Monday, July 10, 2006

Meritocracy, not Quotas

The Guardian, as ever, proves that it is totally incapable of enjoying an event for what it is. Over on the Comment is Free blog, Martin Jacques has written a remarkably miserable piece about this year's World Cup. Those of you who thought it was a worldwide festival of football are, apparently, wrong. Instead, it's a manifestation of racism - with white teams dominating the way at the expense of our poor, oppressed African brethren.

That's right, the event that actually creates a global interest in the Ivory Coast and Togo is actually just a rigged competition against the poor nations of the world. What a load of tosh.

Firstly, Jacques gets some of his facts plain wrong.

In the last sixteen there was only one African side and no Asian. In the last eight, there were six European and two Latin American: the last four was a European monopoly. (Compare this with the last World Cup, where there were only three European sides in the last eight and just one in the semi-finals.)

That's only true if you don't count Turkey as a European side. But, of course, for footballing purposes, they are. Their club sides compete in Europe; they participate at the European Championships; their qualification is predicated upon their being a member of UEFA, the European football association. How on earth that doesn't qualify as European beats me.

If we want to take matters further, of course, we could look at how exactly South Korea managed to get as far as they did - courtesy of two absolutely appalling refereeing decisions, both of which denied European sides the right to get there. Their victory over Italy was refereed by an Ecuadorian, and the victory over Spain by an Egyptian. So was their success in World Cup 2002 simply a result of the oppressed fighting back against the oppressors?

The sad thing is that Jacques would think this was justified. Jacques argues that in 2002's quarter-final, England fielded 5 black players, and this year they only fielded two. According to him, this is a lack of progress. Evidently ethnic over-representation is only an issue where whites are concerned. According to the 2001 census, 92.1% of the English population is white. Only 2% are black. The ethnic group most under-represented in the England team is white; blacks are overrepresented. This isn't, of course, a problem. Places in the England team are won on merit. Yet it is a sad indictment on Jacques that far from celebrating the talent of England's black players, instead he would seem to want quotas. Perhaps he should look at South Africa to see the recrimination they bring about.

His guilt is not simply assuaged there, however. He argues that there should be more African teams at the next World Cup, preferably at the expense of Europeans. That could be a decision predicated only on politics and not on merit. If any continent deserves to lose places to the Africans, it is North and Central America. Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago, and the USA all finished bottom of their group having failed to win a single match. Nor did the Africans exactly cover themselves in glory. Despite Jacques lauding of the Ivory Coast, they only won once. Togo lost all three games; Angola and Tunisia similarly failed to win. There's no basis on results this time to suggest the quality of the tournament would be enhanced by adding more African teams. And certainly not at the expense of European sides.

Jacques, of course, bases his argument upon the fact that Nigeria and Cameroon, traditionally two of Africa's strongest sides, completely failed to qualify. Again, of course, he ignores the fundamental fact of football. You have to beat the sides on the field. And in the case of Nigeria and Cameroon, they couldn't beat the sides they were up against. In the case of Nigeria, that involved finishing behind Angola; in the case of Cameroon, the Ivory Coast. Neither were teams who progressed beyond the group stage.

There's much to celebrate in the development of African football. Most African players now play in European leagues - at a higher quality of football that is resulting in better performances from the national sides. The number of African players in starring roles at top clubs similarly continues to grow. Arsenal get many of their youth players from African academies; the European club champions, Barcelona, feature Samuel Eto'o, a Cameroonian, up front. Such exposure to quality play will continue to raise the standard.

The drawback, of course, comes from the shambolic organisation of African football federations. The African Nations' Cup earlier this year was plagued by disputes between players and federations. Just looking at African football news now shows the problems of political interference and poor organisation. Liberia are currently threatening to withdraw from African competition. And at the World Cup itself, Togo's manager resigned - only to be later reinstated - when his players withdrew from training over a pay dispute. Management and organisational problems are what plague African national teams.

That is a problem that would be worsened by unnaturally promoting African teams to positions in the World Cup that their merit would not necessarily entitle them to. Africans have achieved the most when they have found their way into European teams. This they have done on their own merit - the top European teams have little interest in damaging their results by playing sub-par players. It is when they return to their nations and find the troubles caused by bad infrastructure that they do not perform so well. The answer, of course, is reform in Africa, not meddling from Europe. If only Martin Jacques could leave his middle-class guilt behind.