African players are still being viewed through the narrow prism of physicality

Long before you had actually watched Wifried Bony play, you’d heard of him: he was the ‘new Didier Drogba’.

When foreign players first appear on the Premier League radar, it’s usually by way of a gossip column or a speculative transfer story.  That kind of content tends to focus on the salaciousness of the transfer itself, rather than the attributes of the player - so, irritating though they are, those initial lazy parallels are understandable.

Fans with a broad European interest will probably have been aware of Bony for three or four years.  During his time at Vitesse Arnhem (2011-2013) he built a reputation for himself as one of the most promising goal-scorers on the continent and his twin ability to find space in the penalty-area and convert chances meant that he quickly outgrow the Eredivisie.  During the 2012/13 season, he returned thirty-one league goals from just thirty appearances and, in so doing, practically demanded a transfer to a major league.

Not knowing much about Bony prior to his arrival at Swansea City is not a crime.  The online community may have a collective habit of pretending to be wiser than it really is, but truthfully how many amongst us were watching Dutch football regularly before it arrived on British television?  Very few.  Unless you actively took it upon yourself to research Bony or were tasked with doing so, your knowledge of him prior to the Summer of 2013 probably didn’t extend beyond his stat-line.

Over the last eighteen-months, though, the Ivorian has been on our doorstep.  We’ve all seen him play live at least a dozen times and we are as familiar with him now as any other high-performing Premier League forward.

But yet that Drogba comparison remains.

Bony completed a £28m move to Manchester City yesterday and it’s quite amazing how many of that transfer’s accompanying articles describe him in purely physical terms.  Read around, see for yourself.  The twenty-six year-old has spent a year-and-a-half demonstrating just what a complete forward he is and how much he relies on his cerebral attributes, and yet few assessments of his ability seem to go beyond the usual African-player cliches.

In any article entitled “what does Wilfried Bony bring to Manchester City?”, the conclusion will typically be “power, strength and aerial ability”.

In 2015, we’re mercifully at a point at which we’re starting to realise that not all African players are mercenaries.  It is no longer acceptable to assume that, just because a player comes from Lagos, Yamoussoukro or Dakar, he will spend his entire career chasing money ahead of anything else.  There are still those who work relentlessly from those assumptions, but the difference now is that there is at least some semblance of a retaliation against that mindset.

What does still rage, though, is the endlessly reductive assessment of players from that part of the world.  Regardless of whether any true comparison exists, they are all presented in the same simplistic terms.

African footballers do often have shared characteristics and it would be disingenuous to claim that the continent doesn’t produce physically impressive athletes, but there seems to be a collective reluctance to accept the cerebral value of such players - and that manifests itself in the narrow appreciation of someone like Wilfried Bony.

This is something that isn’t really that visible until you start to look for it - but when you do and when you notice just how regularly African players are reduced to their literal, athletic value, it’s very uncomfortable.

The irony of that Bony/Drogba comparison, of course, is that it accurately describes neither player.  Didier Drogba did provide a masterful example of how to use strength and power, but he was so much more than just a blunt object.  Re-watch any Premier League goal-compilation from the last decade and you will see evidence of that: Drogba’s technical ability was off-the-scale and, during his prime, he had an extraordinarily advanced understanding of what existed around him.

Similarly, whilst Bony may make use of his size and strength, those characteristics have been allowed to obscure both the intricacy within his game and the intelligence with which he plays.  There is a big power element to his play, but his football is also laced with delicate touches, imagination and very astute off-the-ball movement.

Stylistically, there’s a chasm between Drogba and Bony and, although they do share some attributes, they are completely different sorts of forward.  If they were Italian, Spanish, English or German, they would never be mentioned in the same sentence and one would never be used as a reference point for the other.

This is provocative subject and the implication seems to be the accusation that the whole European football community is institutionally racist.  That’s not the case and a failure to appreciate African players for what they truly are is not necessarily a symptom of conscious prejudice, but it’s still a trend which has to be broken.

Yaya Toure has, in the past, been very outspoken on this topic.  Toure and his agent, Dimitri Seluk, have both made the case that African players are not appreciated for what they truly are and, as a consequence, are frequently overlooked for individual awards.  Some of those comments were self-serving, but there was some resonance to them and the frequent portrayal of these players as ‘athletes’, ‘warriors’ and ‘beasts’ is both damaging, troubling and highly-reductive.

Toure himself provides an interesting example.  He is almost exclusively associated with power and force, yet some of his finest moments at Manchester City have been products of technique, of timing and of game-understanding.  To survive and excel in the middle of a division-leading Premier League team requires advanced tactical discipline and a very heightened appreciation for a game’s mechanics, but how often do you ever hear those qualities listed as part of Toure’s skill-set?

Or, worse, how rarely is an African player afforded the luxury of the ‘playmaker’ tag?  That role is synonymous with guile and intelligence, yet entry into the category seems somehow conditional on origin.

We’re dealing here with an archaic attitude rather than necessarily something more sinister.  The full value of African players is too frequently hidden within the collective European blind-spot, and that’s something which must begin to change.

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2 Comments on "African players are still being viewed through the narrow prism of physicality"

  1. Midfieldtriangle | Jan 19, 2015 at 12:21 pm |

    Great article, although I would like to hear your reasoning, having just written all the above, as to why it’s NOT racist on some level. Everything you just said to me contradicts that one point.

  2. journeymanhistorian | Jan 15, 2015 at 8:36 pm |

    This is a terrific article, and spot on.

    You say, “This is a provocative subject and the implication seems to be the accusation that the whole European football community is institutionally racist. That’s not the case and a failure to appreciate African players for what they truly are is not necessarily a symptom of conscious prejudice, but it’s still a trend which has to be broken.”

    Two points on this passage. First, I’m not sure that “institutional” is the best descriptor for the kind of racism you’ve identified, since we’re not really dealing with the distribution of resources or opportunities through, say, government agencies. This is not about the allocation of council houses, in other words. Rather, I’d venture that “cultural” is a better descriptor for this. What you’ve identified are a set of assumptions, a kind of collective blindness to the individuality and intelligence of African footballers, obscured by a veneer of the “physical, powerful” stereotype. While there may be institutionalized disadvantages experienced by African footballers, such as perhaps reduced wages or opportunities, this to me is more a matter of the representation of Africans as athletes and as human beings. The racism itself is being enacted not (or much less) in “real” terms, but far more in how people TALK ABOUT Africans. Certainly the evidence you provide is more about their representation in sport media than about the socio-economic conditions of Africans in Britain or elsewhere.

    Second, whether we’re dealing with either institutional or cultural racism, or both, one underlying feature of these forms of racism is that they do not need a whole lot of conscious prejudice. By operating at the institutional and/or cultural levels, they work to shape people’s baseline assumptions, their interpretations, their unconscious assessments of others. Indeed, many of the people actually making the stereotyping assessments you identify would very genuinely describe themselves as not racist. Nevertheless, the way that our culture has created stereotypes of African footballers which renders them as simply muscular bodies and not as thinking, creative individuals IS manifestly racist.

    All in all, a very astute piece you’ve written. I wonder if we could extend this analysis to Latin Americans, continental Europeans, and so on. I suspect we could, although in those cases we’d probably find that the stereotypes are more strictly national than racial. We differentiate German from Italian, Brazilian from Argentinian, in other words, far more than we differentiate Ivorian from Ghanaian. I suspect this is an aspect of the racism at work here, because our assessment of Africans turns on a preoccupation with their bodies more than their minds-their race rather than their culture.

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