Guest post by Graham Hough-Cornwell
The World Cup is all of six days old and already the controversy rages. Not over the best team, the most skillful player, the biggest disappointment, or the prettiest goal, but over the vuvuzela, a thin plastic horn popular at South African soccer matches and blaring by the thousands at every World Cup game so far.
The French national team, following a disappointing scoreless tie against Uruguay, blamed the instrument for their poor play. After a lackluster showing in a narrow 1-0 win over Nigeria, Argentinian star and 2010 World Player of the Year Lionel Messi claimed, “It is impossible to communicate, it’s like being deaf.”
Twitter provides the main outlet for people around the world to express their hatred (or, less often, their love) for the vuvuzela. A simple search on Twitter for “#vuvuzela” reveals thousands of tweets posted daily around the globe. Most tweets are humorous:
The complaints came as no surprise. Following public outcry over the vuvuzela during last summer’s World Cup warmup tournament in South Africa FIFA (soccer’s world governing body) President Sepp Blatter decided not to ban the horn because he did not want to “Europeanize the first African World Cup.”
A large portion of the tweets fall along Westerners vs. Africa, neo-imperial fault lines. Some see the vuvuzela issue as Westerners trying to control an important part of South African sporting culture. They encourage complainers to turn the TV to “mute” if they can’t handle it:
Perhaps the best rejoinder to the critics promises to stop blaring the vuvuzela if the West stops exploiting Africa.
The other side sees the incessant horn-blowing as an unruly interference in the beautiful game. The most narrow-minded of this bunch:
This particular Twitter user fails to recognize that different parts of the world have their own fan traditions, and the songs and chants familiar to many European audiences may not be so “traditional” elsewhere. In other places, drums or horns — a variation on the vuvuzela, the corneta, is popular in Latin America — might create the sound of a soccer match.
Most recently, FIFA President Blatter himself has taken to Twitter in defense of the vuvuzela, tweeting “I have always said that Africa has a different rhythm, a different sound…” He followed up a minute later by adding, “…I don’t see banning the music traditions of fans in their own country. Would you want to see a ban on the fan traditions in your country?”
I appreciate Blatter defending a local tradition and a key part of soccer culture. But he should be careful not to totalize “Africa” into a homogenous entity. Do Algeria, Mauritania, and Niger share the same “rhythm” and “sound” as South Africa? How about countries like Namibia or Zimbabwe, both geographically closer to South Africa? Does South Africa even have one distinct “rhythm” or “sound”? What’s more, TV coverage of the matches shows plenty of fans of other countries – including those more accustomed to “traditional soccer atmospheres” – blowing on their vuvuzelas, too.
The lesson here is one of scale. When Ghana beat Serbia 1-0 on Sunday, announcers made a huge deal about the first World Cup win by an African team on African soil. They’ve emphasized continental cohesion more than ever. But why? The first World Cup hosted in Asia was in 2002 in Korea and Japan. At that tournament, the host countries were in the spotlight, but no one seemed to care how Iran or Saudi Arabia fared. Yet in the media coverage for this World Cup, South Africa and the South Africans come to stand for the entire continent. Spectators and commentators will view the success or failure of the tournament, in terms of organization and quality, as Africa’s success or failure and not simply South Africa’s.
Even the President of FIFA, trying to defend a local fan tradition, has reinforced this metonymy.
There’s a perceived cohesion to “Africa” that most observers don’t assign to other continents. Outside observers ought to be more critical of such totalizing, “re-de-territorializing” approaches. In talking about the vuvuzela and its place in sporting culture, let’s think a little more about context and scale and be wary of generalizations.
Graham Hough-Cornwell is an M.A. candidate in Middle East Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University and a Research Assistant for the Elliott School’s Culture in Global Affairs program.
Image: “VUVUZELA”, from flickr user Coca-Cola South Africa, licensed with Creative Commons.