Football and the World Cup: A Conversation between Lidudumalingani and Carey Baraka

The 2018 FIFA World Cup kicked off in Moscow, Russia on 14th June 2018. In the lead-up to this, Carey Baraka and Lidudumalingani had a conversation around the tournament, about football, about writing about, listening to, and playing football.

CAREY BARAKA: Just over seven years ago, I was seated somewhere watching Tshabalala score the opening goal at the World Cup. Football has never been a thing Kenya excels in, so World Cups, for me, are avenues for me to display my Pan-Africanism. And when Tshaba scored, man, that was exhilarating. Then, a few weeks later, Suarez happened and Asamoah Gyan smacked that penalty against the crossbar and over. Still, here we are all these years later and neither South Africa nor Ghana is going to be in Moscow. Are you watching the World Cup?

LIDUDUMALINGANI: I remember that Siphiwe Tshabalala goal well, I remember involuntarily jumping up and running around my tiny student room in downtown Johannesburg, and hearing vuvuzelas go on for at least ten minutes after the goal. I, however, cannot think of it and not be filled with the same sense of dread I had then: That South Africa were not going to make it out of the group stages of the World Cup. The team’s glory days had ended in 2006, four years before the World Cup, and they had been consistent in their disappointments.

I remember too Suarez’s mischief and Gyan’s terrible miss. It broke my heart. Sadly, Ghana has not been the same since then. They suffered the same fate as Spain, Brazil, England, and that is finding yourself with the same squad after many years and they are all aging. I am yet to be excited about the World Cup. Of course, I will be watching it as football is an extension of who I am but having seen first-hand the kind of burden it leaves on the hosting nation and because the euphoria of it is not as immediate as it was in 2010 I am also weary of the kind of legacy it will leave in Moscow.

CB: Moscow is interesting to me for a number of reasons. I don’t know if you remember, but in 2016, during the Euros, there was a bit of trouble with the Russian fans. We are coming into this space with potential hooliganism and homophobia, and the sceptre of Russia’s doping problem as well as questions about how they got the World Cup rights. Kenya hasn’t hosted any major football event since before I was born, so I’m confused about how these things really go. So how was is it, watching the games in your student room, knowing that the matches are happening in your country, in your city? I’m curious especially about the moments before the World Cup began, the build-up.

LI: Russia is perhaps for me the worst place to host the World Cup, for the reasons you’ve mentioned, particularly the racism, but awarding them the World Cup, even under whatever circumstances, is proof of how inept FIFA has been for years now, with glaring and scary incidents of it, in dealing with racism in football. One can almost be certain that racism will rear its ugly head, either on the pitch or outside, where Russians will for the first time be confronted with all kinds of people, who we will not be carefully negotiating their existence, people who will exist in excitement and even drunken excitement. Of course, one hopes things run smoothly but that in itself is a dream.

The day before the World Cup kicked off here, I was returning from school with a friend and we had gotten vuvuzelas from an event earlier in the day, or some retail shop was handing them out for free, I cannot recall now, and as we were making our way home, crossing over the bridge by the Wits University’s Origins Centre and seeing cars decorated in the South African flag, we stopped on the bridge, put our bags down and for an hour to two blew our vuvuzelas to the motorists. Every single one of them hooted and yelled at us. People peered out of nearby offices to see what the commotion was about, students came out of the university gates to see. It was incredible. I still remember that feeling today. And that feeling remained with us for the entire month. If you minus all the problems with FIFA and the disappointment of Bafana Bafana, it truly was an incredible time. There’s a euphoria that usurps the entire country, even non-football fans, because it spreads from within their homes and onto the streets. It’s a beautiful experience.

I did not go to a lot of the games and even if one didn’t, one could always go to a park and the excitement there felt as authentic and captivating as being on the football field. Didn’t Kenya host an athletics meeting sometime last year? What was that like? Is Athletics bigger than football there? I imagine that it is.

CB: One would think that it is, but it’s not. We hosted the IAAF World U18 championships, and the stadium was only full on the last day, and even that was mostly because entry was free. Athletics is popular, but most of the star athletes are not celebrities, not people who would be mobbed in the streets. Perhaps in Eldoret, and certain areas in the North Rift, yes, but in most parts of the country people prefer their football stars. A few years ago, a popular chant at political rallies in Kenya was ‘Oliech-Obama-Odinga’, which meant that people were equating the achievements of the American president, the Kenyan Prime Minister, and a footballer who spent huge chunks of his career getting relegated from the French Ligue 1.

Athletics is one of our most popular sports, alongside football and rugby, but I sometimes get the sense that a lot of people only watch athletics events because we perform really well, and because of a vague sense of patriotism, but not because they are genuine fans of the sport. With football, it’s different. For instance, a lot of people would watch Tottenham Hotspurs play simply because they have Victor Wanyama in their ranks. And Michael Olunga netted a hat-trick in La Liga, so a whole bunch of us are now Girona supporters. Then there are two local clubs, AFC Leopards, and Gor Mahia, which attract cultish support. Gor Mahia, who have absolutely dominated the league in the last few years, play their home matches in Kisumu, and so, every few Friday evenings, there are hundreds of fans, maybe thousands, driving and flying to Kisumu from Nairobi to support K’Ogalo. Julius Yego, who is a Javelin superstar, and has had a rap song written and sung about him, would he have hundreds of people travelling 300 kilometres across the country to see him throw his javelin? No.

In August 2017, when we had our elections, and all the anger that brought, the English Premier League kicked off. The first match was Arsenal vs Leicester, which was an insane match, and in the hours surrounding that game, people sort of put a break on the fights on social media to offer reasons as to why they had missed the EPL during its summer break. Football is the thing for us (though athletics comes second), and it fulfills an important role. Sort of like what The Rugby World Cup in 1995, and AFCON 1996 did for you guys.

LI: This is true, I suppose, for us too, here in South Africa, when it comes to athletics. We are only interested in it when one of our athletes wins a world medal and then we are suddenly aware of their existence. Very few of us bother to go to the regional tournaments in which athletes qualify in for these prestigious events. Caster Semenya has been a great unifier of people in this country, more so against the continuing harassment she receives from the rest of the athlete world. I suppose in this way one can think of sport as a thing that unifies people and a kind of temporary distraction from the everyday as you have pointed out. But we can also agree that sport is helpful in painting a clear picture of politics in any country that it is held in. South Africa cleared the streets of homeless people when the World Cup was happening here. Brazil’s political landscape was suddenly exposed during the World Cup. When the World Cup was hosted in Brazil and they lost to Germany by 7-1, I remember thinking that of course they were always going to fail, that there was no success that was going to come their way, not with all those tears that the Brazil people had, from economical exclusion to workers dying during the building of stadiums. In this way, I suppose what I am proposing, is that sport is not only sport, it is much more, it is impacted, and it impacts on the socio-economic landscape of any nation.

CB: Yes, it does, and for this reason, the World Cup in Russia is interesting even for a non-supporter of the beautiful game. The hosting was granted to them and Qatar for 2022, and all of a sudden, the Americans, who had lost out in the bidding process, became very interested in corruption at FIFA and this sudden interest led to Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini being banned from football-related activities. The last two presidents of countries to host World Cups have been pushed out of office. Their predecessors too, both of whom were very instrumental in their respective countries winning the hosting rights. Should Putin be scared? But let’s not talk about that. Where do you watch your football?

LI: Any other time I would hate to thank the American for their pettiness but corruption at FIFA has gone on for such a long time without consequences such that I do not care much about who brings it to an and for what motivation. The timeline you are drawing, between the politics and the football, is rather interesting, it is one to ponder over for several hours. The truth is that one cannot separate politics from football, though besides the serendipitous link between these in the cases you have mentioned, I am not convinced that the link is much more than that. Though of course, recently, we saw in Brazil, that the World Cup became a political tool, and so it could be in Russia as well.

I prefer to watch my football at home. Mostly because I want to avoid the senseless reasoning that consumes most football fans. I prefer the soberness of my own reasoning. Though the collective euphoria holds a special place in my heart. And you, where do you watch yours? And what do you make of the football analysis by fans that is often undoubtedly biased?

CB: I mostly watch my football alone too. And you are right, it does give you time to think about what you are watching. I am trying to write something on commentary, and I think that is the most important part of any sport. Sometime last year I watched a Real Madrid game and Dani Ceballos scored and the commentator, Ray Hudson, described it as “Robin Hood shooting his arrow through a forest of legs.” That’s cliché, yes, but I liked it, and I’ve thought about it a lot since. There’s something about good commentary that gives you the chills, and I’m sure you’d appreciate this, having written something about listening to football on the radio. I don’t know if you remember this, but just before Sulley Muntari scored in the quarters of the 2010 World Cup, the commentator said that Ghana should score in the next twenty seconds. And he did. That was very satisfying. David Remnick went to the Sochi Olympics as a commentator. Would you want to commentate?

LI: Commentary is one of the best things about football. And there are different kinds of it, depending on what league one is watching. I had begun, sometime last year, a piece about football commentary and poetry but I never finished it. It is certainly a fascinating element of the football. I do not think I have the wit and poetry for commentating. Even my writing is a result of hours of thinking and figuring out and football commentary is immediate and which is what makes it exactly impressive. And you, would you?

CB: I don’t know. There is a certain charm to it that is admirable. A part of me would like to, yes, but the quick thinking and creativity that is required in somewhat disconcerting. I do host a sports show on Kenyan TV, but I don’t know if that is as exciting as commentary. You play football, don’t you? And you are a writer. And a filmmaker. And a photographer. And are in the process of starting a photography magazine. Is there a point all of these combine? How do you bridge these parts of yourself?

LI: Over the years, I have come to believe that, perhaps, these do not need to have any thread that connects them. That as people we are complex and in multitudes. And so I think of it this way now, that I have different passions and I am trying my best to live them out. And yes, to the question about playing football, I started a 5-a-side team. It is great to play a game of football after a long day. It also reminds me very much of my childhood. And you, do you play any sports? Did you play growing up? And was there any thinking of playing professionally?

CB: I did play a lot of sports as a kid. Football, of course, but I also played tennis, won a tournament and convinced myself that I was as good as Rafa Nadal had been at my age. Then, when I was in high school, I was, for a brief spell, the first-choice keeper in the school’s hockey team. I ended up quitting, the result of an unwillingness to show up for the hours of training every day, but I like to believe that I was a good goalkeeper, excellent even. Popular culture has led us to believe that sportspeople are academic louts, jocks. Have you ever read John McPhee’s profile on Bill Bradley? It’s available on the New Yorker, and is, in my opinion, one of the most important pieces of sports writing in existence. A couple of years ago, Jeremy Lin was a huge draw in the NBA, Linsanity the term used to describe the love of Lin. Lin is an academic genius, a parallel he shares with Bradley, though whether he too will ever run for President is another question altogether. Do you like Gérard Piqué? Writing in the Player’s Tribune, Pique talks about the societal assumption that sportspeople are only good enough for sports, and nothing more. I think this is the most important lesson I picked up from playing sports: the complexity of sportspeople. That they have different passions.

Why do you play?

LI: Gerard Pique has always been a fascinating player for me, in that he is efficient without being flamboyant or dramatic, but he also comes across as aloof and even as unfriendly. I point this out in line with a thought that I have just had about how we develop our feelings for players based on how they conduct themselves on the field and how they live it, and suddenly we have opinions about they should live their lives outside which if one thinks about it has no effect on our own lives. I remember the Bill Bradley piece, more so the time I read it, when the New Yorker unlocked its vault of content, dating back many years. I have also been always been a fan of The Player’s Tribune’s content and the best thing I have read there was a Dani Alves piece. What I really loved about it is what is exactly at the centre of my feelings about sport, which is that I always find myself rooting for the underdog. It is true that sports people have different passions and complexities and this is why I am interested in reading and writing about them. I think it is the overwhelming amounts of money that are involved in sports that makes it and the people involved appear so shallow. What I am mostly interested in is the amount of anxiety that a player of Ronaldo or Messi’s stature battles with, not only everyday but when they look into the future. The fascinating thing about sport is also the psychology of it. I remember a time I spent reading on how much work goes into the mental strength of the New Zealand Rugby team and how one can clearly see this on the field. But there is also the poetry of the writing and I find myself always reading The Guardian’s Barney Ronay, whose writing about football always leaps out and back into football in the most beautiful way. I have been thinking of writing about sports lately, mostly football, and to facilitate this I have been playing a lot of Fifa 18 and thinking of it afterwards as a real match that I am writing about.

I play football for nostalgia, because growing up I wanted to be a professional football player, and sometimes I convince myself that I play for fitness.

CB: FIFA 18? Wow. I used to play a lot of it, but then moved to something else, Football Manager, which very sadly, doesn’t have commentary. Martin Tyler and Alan Smith talking about how Giroud reminds them of Smith in his prime is a cult classic. One of my favorite football moments. Pique interviewed Luis Suarez for The Player’s Tribune and they talked about the bite on Chiellini, and the Ghana handball, because these are important bits of football history. The headbutt too. Alex Song’s moment of madness against Mandzukic. Did you ever read the thing Elif Batuman wrote about the Istanbul derby? The Istanbul derby is for me an important football moment, one that is always being made and remade. I told a friend that living in Istanbul would be interesting, and I think she assumed it was because of the Islam-Christianity history, and Pamuk, who was I reading at the time, but no, the derby, always the Istanbul derby. You guys have the Soweto derby, of course, while we have the Mashemeji Derby which is an absolute mismatch as one team, AFC Leopards, flounders between being abysmal and being average, while the other, Gor Mahia, canters to the league title every year (Gor knocked Supersport United out of the CAF Confederations Cup. How’s that for banter?) Right now, we are in the moment of Mo’ Salah. Manolas is a Greek god in Rome and all that, but he froze against Salah. And we have all these sub-cultures developing around Salah: the “We’ve got Salah” song; the people tweeting about how if Liverpool would have won the Champions league they would have converted to Islam; and a delightful meme where someone had projected a pyramid being built at Anfield ; etc etc. seeing how phenomenal Salah has been all season, can we start talking up Egypt, not as World Cup favorites maybe, but as potential dark horses? Salah for the Ballon d’Or?

LI: The Player’s Tribune has always been the best thing to read for me. There is a sense in reading it that one is not reading about the players through someone else’s ideologies and misunderstanding. I have been looking at images of the World Cup as the start date is closing in and one of the most striking images is the Zinedine headbutt. To digress, Zinedine and Yaya Toure remain amongst the best midfielders for me and having played in that position when I played football and continue to now, with less speed and stamina, of course, I have fond memories of watching these two and the measured way in which they choreographed every single match.

I have a sense that derbies all around the world have lost their intensity. Perhaps I am mistaken as I am seldom physically there to feel the atmosphere. Over the years, the Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates derby has become so pointless that, during the last one, the fans were not buying tickets. There was a period of three years where the derby ended in goalless draws and it has lost the entertainment value where the players were skillful. Both the two teams used to have the street football culture of dribbling but not anymore. The foreign coaches do not have the time for that and, sadly, there are even rules against this.

I caught bits of the match between Supersport and Gor Mahia. There is an interesting mirroring of society in how South African teams have never cared for intercontinental cups. In the same way that a lot of South Africans still think of Africa as a place out there. Really, one cannot separate football from life.

I am responding post the UEFA Champions League final and I am afraid that Salah’s chances of snatching the Ballon d’Or might have been ruined by his early exit in the final and the failure to contribute to Liverpool’s efforts to win it. My feelings about Egypt have always been conflicted and this is due to the North African countries’ sense of superiority over countries with people of darker complexion. My support for them in this World Cup is of course by default and I do wish them all the best. The one thing that I hope for is that African teams can enter the field and believe that they are going to win the game and go out there and play and not simply watch the nations attack them.

Did you read about the boys at the Inter-community Sports Academy?

CB: Yes, I did, and the story disturbed me greatly. I think football, and sports in general, has to have a #metoo movement. Remember the thing with the England women’s national team? And this, the coach abusing all those kids like that, I don’t think it’s a one-off, and that’s the worst thing.

LI: I think that the #metoo movement in football is highly needed and I think that more so in an environment that has for the longest time only known and insisted on its own heteronormative view of the world and nothing else. More to this, anywhere where there is a power, one must always assume that this is ground for something sinister. I am more heartbroken by this because I was these boys who wanted to play football and would have, the same as these boys and their parents, trusted someone with holding my hands in this journey.

CB: Any last thoughts about who wins the world cup?

LI: (Laughs) Is this the question you ask your guests before a game? To be honest, predictions have always scared me, it always feels like walking into the claws of failure, one that is so obvious that I cannot help but avoid it by all means. And so besides the most likely winners which will be anything between Brazil, Spain, Germany, and I can possibly add Portugal, for the most part, for their tenacity, I will be cheering for the underdog. And I wish all the African teams well and too England, which I do not care for as a collective team, but for certain players whom I think deserve some success in national team colours. And what is your pick?

CB: (Laughs) Leave my guests out of it. I’m thinking about the French and the Germans, and of course, the other teams you’ve mentioned are really strong. But my heart beats for Nigeria and Morocco and Egypt and Senegal and Tunisia. I want to see what they can do.

Lidudumalingani is an award winning writer, photographer and filmmaker. He was awarded the Caine Prize and Miles Morland Scholarship in 2016. As a Miles Morland Scholar, he is expected to finish a novel titled ‘Let Your Children Name Themselves’.

Carey Baraka is a writer from Kisumu, Kenya.