2-4: It's All Fun and Games Until the Nationalists Show Up
[00:00:01] (Ambient sound) For the first time I come here I got out from my country this is my first time. I'm from Senegal but this is the first time I go out. When I came I saw different people here, meet different people. Russian, Brazilians, Spanish, French, really. Very nice.
[00:00:30] David Goldblatt: I'm David Goldblatt. This is Game of Our Lives and what you've just heard is Senegalese fans on the ground in Russia sent to us by Al Jazeera's Tristan Redman. With me as usual is Al Jazeera journalist Tony Karon and our producer Raja Shah. Tony, did you find yourself singing along with those Senegalese fans? I know they're close to your heart in this World Cup.
[00:00:51] Tony Karon: Well they're representing for all of Africa as their coach Aliou Cisse says Senegal is flying the flag for all of us and we are absolutely 100 percent as a continent behind Senegal. They bring something so special to the game. And you know I want to say, anybody who tells you that that game was an upset, why shouldn't a team featuring the likes of Sadio Mane, Idrissa Gueye, Cheikhou Kouyate, Koulibaly, Diouf, why shouldn't that team actually outplay Poland in every department of the game? It's the assumptions of a lot of the media in covering this are really worth unpacking here.
[00:01:27] DG: You know I've got to bring up on that the extraordinary tweet put out by Alan Sugar who is notionally a businessman but he's mainly a reality TV star fronting The Apprentice over here in the UK and he put out a tweet which was a picture of the Senegalese team and photo shopped in front of them is the big sheet with sunglasses and designer handbags and the message is you know, all Senegalese, all Africans are migrant workers on the streets. I just wonder what you made of that and what you made of the backlash to it.
[00:01:58] TK: Well I think you know Alan Sugar, you know former Spurs owner Alan Sugar, is a well-known bigot. Carlos Kickaball was his term for foreign players in the Premier League. But I think that actually he is an egregious form maybe a cartoonish outrageous form of a much deeper problem of the coloniality of football. And Aliou Cisse the manager of Senegal has really brought that into the forefront not only by the fact that he's the only black manager at the tournament, he's only the seventh black manager ever at the World Cup.
[00:02:32] DG: OK so that is an extraordinary fact let's just absorb, let's just absorb that. Seven black managers. And you think about the ethnicity of who is on the pitch at this tournament let alone the ones of the past. That is an extraordinary injustice.
[00:02:45] TK Exactly. And it really reflects a deep deep bias in the establishments of football and Cisse is very conscious of this. And not only does he hail the victory of opponents saying at the same time of course that wasn't as sweet as the victory over France in 2002 because of course France colonized Senegal. So he's very aware of the anti colonial dimension of those victories. And by the way he's brought in all African backroom staff and he's saying where are the African managers? Really what is deeply at work here what do we have to unpack to actually get people to recognize African players have commandeered this game made it their own. And when are we going to actually recognize their ability to basically run the game in the way that Cisse is doing so effectively.
[00:03:29] DG: Can I also say as well as being a fantastic coach his presence on the touchline is absolutely scintillating.
[00:03:38] RS: Yeah, he's been lighting up the Internet.
[00:03:40] DG: People have been saying you know Gareth Southgate is the best dressed man and the most animated man in the box but I tell you he's got nothing on Cisse. Nothing. But the real surprise of this tournament so far is surely Russia. No team, no team was pilloried so much by its own public in a run up to a World Cup. And yet there has been this extraordinary rush of blood to the head. Five nil against Saudi Arabia. Three one against Egypt. What do you make of the Russians?
[00:04:08] TK: Well I have to say as one who would have pilloried this Russian team going in, I'm not entirely convinced. I haven't seen them given a real test. Uruguay might have been the team to do that. But Uruguay have been so bad themselves-
[00:04:20] DG: Yeah do you think the game with Saudi Arabia I think was possibly, that's my candidate for worst game so far.
[00:04:26] DG: I mean really, Saudi Arabia you know you're going out of the World Cup. You've got two men in the box. Come on give it a go. How bad can it get.
[00:04:37] TK: Yeah, I mean nobody's taken the game to a Russian team of, you know it's a journeyman team.
[00:04:42] DG: Though I will say I saw an extraordinary statistic on Twitter today which said the Russians are running further and faster than any other team. Like a kilometer and a half more than anybody else and with more sprints so. I can’t verify that but they're definitely on it. And so are the people of Russia. One thing that is certainly coming through from all sorts of sources in this World Cup is that there is a temporary transformation of public space in World Cup cities. It's vacation rules and the Russians having seen the way in which foreign fans are being policed are now out there and enjoying it themselves. I wonder how long it can last. Of course that's not the only place in this World Cup where public space is being transformed after Iran went down valiantly to Spain one nil, once again extraordinary celebrations in Tehran and most extraordinary of all, the Azadi Stadium. The National Stadium was finally opened to a mixed audience and women were in the Azadi Stadium in Tehran to watch Iran do their stuff. Tony did you see any of the game? Have you picked up any of this in your trolling through social media?
[00:05:54] TK: You know I didn't follow the game directly but I want to say on this issue, admitting women to football stadiums is a very popular issue in Iran and it's not one that is limited to people who would be deemed dissidents. Anyone who's followed Iranian politics for years would remember that former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who in the West was regarded as something of a hardline nationalist, he championed women being admitted to stadiums as one of his core issues. So that might have been opportunistic that might have been cynical but there's a recognition that the Iranian public really wants this. Iran is not a western democracy but it's not unresponsive to public opinion entirely.
[00:06:34] DG: But on this it does seem to be bending. And for that we can at least be grateful for the World Cup whether it is maintained in the long term we'll see.
[00:06:43] RS: Do you guys think that this change is going to stick around? Our guest on last episode Mani Djazmi was not so optimistic that really the forces of football could make much of a lasting impact. But yet literally like the day after that episode we have women being allowed into Azadi stadium.
[00:07:01] DG: Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. I'm always hopeful that progressive change will last. I'm always ready to see it reversed by the forces of darkness.
[00:07:19] DG: So faint signs of progress in Iran. Faint signs of progress in Russia. But in Western Europe and the United States, there's definitely a lack of progress during this World Cup. Lift your eyes beyond the football and children are being caged on the Mexican American border. And in Hungary the parliament has actually passed legislation to criminalize assisting asylum seekers. Nationalism is on the rise. There are troubling signs of xenophobia and racism everywhere. And that brings us to today's guest Musa Okwonga. Someone who has a unique perspective on the issue of race, ethnicity, and football. He's a writer, a musician, and a poet based in Berlin. And currently he's writing the Offsides newsletter about the World Cup for the New York Times. I caught up with him on Skype earlier this week.
[00:08:07] Musa Okwonga: Yes hello. Hey! The great man himself.
[00:08:11] David Goldblatt: Hey dude!
[00:08:12] MO: Look at that.
[00:08:13] DG: Good to see you. How are you?
[00:08:13] MO: Great thanks. How are you? Are you good?
[00:08:15] DG: I'm really good man. I mean you know how it is at this point in the World Cup I kind of like, was it really England last night? I've completely lost track of time and space. Completely like immersed in it just trying to sort of surf on the top of it. How about you?
[00:08:30] MO: Good I'm in quite a weird place at the moment because I always find with the World Cup there is a moment when you immerse yourself right you kind of sink into it and you're like watching three games or four games a day in some cases and the kind of political moral backdrop to it does fall away to an extent and it's trying to kind of not only keep yourself engaged with that but keep other people around you engaged with that. That's a challenge I find.
[00:08:52] DG: For sure. Where are you watching the World Cup from?
[00:08:57] MO: From an undisclosed location in Berlin. Actually no I am watching it from Berlin but several different bars and other drinking establishments.
[00:09:07] DG: What drinking establishment were you in for Germany Mexico?
[00:09:10] MO: Ah there was a place called Santa Maria I believe in Kreuzberg a Mexican bar. So you know, place is full of Mexicans when they scored the whole bar got a free shot of tequila. When they won another free shot went around. Just wonderful people and great energy. And the Germany fans who were in there were just so gracious in defeat. It was fantastic.
[00:09:29] DG: That's amazing. Were they gracious the next day in the press because the German press can be pretty vociferous when it chooses. What did it have to say about that game?
[00:09:38] MO: You know it's really weird. There was a kind of as you know with the whole sort of Erdogan situation, the Erdogan controversy. So before the tournament, a couple of German players of Turkish heritage, Gundogan and Ozil posed with Erdogan before the elections and there's a real sort of nationalist backlash against that. You know a sense of a sense of betrayal. There's been a slightly nasty edge around Ozil's performance. A sense that he wasn't really up for it because he's not really committed to the country.
[00:10:08] DG: I mean it's it's amazing because in some ways we've become very used almost blase to the idea of a very mixed very diverse German national football team. People of Turkish, Tunisian, Ghanian, Albanian heritage. And Germany seem to be very comfortable and really really seem to like that. Do we now have a situation where the attitudes to migration and refugees in Germany are beginning to shift? What we see here a shift in the conversation about the football team as well?
[00:10:37] MO: Unfortunately I think the diversity of the German national team is not buying refugees and migrants as much social capital as it maybe once did. I think they're almost a separate class of you know in quotes good immigrants who are doing what immigrants should be doing and if everyone did what they did the country would be fine. Not the ones who are kind of carpet bagging their way across Europe to steal from the German social welfare system. But the conversation here about refugees and immigrants is toxic to say the least. It's toxic.
[00:11:09] DG: Do you hear any similar kinds of conversations about the ethnic mix of other European teams? And then I'm thinking in particular Switzerland who have you know nine players who were born outside of the country. Serbs, Africans, Cameroonians, you know the whole range. Do you hear a similar conversation there or a different conversation about it?
[00:11:31] MO: Well actually funny enough you should mention I was in Zurich working at the University lecturing there. It's been really interesting because the right wing, and this is something that people don't talk about because the conversation is oh, the right wing is only rising because of economic anxiety. Well look I was in Zurich and it is many things but it is not economically anxious and the right wing is absolutely just going hell for leather in Switzerland. What this is really about is the threat of, I hate to say it, it's visible non-white people all over the place. And I think actually rather than being a sign of the success of multiculturalism I think that is almost a provocation in some quarters. You know it is actually the combination of the final nightmare. You've got this multicultural Swiss team which people don't recognize themselves in. I think it's 15 out of 23 of the squad are of non Swiss heritage. For some people that's wonderful, for me it's a rainbow nation it's great. For other people, it's a threat. You know it's actually the combination of the kind of the white genocide in quote marks the fact that Europe is being overrun. To me it seems ridiculous but that's the discourse in a lot of middle class homes across Europe right now.
[00:12:40] DG: So what this makes me think Musa, and I'm really interested to know what you think, that we're just not having that conversation here in England. I don't hear that kind of conversation in this country. I feel like people are looking at the England team and saying that's what urban England looks like and recognising, recognising themselves in it and I wonder from where you're sitting in Berlin, how it looks to you?
[00:13:04] MO: I think that, I mean it would surprise me if that conversation is happening in the UK. I've always felt the UK you know that Brexit is driven in the UK not just by xenophobia but also driven by a parochial sense maybe of British exceptionalism but the racial conversation is certainly, as far as I can see, less toxic around the England football team than it is around other countries. Look at Belgium for example look at Lukaku recently releasing this incredible piece in The Players Tribune. I think it's called "I've got some things to say."
[00:13:35] DG: That's right, yeah.
[00:13:36] MO: By Romelu Lukaku obviously the Belgian No.9.
[00:13:40] DG: Yeah tell us about that Musa. I mean I read it, you know it sent shivers actually down my spine. I thought that was one of the finest bits of writing and exposition by a football player I have ever read.
[00:13:52] MO: What a beautiful human being. Yeah yeah.
[00:13:55] DG: I mean you know the moment when that moment where he realises his mum is mixing the milk with water for his cereal. And that means they're broke and that means that he has to play for Anderlecht. I was just blown away.
[00:14:12] MO: What I love about Romelu Lukaku's essay is that he gave that interview, he wrote that piece, at a time when his fame could not be higher, his profile could not be higher. He didn't need the flack of talking about the things he talked about. He talked about being poor growing up. He also talked about racism very very openly, very explicitly. He didn't need that hassle but he's so mature he's so smart that he was like I'm ready to take this. He understood the value. What I love about Lukaku is he's not you know he's not primarily a footballer. I get the impression he is primarily a citizen and he understood the power of the conversation about race. He said when I was doing well, I was a Belgian striker. When I was doing badly I was a Belgian striker of Congolese descent. And I thought for him to articulate what so many of us activists, writers, whatever you call ourselves, have been saying on that stage at that point in history and then to go out out and put a performance like that against Panama was just, just extraordinary. Extraordinary. Political activism at its best.
[00:15:10] DG: And do you know whether that piece, I mean I read it, you know in English. I mean do we know is that is that available in Belgium in French or in Dutch.
[00:15:20] MO: I think he's, the beauty of Lukaku is whichever language he speaks in he's impossible to ignore. That's the beauty of it. He understands that you know, the funny thing is I spoke to a Belgian woman a friend of mine the morning after the essay came out the morning the essay came out and she just nodding in recognition she said it's just incredible. The way that he broke down racism in Belgium, you have to understand there's Belgians who absolutely despise Lukaku. He would have written that piece knowing how hated he was and he gave it anyway. You know I think he inspires the same kind of ambivalence in some Belgians as Zalatan does, where the trade off for the glory they enjoy, the cost is embracing basically someone who understands acutely what racism is and what to be other is in their country. So I just think-
[00:16:05] DG: It's interesting you know you talk of a trade off here and you're absolutely right. It just makes me think, who would have thought you know just a few years ago that you would have Liverpool fans singing to Mo Salah and expressing a desire to convert to Islam. I mean there are these moments, we've talked a lot today about the negative side, the stereotyping,
[00:16:25] MO: For sure.
[00:16:26] DG: There are moments of kind of cross cultural breakthrough as well and Mo Salah seems to be, you know one small element of that.
[00:16:35] MO: And I think we need to celebrate that you're quite right and I'm glad that we started with the negatives because this podcast is a bit like speaking to my sister on the phone every couple of weeks. We always start with the bad news and end with the good. I think that's really important. And I think Mohammed Salah, what he's done has, you know we can't understate that. We can't understate that because even if there are people that revert to their old prejudice, they can't ignore what a man he is. They can't ignore what a great human being he is and if we look at history if we look at the great athletes who have also been incredible political figures, we have to include him in that. You know he may not be outspoken, it's difficult for a guy like that to be as outspoken as he would like to be. He posed recently with Ramzan Kadyrov and I don't blame him for that I blame Egypt FA for putting him in that position, but this is a man who is clearly a good, decent, kind human being and at this time in history, we can't have enough people like that. We just can't. Actually I think that his quiet decency in many ways is just as powerful as any overt political statement that he might otherwise make.
[00:17:33] DG: Last question I have been enjoying your Twitter thread where you've been finding a rapper whose career or disposition or style in some way matches one of the teams at this World Cup. I just wanted to ask you as a poet, are there any poet analogies? I mean who's the TS Elliot? Who's the Pablo Neruda? Are there any of those connections that you've noticed?
[00:17:59] MO: Wow do you know it's funny because I was thinking of this just this morning about like for example like Fernando Persoa and it's funny because the Portuguese poets are quite mournful but the team is not mournful. The team is quite resilient and quite functional so I don't know. The TS Elliot, TS Elliot who is he. He's highly technical, respected rather than loved,
[00:18:19] DG: Okay.
[00:18:20] MO: I would actually say he's, I would say he's Italy. He's Italy.
[00:18:24] DG: An absent!
[00:18:25] MO: Well look the wasteland. I think you know, there's all, we could take it there we could take it there. Let's see, I would say that Byron, Byron is Brazil. They seem to be having too much fun to get as much work done as they have. There is a darkness, there is a cynicism there but there's overarching beauty so Byron is Brazil.
[00:18:40] DG: I love it.
[00:18:41] MO: One more one more. Okay. Alexander Pope is, Alexander Pope is Uruguay. Pragmatic on one level a bit of an underdog, was a surprise hit with the Rape of the Lock sold 3000 copies I think in four days. So he was someone you wouldn't expect to be as big as he was back then but he was huge and hasn't during the last the ages. Alexander Pope is Uruguay.
[00:19:07] DG: Man that is a performance for the ages Musa. Fantastic. If there's as much poetry in this World Cup as there is in you, man we're going to have a good one. Thank you so much for being on the show. Please come back again.
[00:19:20] MO: My absolute pleasure. Thanks for having me. Thank you so much.
[00:19:32] DG: You can follow Musa on Twitter at at Okwonga. That's O K W O N G A. And you can read him throughout the World Cup in the New York Times. Tony, where's the poetry for you in this World Cup?
[00:19:48] TK: Well he didn't answer your question about Neruda and that got me thinking and I'm like well you know Chile didn't qualify but to be honest the long dead Neruda was Brazil 1982. I think, the ultimately tragic.
[00:19:59] RS: David do you have any other, another poet analogies that were inspired by Musa's take.
[00:20:03] DG: Uhh no, sorry dude.
[00:2:05] RS: I was trying to figure out who who Saudi Arabia would be the best I could do was E. E. Cummings in that my 4 year old niece can do this.
[00:20:19] DG: Hey man I love E. E. Cummings wash your mouth out with soap. I like my body when it is next to your body.
[00:20:22] RS: I mean,
[00:20:24] DG: Aw man, loves big eye crumbs. Please.
[00:20:27] RS: It's very interesting but it's not English. Who would the United States be by the way? I wanted to ask Musa who the United States would be on his rapper analogy. Tony, I think you're the person for this.
[00:20:37] TK: The United States would have to be Coolio.
[00:20:42] RS: Coolio! One two three four.
[00:20:45] TK: Yeah I don't know. You know, just sort of third tier, third tier rapper.
[00:20:48] RS: I would say he's, the United States is more like Madonna in that she tried rapping that one time. But her strengths clearly lie elsewhere. Also past her prime, best days behind her. It's between that or Vanilla Ice.
[00:20:59] DG: Too, too gloomy dude. Too gloomy.
[00:21:03] RS: What can I say.
[00:21:04] DG: You know, you've just, the World Cup is coming to the United States and the continent in 2026.
[00:21:09] RS: Well basically I'm going to now be thinking about rappers and poets whenever I watch any of these upcoming games. Which, speaking of which-
[00:21:20] RS: All right so you guys have not let me down so far Poland Senegal was fantastic. There's a whole slew of games coming up once again. David what should I watch?
[00:21:28] DG: Well for those who want to follow up on the themes of our conversation with Musa, you really can't beat Serbia Switzerland. I mean the Swiss team has nine members of the squad are born outside the country. The starting 11 often features five to seven people whose roots are absolutely not traditional Swiss. And of course we've got a lot of ex Yugoslav folks who ended up in the postwar diaspora settling in Switzerland, so Kosovans, Albanians, Serbs. Not to mention the Cameroonians. So just to see that kind of extraordinary diversity on show will be pretty interesting. And hey you know if Serbia win it'll be interesting to see what goes down in Belgrade.
[00:22:13] RS: Who's the favorite in that one?
[00:22:15] DG: I don't know actually I think it's pretty closely balanced. The Swiss are good enough to get a draw with Brazil. You know I'm expecting a draw to be honest.
[00:22:23] RS: All right. Tony what are you going to be watching?
[00:22:25] TK: The game that really intrigues me coming up is what I would call the Red Sea Darby between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. As a football spectacle, not very interesting. What we would call a dead rubber. Nothing rests on this game in terms of progress in the World Cup. Neither team can progress. But football very often is a proxy for national sentiment. And you have to consider the significance off the field of this game. Now Saudi Arabia basically sponsored the coup in Egypt that brought Sisi to power. The current regime in Egypt has been bankrolled by Saudi Arabia. So you know there's, there's that. There's the fact that since the coup the only public protest on the streets of Egypt that we've seen came in a moment where Sisi agreed to hand over a set of long contested islands that Egypt had controlled in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia which had counterclaims. People were so angry in Egypt that they came out in the street despite a regime that really doesn't tolerate street protests that's happy to massacre street protesters as we've seen before. So there's a lot of national sentiment that is very very strongly anti Saudi. So this really is a moment for the Egyptian football team to be the proxy for some national sentiment that could issue a rebuke not only to Saudi Arabia but perhaps in some way to express how it feels about its current regime.
[00:23:45] DG: And it would just be nice to see them go out attack and you know play the way they can. There were kind of moments of that in their games and it would just be great to see Mo score a goal from open play despite his shoulder. And can I just say the other question that hangs over this World Cup is when does Sergio Ramos get his karma back for Mo Salah's shoulder? When does that moment come?
[00:24:12] RS: I was watching the Iran Spain game and wondering about that. I mean I will say the Iranian goalkeeper didn't do himself any favors either. There was that interaction, I don't know if you saw where Ramos barely grazed his foot and the keeper just went down in a heap and was whining all about it. I mean I was rooting for the underdog -
[00:24:29] DG: Yeah man, but Sergio Ramos is the master of the dark arts you know not to mention Busquets on the on the Spanish team. So you know that is just like talk about dose of your own medicine.
[00:24:40] RS: Yeah, sure.
[00:24:41] TK: While you're talking about Sergio Ramos we should also note that his former center back partner from Real Madrid, Pepe, he's patted on the shoulder as he's walking away by a Moroccan player and he goes down like a sack of potatoes like he's been shot. And what was that mate?
[00:25:00] DG: I know, the Oscars are a very long way away.
[00:25:03] TK: They are
[00:25:04] DG: And with that thought, I would say it's enough post match analysis. We're recording this once again right before another match. Argentina and Croatia is coming up. Tony Karon needs to catch a train so it just remains to say, thank you very much Tony for being with us.
[00:25:21] TK: As ever. Hasta la vista la victoria siempre.
[00:25:22] DG: Thank you very much Raja for being with us at the controls.
[00:25:27] RS: Thank you guys.
[00:25:28] DG: And just to say the show is a production of Al Jazeera's Jetty Studios. It's recorded at the Sound Town studios in Bristol UK. The music is by Bang Data. We are coming out during this World Cup twice a week now so we'll be back on Tuesday. Subscribe to the show if you haven't already at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Follow us on Twitter. We're at Game of Our Lives. I'm David Goldblatt. We'll see you on Tuesday.
[00:25:55] TK: Yay. Excellent. Can I go?!