The racist myth of the ‘physical’ African football team | Racism

I love listening to white men, especially old white men, talk about black athletes during major global sporting events. I have been following the kind of language white pundits use during FIFA World Cups and Olympic Games for years, so I am well aware to their fascination with and ridicule of the black body.

I was hardly surprised that someone like British businessman and reality TV star Alan Sugar came up with a bitter and racist tweet about the Senegalese team at the World Cup in Russia. 

Sugar’s colonial mindset saw the Senegalese team as people selling sunglasses on beaches, not as world-class players who deserve praise for their success.

Sugar’s statement demonstrates the implicit prejudice that often surfaces in Western media discussions about African players. That Sugar and many of his supporters initially did not see the racism in his tweet and tried to play it down as a “joke” confirms the latent bigotry that haunts football and how media covers it.

But beyond Sugar’s raw racism, there are all kinds of “veiled” racist discourses that dominate the language white commentators use during football matches.

My favourite is their widely normalised assumption that African teams are always the “physical” and never the “tactical” side. When Senegal faced Poland in their first World Cup appearance since 2002 earlier this month, the same assumption was repeated.

After Senegal defeated its Eastern European opponent 2-1, NBC Sport claimed in an online article that Poland had succumbed to Senegal’s “pace and physicality”. Former West Ham Coach Slaven Bilic, now pundit for British ITV, also commented on Senegal’s “pace and power”.

Of course, pundits do not have a monopoly on assuming a black or African team is going to be the “physical side”. Ahead of his team’s June 24 match against Senegal, Japan’s coach Akira Nishino said “[Against Senegal] rather than physicality, we have to use our brain to come up with some tactics and strategies.” 

These suggestions tying Senegal’s success at the World Cup to the team’s “raw energy” brush aside the excellent and tactical play Aliou Cisse, the only black coach in Russia 2018, beautifully masterminded for his team.

Another example of the same brand of covert racism is one of BBC’s commentators excitedly  describing Nigerian player Ahmed Musa as a “gazelle” after one of his goals. He undoubtedly wanted to emphasise Musa’s pace with this comparison, but drawing parallels between black people/Africans and animals has a very long and racist history and it has to stop. 

The aforementioned examples are not isolated cases. Narratives about the “physicality” of African players are perpetuated and circulated tournament after tournament, match after match – so much that New York-based writer and producer Rose Eveleth came up with a World Cup Bad Announcer Bingo in the run-up to the Russia 2018.

The “bingo card” illustrates perfectly well the subtle discursive violence tightly linked to colonial-era racism that often dominates football commentaries. A similar “bingo card” could also be made with words and expressions used to describe white football teams; they are always “tactical”, “strategic”, “disciplined”, “creative”, etc.

Recall the commentary surrounding Iceland’s unexpected draw against Argentina. At that instance – unlike Senegal vs Poland – the underdog’s success was not explained away by Icelandic players “physicality” or “energy”. Of course, a “white team” can also be described as “physical” at times, but only when it has many black players (think of the French national team at the 2014 and 2018 World Cups). 

Some may say that the context in which “a physical African side” is mooted may be flattering. But this language perennially marks a black team as having no other significant skills, practicing strategies or creativity. It doesn’t matter whether Paul Pogba produces moments of tactical brilliance as he plays for the French national team or Manchester United. His performance will always be deemed one of pace and power, because – at least in the eyes of football commentators – Pogba is black first, then a successful football player second.

Senegal may have outplayed Poland, yet according to pundits, it was a controversial win that came mostly on the heels of the “pace and power” of the West African players, not because their tactics and gameplay were better than the Polish team’s. 

The obvious reality is that football pitches or Olympic stadiums are not only venues for sports competition, but also a space where power relations play out, with white commentators serving mostly as biased arbiters. 

For instance, athletes from Kenya, Ethiopia, and other East African countries are naturally seen as unmatched  champions of long-distance running at the Olympics or any other global games. Their success, however, is never tied to their tactics or training traditions – which, ostensibly, constitute the white man’s exclusive domain. Instead, their victories are almost always explained by a romanticised notion of “physical endurance”. 

The problem with this idea of physicality is that it is a mythology of racialism that dispossesses the African or black sportsperson of creativity and strategic thinking in the eyes of Western audiences. In a Barthesian sense, it is a system of speech that promotes racial bias. By not challenging and questioning this language, its hegemony is consolidated and normalised.

There is no denying the fact that every sport requires a lot of energy and physical stamina, and both black/African athletes and their white counterparts exert much energy to win games. But to reduce only the black athlete to their physicality in media discourse is simply racist.

African and black sportsmen are more than their bodies. The coverage of black bodies and the discourses around them require an urgent rewriting. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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