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How to talk about African football(ers)

10th February, 2012

A brief guide for commentary teams serving a primarily British audience

Make no attempt to learn the correct pronunciation of player’s name.[1] If a player’s name begins with the combination of M or N plus another consonant, insert a vowel sound between the two letters to render the name more euphonic to European ears and remember that it is to be generally considered that African vowel sounds ape those of RP British English. Thus Zambian goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene should be known as Kennedy M’uhwiini (to rhyme with S’uhweeney). Moreover, the letter U at the end of all African names must remain silent, which is why Ugo Ehiogu and Peter Ndlovu are known as Ugo Ehiogg and Peter Ndluvv respectively.[2] Note that Ndluvv is the one case in which an initial N may be followed directly by a consonant.

Kennedy M’uhwiini patiently tells British Eurosport how to say his name

You will presume that the national squads with the most players in the United Kingdom, and particularly in England, if you yourself are English, must naturally be amongst the favourites. You will for example assume this year that the Ivory Coast are shoo-ins for the African Cup of Nations trophy because they are led by (the English club) Chelsea’s Didier Drogba, and also count amongst their ranks (the English club) Manchester City’s highly influential midfielder Yaya Touré and his elder brother and club teammate Kolo. You will not take into account dressing-room harmony and the potentially corrosive effect that a sense of entitlement can have on both a star player and those around him. When a player who plays or has played in the UK (particularly in England) is left on the bench you will question the coach’s tactical acumen. You will assume that anyone who has played in the UK (particularly in England) will be of a higher standard than the rest of his colleagues. You will also assume that those players who have earnt benediction through having played in the UK will singlehandedly be able to unravel the sort of tatty strategem that the average African is capable of following. On a related note, you will take it for granted that the majority of coaches at African Cup of Nations should be European, though you will never give voice to the assumption that the African’s natural position is that of follower. Any additional information on players and teams you supply will be extraneous or sensational and will make no substantive contribution to the Britain-based viewer’s understanding of the nations and players taking part.

Where possible you will talk in the most general terms about the people. Always use the definite article before the word ‘people’. You will tell us what this tournament means for the people of Ghana, or the Ivory Coast, or Zambia. You may mention the parlous conditions in which many of Africa’s most successful footballers spent their childhoods. If you feel the moment calls for a mawkish attempt to win the audience over, you may mention the scars on the soles of a player’s feet, received when playing barefoot as a child. Feel free to include references to sharp rocks, shards of broken glass and civil war. Never forget that while players, if they are sufficiently famous, may be treated as individuals, they come from a country of a monolithic ‘people’.

You should however refrain from using the word ‘tribal’. Tribal is an acceptable word when describing the knuckle-dragging chauvinism of certain European fans, but is to be avoided when used with Africans. You do not want to suggest that Africans carry their knuckles closer to the ground than the average European. Tribal may be used to describe Europeans whose behaviour exhibits the parochial, primitive and pugilistic traits Europeans often associate with Africa. You do not want to suggest that Africans really do behave the way you think they do.

Tribe may be used to describe a player’s ethnic background, but only if it sheds light on an exotic and preferably bizarre cultural practice. For the main however, it is to be remembered that the players and their fans belong to ‘the people’ and that the words tribe and tribalism are best left to commentators on European football and European makers of ethnological travelogues throughout the third world.

You may still praise the physique of African players. In fact it is almost obligatory to do so when any or all of the players hail from the west of the continent. Feel free to use words such as ‘powerful’, ‘athletic’, ‘strong’, and ‘muscular’. Mention sinewy limbs and panther-like reflexes. Sexualise and exoticise the players. Consider yourself a good commentator if your audience believes your mouth is watering and that beads of lust-sweat are forming on your forehead. Consider yourself an outstanding commentator if your audience finds their mouths watering and beads of lust-sweat forming on their foreheads.

If two West African teams are facing each other the match may be described as being ‘literally a battle of heavyweights’. If a West African team is facing  one from another part of the continent then the physical might of the West Africans must be emphasised. You may even suggest that the reason that so many winners of the African Player of the Year award are West Africans is because of that region’s especially muscular gene pool. Do not refer to past generations of skilful Africans from all over the continent, whose ranks have not been replaced since European clubs cottoned on the notion of plundering the Africa for her most powerful rather than her most talented footballers. You may comment on Africa’s collective failure to build on the success of Cameroon and Nigeria in the early and middle parts of the 1990s, but do not connect the decline of the African number 10 with the appearance of the bemuscled African midfield enforcer in clubs throughout Europe.

Remember that Africa as a continent has no history. Suggest that African football began with Cameroon’s quarterfinal run in Italia ’90. Imply that the Cameroonian squad that went to that tournament was made up of the first African men to properly understand the rules of football. Don’t mention the decades of Africa’s ostracisation and near-total footballing isolation prior to Cameroon’s Italia ’90 successes. Above all don’t mention tribalist-in-chief Stanley Rous (see the following paragraph). Support the view that Africans only started being good at football when their talents first came to the attentions of British broadcasters, much as their best players have spent time with British clubs.

If the African Cup of Nations is being held in a country with an appalling human-rights record, as is the case with this year’s tournament, cohosted by Equatorial Guinea, attention need not be drawn to any allegations of murder, abuse or the misappropriation of vast oil wealth. Should you decide to do so, the fault of the awarding of the tournament to a dictatorial regime is to lie with ‘Africa’, an entity as monolithic as the people who live within her. No attempt to argue that football’s governing bodies the world over are corrupt, and under no circumstances should British citizen and former Fifa president Stanley Rous’s collusion with South Africa’s apartheid government or his desire to keep Fifa and the World Cup a principally European cabal ever be mentioned.

Don’t direct blame at influential men in dark suits; do not mention the names of attending dignitaries when the camera focuses on them.  Instead criticise the commitment of the local fans owing to their failure to fill stadiums when their nation’s team is not playing. Do not suggest that levels of disposal income may be significantly lower in the host nation than they are in western Europe. Do not mention high ticket prices. Do not attempt to find any reason for low attendances than the questionable character of the people of the country in question.

[1] The more serious the topic of conversation, the more egregious the disregard for pronunciation must be. When, for example, discussing the Zambian air tragedy of 1993, which claimed the lives of all 30 people on board en route to Dakar, make sure to pronounce the surname of then Zambia captain Kalusha Bwalya, the only member of the squad not on the flight, as Balawa.

[2] There would seem to exist a curious parallel with Central American surnames, evidenced by the emergence of Costa Rican striker Paulo Wanchope’s British alter ego Paulo Wanchopp.

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