The World Cup and I

Published on, by Tope Folarin, May 18, 2010.

… I am a first-generation American who grew up in Utah. That statement alone should provide a sense of my biography; there weren’t many people like me around. Although I was a happy in school and had great friends, I struggled to form a sense of identity. Initially, I found my identity in sports. I was a big fan of the Utah Jazz and I especially admired their star power forward, Karl Malone. I studied each of his interviews and attempted to model myself after him — after all, he was a popular black man in Utah, perhaps the only popular black man in Utah, and I hoped to become popular myself. Soon after I became obsessed with Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets. Olajuwon convinced me that the world would accept me — an American of Nigerian extraction — as long as I worked hard and excelled.

Yet I never thought of myself as a Nigerian until I saw the Super Eagles playing on television in that 1994 World Cup. As I heard the commentators stumbling over their names, I heard echoes of my teachers and friends stumbling over my name, and I instantly felt a kinship with them. And most importantly, the Super Eagles had style. They played with reckless swagger, and they always seemed convinced that they were the best players on the pitch. I derived a great deal of confidence from their performance.

The 2010 World Cup will start in a few short days in South Africa. In many ways, the Cup presents an opportunity for South Africa — and Africa as a whole — to begin to resolve its own identity issues. South Africa is a place with multiple identities.

In the past 20 years, South Africa has been an apartheid state, a bastion of democracy and reconciliation, an oasis of economic opportunity, a country led by AIDS deniers, and, of late, a country that features a widening economic gap between rich and poor. These narratives about South Africa are coming to the fore as South Africa takes its place at the center of the world stage. The Cup will shine a light on sociopolitical issues that have been percolating for a long while and perhaps force the leadership of the country to attend to the problems of the poor. There is something to be said for the embarrassment factor — as long as South Africa doesn’t resort to mere cosmetic surgery and instead seriously works to reduce extreme poverty in the country.

The Cup will also provide an opportunity for people from every part of the globe to experience African hospitality for the first time. And, like a 12-year-old in Utah almost 20 years ago or a 20-year-old in South Africa at the beginning of this century, many will fall in love with a particular squad, for a particular reason.
I, for one, know whom I’ll be rooting for this year. I’ll be rooting for South Africa.

And I’m not just talking about the soccer team. (full text).

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