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January 30, 2010

Soccer plays a critical role in Africa

Bennett By Roger Bennett
Special to ESPN.com
(Archive)

The Africa Cup of Nations is traditionally fought tooth and nail as regional rivals duke it out to claim continental bragging rights. This year's competition, now at the final stage, has felt sorely lacking; more Maui Invitational than March Madness. The play of local Ivory Coast, Cameroon, and Nigeria has been particularly uneven, triggering a rush of critics to downgrade bullish predictions made so confidently after the World Cup draw.

Those critics should not be so fickle with their forecasts. With the World Cup coming to the continent for the first time in June, the African teams have their eyes set on a different prize, and their unconvincing form can be attributed to the confluence of key injuries, the suffocating Angolan heat, and an understandable reluctance to tip their hand to the South American and European scouts spying tactics from the stands.

Kenya Soccer
Simon Maina/AFP/Getty ImagesThe African continent's love of soccer is reflected by the passion displayed everywhere by youths playing the game.

We underestimate the African challenge at our peril. Two factors inform my optimism. First, the always frenetic fan culture surrounding African soccer will be more passionate than ever. There is a widespread confidence that the continent's representatives have both the skill and, most crucially, the experience to pose a legitimate challenge to the traditional soccer establishment, as Ghana's Black Satellites proved at the recent Under-20 World Cup, where they trumped the Brazilians in the final. Even U.S. opponent Algeria will be a different proposition come June as it sweeps into the opening round of the World Cup, adrenaline surging, bolstered by the vuvuzela blasts of an entire continent.

The fan frenzy is also a reflection of a second, more subtle reality: the critical role soccer plays within African society. In the United States and Europe, the game exists somewhere between sport and big business. But in Africa, a continent rife with factionalism and hostility, soccer remains a potent symbol of hope and healing. In the eyes of iconic manager Jacob "Ghost" Mulee, the former Kenyan national team coach, "The miracle of the game lies in its simplicity -- it is cheap, easy to play, and the rules are plain to follow. When a ball is kicked, ethnic differences, politics and hatred just melt away."

Such is the game's power that even Americans can sense it. Case in point: One of the fastest-growing television franchises sweeping Africa is "The Team," a riotous sporting soap opera created by a Washington-based global nonprofit, Search for Common Ground. The show, which debuted on Kenyan television in 2008, is an all-action series following the travails of an ethnically diverse soccer team over the course of a season. The show's punchy mix of soccer drama on the field and "ripped from the headlines" sub-plots revolving around tribal conflict off it made it one of the most-watched shows in the nation, with ratings so eye-catching that the series was rushed into production on television and radio networks across Africa. The success of "The Team" is a testament to the inspirational role soccer plays on the continent, and a timely counterpoint to the chilling act of violence suffered by the Togo squad on the eve of this Cup of Nations.

As I have come to expect when it comes to Americans and soccer, "The Team" was the brainchild of a man who knew nothing about the sport before the show's development began. John Marks, Search for Common Ground's founder and president, is a man in perpetual motion who has spent the last 28 years of his life paratrooping into conflict-scarred territories across the globe to promote nonviolence. Over the course of the week in which I prepared this article, he contacted me from Pakistan, Kuwait, Jordan and Israel.

Marks hatched the idea for "The Team" in 2006 when his organization was exploring ways to tackle the climate of instability and fear plaguing Africa. Their brainstorming happened to occur against the backdrop of the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

"I was blown away by how internal fighting in places like Cote d'Ivoire literally stopped whenever the national team took to the field," Marks said. "I knew we had to tap into that."

In 2008, he found the opportunity. A disputed election in Kenya left the country wracked by tribal violence, burnings and murder in which more than 1,000 were slaughtered and 500,000 displaced. Marks sold the United Kingdom's Department for International Development on his bold, experimental pitch: a soccer-based soap opera that would promote nonviolence and fuel the notion of an overarching Kenyan national identity.

The first season of "The Team" made its debut on the country's leading channel, Citizen TV. Over the course of 26 episodes, it used the trajectory of a magical sporting story to explore the social, cultural and political challenges that beset the nation. A wealthy Kenyan businessman harbors a dream of building a multiethnic, coed team, Imani FC (Faith Football Club), uniting soccer players from warring tribes rich and poor, urban and rural, male and female, and challenging them to replace their harrowing personal conflicts with a common goal of becoming national champions.

Chaos ensues as the head coach grapples with the murder of his wife, the victim of a revenge killing at the hands of the club captain's tribe; the team's star striker is forbidden from taking to the field by his chief's decree; and several of the players grapple with conditions of intense poverty and hunger that prevent them from training.

"The message is simple: If they don't play together, they won't score goals," Marks said. "Our show uses soccer to deliver a simple message to the nation: Citizens must work together and put aside old differences so the country can progress."

The production values of "The Team" may appear a little starchy to American eyes, but the secret to its sensation lies in its authenticity. Shot on location in Nairobi, the show was written by a pool of Kenyan writers recruited from different tribes and given the freedom to develop plot lines grounded in their personal experiences of trauma and pain. Amateur actors were used as talent. More than 750 soccer players, many who were victims of intertribal violence themselves, auditioned in an open casting call at one of the country's largest stadiums. The pilot episode climaxed with the coach's challenging his squad to "remember this is a team, and not a battleground. Can you rise above these ethnic tensions and play as a team?" By the time the credits rolled, a nation was gripped.

The drama on the screen was enhanced by a meticulous organizing effort off it. The action-oriented message of the series was reinforced by a national advocacy campaign to promote a movement for "One Kenya." A coalition of nonprofit partners, including the Kenyan Red Cross and the Sports for Social Change Network, directed by President Obama's half-sister Auma Obama unleashed a battery of creative strategies to foster a national conversation about Kenyan unity and post-tribalism. A fleet of mobile cinemas was dispatched into remote areas lacking television reception; town-hall screenings allowed warring tribes to air their grievances in flashpoint regions along the Rift Valley, and thousands of youths were engaged through soccer leagues in areas of notorious conflict like Nairobi's Mathare slums.

"The show has been a magnetic catalyst triggering conversations that have not occurred since violence paralyzed our country," said Collins George Owuor, a policy expert at the Institute for Civic Education and Development in Western Kenya. Owuor estimated that in the troubled port city of Kisumu alone, 7,000 to 8,000 Kenyans, including Asians, Arabs, and Muslims, have continued to meet in school, church, and mosque discussion groups tackling complex agendas, such as sexual exploitation and AIDS awareness, inspired by the show.

The success of "The Team" emboldened new funders, including the U.S. State Department and the Palo Alto-based Skoll Foundation, to support the series and turn it into a juggernaut. Production has begun in a dozen countries across Africa. In each, the painstaking process that led to the authenticity of the Kenyan series was replicated with a local team of writers employed to tweak the story lines. In Morocco, the gulf between rich and poor is the focal point. In Congo, gender issues have been prioritized through the adventures of an all-women's team. The series in Cote d'Ivoire, which focuses on the complex yet volatile divisions between the Muslim north and the Christian south, will be broadcast across all of sub-Saharan Africa.

A second season of the Kenyan version is now in production. The first season ended with the team confronting every test it faced on and off the field. The team's peerless soccer skills and indefatigable unity propelled the players into the championship final, which they narrowly lost, receiving the "best sportsmanship" trophy as consolation. If real life follows art, and this storyline foreshadows the fate of Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana or Cameroon in the World Cup, be prepared. A continent will rock with joy.

For more on "The Team" and Search for Common Ground, visit the Web site.

Roger Bennett is a co-author of the forthcoming ESPN World Cup Companion, your guide to everything you need to know to enjoy the 2010 World Cup. E-mail him at sirfabiocapello@yahoo.com.