African teams fight stereotypes
The Women's World Cup is less than a week old, but it already has assumed a reassuringly familiar pattern. The two-time defending champion and host, Germany, looks menacing. There is something about the sight of a German soccer jersey, whether filled by man or fräulein, that lends a certain inevitability to the proceedings. As English striker turned television pundit Gary Lineker once memorably quipped, "Football is a simple game -- 22 men [read: women] chase a ball for 90 minutes, and at the end the Germans win."
On a tangential note: Who thought it was a good idea to use Matt Groening's "Simpsons" font to spell out the players' names on the back of the German jersey? Die Nationalelf should stick to what they do best -- being ruthlessly organized and overwhelmingly physical. Few things in life are worse than Germans doing quirky.
The England team is also regrettably familiar. The Three Lionesses promised so much ahead of their opening game with Mexico only to huff and puff around the field to no great effect. After ceding a one-goal lead courtesy of some philanthropic goalkeeping, they elected to hang on grimly to a draw at the final whistle. Like their male counterparts, England's women seem poised to drag the nation into a masochistic emotional cycle by overpromising and underperforming, inevitably catalyzing a pandemic of national self-loathing. A quarterfinal exit may well be encoded in the team's DNA.
Perhaps most destructively, the two African representatives, Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, threaten to replicate the kind of circuslike stereotypes their male analogues perpetuated throughout the 1970s.
Nigeria, long a regional power, is making its sixth World Cup appearance. This year, it arrived a depleted force after coach Eucharia Uche gutted the roster by weeding suspected lesbians out of her team. The New York Times' Jere Longman covered the controversy in a powerful article that was front-page news in the sports section. Women's soccer was making headlines for the worst of reasons. Longman revealed that Coach Uche, who represented the Super Falcons at World Cups past, admitted she used religion in an attempt to "rid her team of homosexual behavior, which she termed a 'dirty issue,' and 'spiritually, morally very wrong.'"
In their opening game, a 1-0 loss to a tepid France, the disjointed Nigerians rarely threatened with their blunt counterattack. Challenging games against almighty Germany and tenacious Canada lie ahead. The Nigerian 2011 World Cup experience looks to be as short as it has been controversial.
Equatorial Guinea, in contrast, is making its debut at the elite level. Ranked a lowly 61st in the world and plucking a team from a population a shade under 700,000, the 500-1 outsiders should have been well-positioned to play the darling role of tournament underdogs. But the debutante's campaign has been marred. Two of its stars, sisters Bilguissa and Salimata Simpore, have long been accused by opponents of really being men and were sensationally omitted from the World Cup roster.
The Equatorial Guinea Football Association initially scoffed at the widespread claims the Simpore sisters were, in truth, technically brothers. As recently as March, FIFA joined it in officially rejecting the allegations. FIFA spokesperson Jurg Nepfer awkwardly said, "There are no men in the Equatorial Guinea women's team. There is no proof. It doesn't exist." But a Ghanaian opponent, Diana Ankomah, was one of many who had no doubts, explaining, "You only need to have physical contact with them to know they are men," she told the media.
The Simpore sisters' omission from this World Cup may not be definitive admission of anything, but it certainly has been perceived as such. Without dribbling a ball, Equatorial Guinea has become mired in farce, doomed to be cast as Team Tootsie of World Cup 2011.
Matters went from bad to worse on Tuesday, when influential playmaker Jade Boho was suspended by FIFA because of "eligibility issues." Eagle-eyed Spain aficionados may remember the Valladolid native from the Spanish team who won the 2004 UEFA U-19 championship. The striker failed to switch nationality in time to satisfy FIFA regulations. Much will now fall on the shoulders of striker Genoveva Anonma, who though also accused of being male, survived the roster cuts and remains the team's principal goal-scoring threat.
Both Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea may follow a sad tradition established by early African men's teams that appeared as "comical" fodder in fleeting World Cup cameos. Zaire pioneered the role in 1974, as the first sub-Saharan team ever to qualify for the men's World Cup. The Leopards arrived as African champions, and expectations were initially high. President Mobutu offered all the members of the squad a villa, automobile and family vacation of their choosing if they brought glory to the nation.
Zaire's appearance did become the stuff of World Cup legend. The team gave up 14 goals without scoring once in its three games. The slapstick quality of its performances was best reflected by defender Mwepu Ilunga's attempt to defend a dangerous Brazilian free kick in a most original -- and illegal -- way. He broke from the defensive wall to blast the stationary ball downfield while the bemused Brazilians were still preparing to take their kick.
Shorn of its stars, Equatorial Guinea must now stave off a Zaire-esque World Cup campaign. The draw has not been kind. It faces Marta's Brazil, the experienced Norway and feisty Australia -- teams that all stand at least 50 places higher in FIFA's rankings. Although physically robust, the Nzalang Nacional would do well to avoid being torn apart by three superior squads eager to sharpen their shooting and pad their goal difference.
That Zaire proved to be the nadir of African male World Cup incompetence might provide some solace for Equatorial Guinea. By 2002, the continent's threat had been refashioned by the powerful West Africans from Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal, and the nuanced north-African teams of Egypt and Morocco.
Perhaps the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon could offer an alternative model for Equatorial Guinea to emulate. Roger Milla's team arrived as a similarly unknown quantity in 1990, only to shock reigning champion Argentina 1-0 in the opening game. Physically gifted, the team proceeded all the way to the quarterfinal, where it squared up against mighty England. The heavily favored English narrowly survived thanks to a clutch Gary Lineker penalty in extra time. After the game, its legendary coach, Bobby Robson, channeled Yogi Berra with a quote that may offer Equatorial Guinea a glimpse of hope. "We didn't underestimate them," he said of the Cameroonians, "but they were a lot better than we thought."
Roger Bennett is the co-host of Off The Ball and appears on Futbol Frenzy on "Morning Joe" every Monday. He can be reached via Twitter: @rogbennett