Feet of the Chameleon: The Story of African Football
Published in The Independent (November 6th, 2009)
Feet of the Chameleon by Ian Hawkey (Portico)
In 1938, a young man from Morocco put on his finest djellaba and boarded a ship to cross the Mediterranean. His name was Larbi Ben Barek, and he was an unusually gifted footballer, who had made his name as a teenager scoring two goals with espadrilles on his feet against one of the top teams in north Africa, whose players all wore boots. His dribbling skills, his timing and his strength with both feet won a transfer to Marseille, and he went on to become a fixture in the French national team.
Ben Barek was the first footballer to emerge from Africa and become a global superstar, blazing a trail that would be followed by the likes of Eusebio, George Weah and Didier Drogba. Even Pele at the height of his fame paid homage, saying: ‘If I am the King of Soccer, then Larbi Ben Barek is the God of it.’ His story demonstrates that the scramble for African talent, today pursued with so much vigour and so little morality, is far from a new phenomenon. The tale of the first ‘Black Pearl’ a nickname given to both Eusebio and Pele is one of dozens told in Feet of the Chameleon, a well-timed tackling of African football in advance of the continent hosting its first World Cup by an author who is clearly passionate about his subject.
The Egyptians claimed to have invented the sport long before European colonisers bought their rules to Africa, pointing for evidence to balls found in royal mausoleums. Not all the locals were impressed: one Nigerian emir wearily asked a District Commissioner if he could stop watching “this pitiable spectacle, with these fellows all chasing one piece of leather around like drunks”, before asking his treasurer to buy another 21 balls so the players could stop running around.
But as Hawkey shows, African players were soon dazzling their imperial overlords. The Barefoot Wizards, a team of shoeless Nigerian players, toured England to much acclaim in 1949, two players winning deals with English teams. Two decades later, and half the talented Portuguese team in the 1966 World Cup originated in Africa. Among them was the magical Eusebio, the subject of a familiar-sounding legal battle between Lisbon’s two top teams for his ‘ownership’ rights. Benfica won the tussle, and he rewarded them with an astonishing 473 goals in 440 games, also playing in five European Cup finals.
African teams boycotted the World Cup held here in protest at the refusal to give them a single automatic place. So it took slightly longer to make a similar mark on the international stage, the breakthrough coming with Morocco’s qualification for the subsequent World Cup when they came agonisingly close to beating Germany in their opening match. It is not just England that suffers such a fate.
Inevitably, football in Africa becomes entwined with politics. Several of the post-colonial nationalist leaders understood its potency, even overseeing their own favoured teams. Later on, Bobby Moore and four of his World Cup winning team-mates endorsed apartheid by accepting lucrative deals to play in South Africa. The book also examines the vexed issue of national teams so often having coaches from Europe. Throughout, Hawkey neatly sidesteps the clichs that dog so much coverage of African football, barring one lengthy section on voodoo and fetishes.
In one of the strange quirks thrown up so often by sport, it was the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon that emerged as the pride of African football. This small nation of 20 million people, with 230 ethnic groups, has the most appearances in World Cup final tournaments, four African Nations Cup triumphs and an Olympic gold. Most famously, there was the 1990 World Cup campaign when it became the first African team to reach the quarter-finals, defeating Maradona’s Argentina along the way. Even then, however, team members were subjected to questions about witchdoctors and eating monkeys.
The author fails to nail the enigma of why Cameroon should have been such a dominant force, despite conversations with its current golden boy, Samuel E’to. Indeed, for much of this engaging book Hawkey is reminiscent of a schoolboy footballer, displaying huge enthusiasm but zipping around the field a little too much. The best passages are where he slows down: the riveting saga of the stars who risked their careers in France to form a rebel Algerian team during the independence struggle, or the moving tale of how Zambia so nearly overcame the loss of a brilliant young team in a 1993 air crash to be within touching distance of double success the following year.
As the continent prepares to host its first major sports tournament, many fans will hope an African team makes at least the semi-finals. But once the circus moves on, the local club game will be left in poor shape, suffering from corruption, dwindling attendances and the loss of top stars to Europe. As anyone travelling in Africa quickly discovers, most of the games that matter are beamed in from London, Liverpool and Paris. And this is the biggest challenge facing the sport in Africa.