The African paradox: Big players, shame about the teams

The Continent's first World Cup has been a disappointment for all but one of its national sides. Their failure has more to do with politics and corruption than lack of talent

Three giants stand guard over the arrivals hall at Oliver Tambo airport in Johannesburg. Dressed in yellow and playing for a team called "Africa United" they are Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel and Salomon Kalou.

They are the heroes who were supposed to drive the continent's arrival at football's top table. These were meant to be three of the biggest stars of the African World Cup given pride of place in one of the most expensive display adverts in the country. The message which has been deafeningly communicated – in this case by a mobile telephone operator – to a billion Africans in more than 50 countries has been clear: success for one African country will be success for all Africans.

Yet as the World Cup approaches its knockout phase, the second wave of visitors to South Africa could be forgiven for having forgotten who the players behind the giant posters are. The 30-ft photographs now serve as a reminder that the continental contribution has failed to live up to expectations. After hosts South Africa and a frustrated Nigeria joined Cameroon and Algeria in making a first round exit, only Ghana could buck the trend. Further hopes for an African presence at the finals hang by an Ivory thread. Didier Drogba and the rest of the "Elephants" need a deluge of goals against North Korea to progress.

Yesterday the post-mortem had already begun. Fifa admitted as much as it called a press conference on the state of the game in Africa. The first thing that will be forgotten in the search for scapegoats is the role of chance. "There have been injuries and a certain amount of plain bad luck," says David Goldblatt, author of global football history, The Ball is Round, who has been following the African contingent in South Africa.

The second thing that will be forgotten is that despite the communication strategy of Fifa's sponsors, Africa is a continent, not a country. Ghana's Serbian coach, Milan Rajevac, greeted their entry into the second round by calling on local fans and all other Africans to back their team.

This approach ignores the fact that the roots of disappointment are in many cases particular to the countries who are going home. Chelsea stars Obi Mikel of Nigeria and Michael Essien of Ghana never made it to the month-long football fiesta – robbed of their starring role by injuries. Their clubmate Kalou made it to the pitch but failed to make much of an impact once there.

One place that football's authorities will be reluctant to look for answers is in the popular idea that the game's relationship to Africa is an exception to the exploitative rule. Yesterday's news conference spoke of money invested for the future and the talent coming through the ranks in many countries. Fifa President Sepp Blatter and local organising chief Danny Jordaan have both spoken of football offering a level playing field for the continent. For 90 minutes this is true. As a whole it is not.

Some argue that satellite television, football scouts and foreign-sponsored academies have functioned like the colonial railways once did, opening up the continent for the export of raw materials. The commodity of African talent has become a flood but the profit has flowed to Europe. Countries like Ghana and Ivory Coast, which have made the strongest contributions to this World Cup, have seen their domestic games emptied by acquisitive foreign clubs in a system that is stacked against development. Not a single million pound transfer fee has been paid to a sub-Saharan African team.

Fifa is supposed to act as a check on this, recycling the vast monies created by mega-events like the World Cup into the grassroots of the game. The South African football federation will receive nearly £50m from the month-long finals, Fifa said this week. The potential of this investment has been undermined by the failure to referee how the money is spent.

Much of the cashflow into football development takes place in the form of unaudited grants. This has often meant lavish expenses for African federation officials and little or nothing for the game itself. Michela Wrong's assertion that Africa's political classes never disappoint in their capacity to disappoint is equally true of its sporting authorities. And at the top of that pyramid is Fifa itself.

"It's unfair to say the whole problem is Fifa but they have encouraged the problems that we've seen: short-termism, clientelism and good old- fashioned corruption," said Goldblatt. "They are the paymasters and they've turned a blind eye to everything because it's in their own interests, it's how they get votes."

But Africa's World Cup is not bound for failure despite the heartbreaking absence of a continental champion in the latter stages. The delirium that rose up when Bafana Bafana seemed set to achieve a miracle and thrash France soundly enough to get to the second round on Tuesday will live in the memory and the inner ear of anyone who saw or heard it. The volume may come down a notch or two; some of the fabulous makarapas, giant sunglasses and vuvuzelas that have flavoured this event will be packed away. But the warmth and vivacity with which the world has been greeted in South Africa will continue.

And despite the appeals from marketeers and Ghana's coaching staff, not everyone will instinctively join "Africa United". More Brazil, in particular, Portugal and Argentina flags are already being painted on faces and flown from car roofs, alongside South African ones. Like fans all over the world, Africans love the way the samba stars play.

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