer never comes to fruition.”

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