Monday, 11 January 2010

Anger over Angola

It's never nice when politics gets in the way of a football match. Sadly this is precisely the situation the 2010 African Cup of Nations finds itself in where, despite the fanfares and a fantastic opening match (in which hosts Angola went 4-0 up against Mali, only to be pegged back to 4-4), the tournament headlines are still dominated by events off the field.

The Cynical Challenge was knocking up its own preview to the African Cup of Nations on Friday, when news broke of the attack by Angolan rebels on the Togolese national team in the enclave of Cabinda. It seemed churlish to have persevered with a low-down on 'the players to watch' when such a shadow has been cast over the tournament. In addition, the wall-to-wall media coverage of events in Angola has served to underline how football journalists and commentators can get out of their depth as soon as 'the beautiful game' starts to get mixed up with serious political issues.

Apart from a few notable exceptions, sports journalists have taken the opportunity presented by the shocking attack on the Togo team bus to spout the kind of drivel usually reserved for writers in the Daily Mail comments section.

On Saturday afternoon the usually reliable Daily Telegraph columnist Henry Winter wrote on Twitter,
"Fifa must investigate events in Angola and improve teams' safety before World Cup. S Africa are organised but nothing can be left to chance",
displaying a magnificent combination of both geographical ignorance and political insensitivity. Firstly, apart from sharing the same continent, Angola is nothing like South Africa. The distance between Angola's capital, Luanda, and Johannesburg is over 2,500km - that's about 800km further than the distance between London and, er, Kosovo. It's hardly sensible to draw conclusions about security provision during the 2010 World Cup based on the Cabinda attack.

Besides which, Winter's comment betrays the kind of broad-brush attitudes to the African continent which have so stymied development since the end of the colonial period. The assumption that post-colonial Africa is any less complex and multi-dimensional than modern-day Europe is not just ignorant, nor just racist (though that is not an accusation which The Cynical Challenge wishes to make of any football journalist). It is dangerously misleading, in that it perpetuates these ideas rather insidiously - in a sports column, rather than in the politics pages. And if you think this is all just hyperbole, have a read of some of the things ordinary football fans are saying about the situation in Angola.

But then there hasn't been much subtlety in the reporting of the Cabinda story generally. Perhaps understandably, hardly anyone among the sports journalism fraternity knew much about Angola's complex and bloody civil war when the Togo story broke, and scrambling to get the story written has inevitably involved cutting corners. But that shouldn't excuse writers from reporting the facts as accurately as possible.

From Matt Lawton, in the Daily Mail, writing that the Ghana team "flies into the death zone" of Cabinda on Sunday - despite the point that, though unsettled, the eponymous capital of Cabinda region is far less dangerous than the border region with Congo-Brazzaville where the Togo team were shot at; to the general criticism of the Togolese for travelling to Cabinda by road "against advice", which obscures the fact that both CAF and the Angolan government had made assurances on the security situation in Cabinda prior to the tournament.

One also wonders why more media outlets hadn't examined the possibility of violence in Angola during the African Cup of Nations. Hats off to a few writers - particularly Martin Samuel and the good people at Just Football and Pitch Invasion - for having identified the potential for trouble prior to the tournament. Conditions in Cabinda were no secret, and there were plenty of signs that trouble could be brewing - had anyone bothered to look for them.

"It struck me as unusual that matches were being played in Cabinda," International Relations graduate Jon Rivlin, who was brought up in Angola, told The Cynical Challenge. "Those that know Angola know that Cabinda is not a safe place to go." It seems the vast majority of the sports media were unaware of such concerns.

It may be asking alot of the press, what with tight deadlines and an audience not always receptive to discussions of complex political issues, to get stories such as the Cabinda shooting 100% right, 100% of the time. But equally, media coverage of the event shows that sometimes, when a sports story breaks with political ramifications, the sports hacks should leave it to the experts.


Jonathan said...

Excellent James, I think your correct in saying that many (not all) sports journalists who claim to be experts on the sport (I would argue that they are merely experts of the sport played in the 'West') are shown to be extremely unaware of the political importance of sports in developing nations. I think that most social scientists would agree with you that on this occassion the international media have been shown up for a lack of knowledge on the area they are reporting!

Well done.

Anonymous said...

Hi James, Really liked the article, glad to read some decent background to an evidently complex issue.

I do see your point about leaving big political events to the experts, but surely with the wealth of talent in journalism it’s not asking too much to combine the two disciplines?

I do think an intelligent article on the matter could be placed in the sporting pages because sometimes a sporting context has a political foundation. I want to know both that the players have survived and why the incident occurred.

In fact, I enjoy your blog precisely because it regularly manages to combine the two. The days have long gone when sport was all about what happened on the field, it is thoroughly tangled with finance, politics and cultural identity. As such I think the point should not be that the political side is left to the experts...but rather that the sports writers either conduct research properly or collaborate with their colleagues. A well penned article that covers all the issues could then properly appear in the back pages.

H. van Smeiter said...

It's good to see that the sort of punchy coverage we have come to expect of the Cynical Challenge has not been compromised by the recent events in Angola. I was surprised, however, that you make no mention of the strange similarity (irony, I might add) between the weather and the name of the Telegraph journalist mentioned above: both of whom are twats.

James Appell said...

@ H van S.
Actually in defence of Henry Winter, that Twitter comment was the exception, rather than the rule, of his sportswriting. I might add the slightly obvious, but nonetheless important, comment that tweets don't tend to undergo the same editorial processes as newspaper columns prior to publication. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt - besides, there are far worse culprits out there.

Thanks all for your comments

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Always glad to hear your thoughts. Be nice now! James