As a half-Ghanaian, half-Nigerian woman born in the United States, I have found it painful to watch yet another World Cup in which Africa has fallen short.
The games have been especially frustrating (and not just because Ghana’s Black Stars failed to qualify for the tournament): This year’s World Cup marks the first time since 1982 that no African team has advanced to the knockout stages. Nigeria was defeated by Argentina. Senegal was sent home despite having the same win-loss record as Japan; the team accumulated more yellow cards than Japan and thus became the first team in history to be sent home from the World Cup due to the fair-play rule.
At this rate, maybe Africans will have to settle for fantasizing about a Wakandan World Cup victory.
But wait! World Cup fans have been jubilantly saying France is the last African team left in the World Cup. As Khaled A. Beydoun wrote for the Undefeated, “a divided nation in search of an elusive optimism puts its hope in the hands of players named Mbappe, Dembele, Fakir, Rami, Umtiti, who wear French Bleu but also play for Africa, and the legions of African soccer fans who share their continental roots.” Out of 23 players, 12 have African ancestry.
I confess to having extremely mixed feelings about calling France an African team. I do share in the #RootingForEverybodyBlack sentiment. Kylian Mbappé is an absolutely phenomenal player, at only 19 years old. Still, by this logic, shouldn’t we black folks have been rooting for Latin American teams such as Panama, Colombia and Brazil — all teams that boast Afro-Latino players?
But trust me, I get it. There is a certain glee that comes with knowing that racists, nativists and anti-immigrant politicians in France have to contend with the fact that the World Cup hopes of Les Bleus rest on the shoulders of black African men. We celebrate when black people succeed in elite Western spaces, especially if those spaces are European. Look how we fawned over Meghan Markle and Prince Harry incorporating black church culture during the royal wedding in Britain. Or take Beyoncé and Jay-Z, for example: Black audiences around the world rejoiced last month when they released their opulent video for “Apes––t,” which showed the couple singing about their wealth and power inside the Louvre, flanked by black dancers undulating in front of priceless works of art.
Les Bleus also represent certain dark truths about being an African immigrant in the West. Often, well-meaning liberals point to extraordinary accomplishments of immigrants in order to extol the virtues of immigration and tolerance. But such efforts reinforce the notion that black immigrants have to be superhuman to be deemed worthy of belonging in a white-majority society. We have to be superheroes with the powers of Spider-Man, capable of saving babies dangling from balconies. We have to gain entry into all the Ivy League schools and earn our fair share of advanced degrees. We have to be talented enough at sports to bring home championships and international glory.
But just as with those who fell head over heels for Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s occupation of the Louvre, the celebrations of the team risk missing an important point — that the fortunes of France and black Africa have been intertwined since the days of “Francafrique.” “France has been black for centuries,” Gregory Pierrot writes poignantly for Africa Is a Country. “If a point must be made by way of this team, maybe it is that France should not be allowed to claim distinction and separation from Africa so casually, because France owes Africa everything. Not just the resources it continues to pillage, not just the labor force it shamelessly taps into, not just the art it appropriates as it has for centuries: France owes Africa its very soul.”
Indeed, Africa has literally been the piggy bank of France’s political elite. Fourteen African countries on the continent still use the CFA franc, a currency that was pegged to the French franc (now the euro)– 12 of them are former French colonies. The countries that use the CFA franc are some of the poorest in the world; critics of the CFA franc say it is an instrument of “monetary repression.” Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy (who once said during a speech in Dakar, Senegal, that the African had “not yet fully entered into history“) was charged earlier this year, accused of illegally accepting campaign cash from the regime of Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi — the very same Gaddafi he helped to overthrow in a military intervention in 2011 and who was later killed. French President Emmanuel Macron has taken some rhetorical steps toward acknowledging France’s historical injustices against Africa. Last year, Macron faced considerable backlash from the right wing after he acknowledged that France committed crimes against humanity during its colonial rule over Algeria. He has pledged to return African artifacts taken during colonial times back to the continent.
Anyway, back to soccer. It feels bittersweet at best to call the French team African, in a time when France, which has a political obsession with colorblindness, just moved to replace the word “race” with “sex” in its constitution, thereby making it harder for anti-racism activists to fight systemic racism and prejudice. Police brutality against black bodies in France has made headlines over the past several years.
I long for the day that corruption, underdevelopment and disorganization no longer prohibit teams from the continent from making it to the final stages of the World Cup.
But until then, I’ll just sit back and enjoy the rest of this year’s #ColonizerCup World Cup games. Africa’s time will come.
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