After centuries of colonization and exploitation and decades of dashed hopes on the pitch, I want to see an African country get an equal place on the world stage.
By Musa Okwonga
Mr. Okwonga is a writer, poet and football fanatic. He has published two books on the sport.
This is part of Offsides, a newsletter on the broader issues and hidden stories around the World Cup. You can sign up here to receive it in your inbox.
The World Cup is well underway. I know because I’ve been gorging myself on a visual diet of several games a day. Maybe you have, too. They’ve been pretty exciting, since many of the teams expected to sail toward the next round have instead been stumbling: Germany, the defending champions, fell to Mexico; France just barely edged past Australia; Spain, Brazil and Argentina all tied in their first matches.
But there’s been one thing that’s disappointed me: This surge of the less-favored countries hasn’t included any from Africa. The first four to compete — Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Nigeria — all lost. It was always a long shot, but now the dream of an African team holding this trophy aloft seems further away than ever.
I was born and raised in Britain but I’ve often shared that dream. Whenever England is eliminated from the World Cup, my affections go next to the best African team. That’s not just because my parents moved to England from Uganda. It’s also because Africa, having suffered centuries of colonization and exploitation, has so long been denied an equal place on the global stage.
There are several reasons no African country has ever got past a quarterfinal. One is that, well, this is the World Cup. Most of the teams are good; this is serious competition. As Al Pacino’s character says in his famous speech in the 1999 movie “Any Given Sunday,” the difference between glory and failure is “inch by inch, play by play.” (Yes, I know the movie is about the other “football.”). In 1990, Cameroon was just seven minutes away from reaching the semifinal, when England scored and dashed their hopes; in 2010, Ghana would have gone to that stage, too, if only the team had scored a last-minute penalty against Uruguay.
But as always with this tournament, there’s more going on than what you can watch on the pitch. Let’s remember world history: Most of Africa was at some point colonized by Europe’s empires, which subjugated these societies and stripped them of their resources.
This legacy has left many of the countries of Africa poor and politically fractured — not exactly fertile ground for intense training and football greatness. And then there’s the issue of migration and lost talent: After independence, many Africans migrated to the richer countries of Europe. Several of their children have ended up playing for the European countries where they were born or spent their formative years. Some of them — like France’s Patrick Vieira, who was born in Senegal, or Portugal’s legendary striker, Eusebio, who was born in Mozambique — are among the greatest players the World Cup has ever seen. Sometimes I take this train of thought further: How many of Brazil’s five titles does the country owe to the descendants of enslaved people who came from Africa?
Naturally, there are contemporary problems, too. Some of Africa’s leading football nations have, I’m sorry to say, compounded historical setbacks with modern-day mismanagement of their players and resources. (I’m thinking of Nigeria and Ghana especially.) But as France, Germany and Spain have recently shown, the path to World Cup victory these days relies on patient investment in the national team over the course of several decades, and then a substantial helping of luck.
Maybe someday. Sports can be a powerful symbol of progress. Remember when Muhammad Ali’s fast fists and swifter tongue ruled the world? On some level, I can’t wait for the day an African country lands a knockout blow.
Mr. Gerim, well within range, and resting between slinging stones, shouts back: “We want to return!”
Say what you will about root causes and immediate ones — about incitement and militancy, about siege and control, about who did what first to whom — one thing is clear. More than a decade of deprivation and desperation, with little hope of relief, has led thousands of young Gazans to throw themselves into a protest that few, if any, think can actually achieve its stated goal: a return to the homes in what is now Israel that their forebears left behind in 1948.
In five weeks of protests, 46 people have been killed, and hundreds more have been badly wounded, according to the Gaza health ministry.
With its 64 percent unemployment rate among the young, Gaza, under a blockade maintained by Israel and Egypt for years, presents countless men like Mr. Gerim with the grimmest of options.
They can seek an education in preparation for lives and careers that now seem out of reach, and hope for a chance to eventually emigrate. They can join groups like Hamas or Islamic Jihad, devoting themselves to armed conflict with Israel in return for a livelihood and a sense of purpose and belonging. Or they can stay home, staving off boredom by smoking shisha, a tobacco-molasses mix, or stronger stuff, and wait for things to change.
Mr. Gerim considers himself neither a terrorist nor a freedom fighter. He is not much for prayer or for politics; he says he does not belong to Hamas or Fatah or any other faction. He is a young man with nothing to do, for whom the protests have offered a chance to barbecue with friends late into the night, sleep late most mornings, make himself useful while singing songs of love or martyrdom or an end to suffering, and lash out at a hated enemy all afternoon.
“It doesn’t matter to me if they shoot me or not,” he said in a quiet moment inside his family’s tent. “Death or life — it’s the same thing.”
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The protests, with an outdoor festival’s schedule of fun and games, performances and creative programming — and carnage every Friday — is meant to build to a climax on May 15, the day Palestinians mark the Nakba, or catastrophe, of their flight and expulsion when Israel was established 70 years ago.
The protest, which grew out of a young activist’s Facebook page and was a grass-roots initiative before being embraced, organized and publicized by Hamas, the militant Islamist group that rules Gaza, has hardly scared the Israelis into altering their basic policy. Israel continues to treat the tiny coastal enclave like a deadly virus to be quarantined and, other than that, more or less tunes it out.
But it has been a success in one important respect: It has cast a light onto the unsolved problem that is Gaza, and reminded a world that had seemed to move on to more urgent crises that its two million people, deprived of clean water, freedom of movement and a steady supply of electricity, are sliding steadily into despair.
Mr. Gerim is typical in another way: He does not think of Gaza as his home, but he has no idea what home is.
His grandmother, Haniya al-Kurdi, 80, was a little girl when her family left what is now Ashdod, Israel, in 1948. She has never been back, but has heard that there is a coffee shop next to where her home was. The closest anyone else in the family has gotten was in 2013, when Mr. Gerim’s sister, Sabreen, now 26, contracted cancer and was allowed to spend a year in Tel Aviv getting treatment. On the way there, her mother, Iktimal al-Gerim, asked their driver to point out Ashdod to them from the highway.
For Mr. Gerim, the family’s old property is an idea more than a place he can actually picture.
Israelis themselves he has had more experience with. When he was about 10, before the Israelis evacuated their Gaza settlements in 2005, Mr. Gerim climbed a tree outside his grandfather’s house to get a better look at the soldiers a few hundred yards away. Then he fell to the ground and broke his right hand.
He has been as enterprising, and as ill-starred, ever since.
He used to raise pigeons and chickens on his family’s roof, for fun and for food — until an Israeli airstrike hit a neighbor’s house and it collapsed on the coop, killing all of his birds.
He sometimes dreams of working in an automobile-manufacturing plant, of traveling overseas to learn how to build cars, then coming back to Gaza to make them. But the closest he has ever gotten is loading tuk-tuks — motorcycles with cargo beds — or handling a pushcart to distribute sacks of donated flour, sugar and other staples to his fellow refugees.
In the autumn, Mr. Gerim sometimes harvests olives. When there is construction work, he looks for chances to lay bricks or pour concrete. He has never had a regular job.
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He is stoic for a 22-year-old, though this may be an acquired response to adversity: His father is mentally ill, Mr. Gerim says, given to flying into destructive rages over the slightest disappointments. His family — two younger brothers, their sister and their parents — all share a single room with a tile floor and blankets but no beds. The kitchen floor is sand. The family’s debts are choking them, he says.
Mr. Gerim’s industriousness shows at the protests, as does his stoicism.
On Thursday, he arrived early at his family’s tent, a roomy contraption that was provided to them by the protest’s organizers, and set about sweeping the tarpaulin floor for the first of several times, before building a fire and cooking eggplants and tomatoes that city workers were distributing to the needy.
At lunch, a charity handed out meals of chicken and rice, and then Mr. Gerim swept the floor of crumbs and bones, singing a love song as he did.
He has no girlfriend, and no hopes of marrying. “There is no money, no work,” he explained. “Marriage is not free.”
After lunch, he walked up to the fence for a quick look across at the Israeli soldiers, then foraged for firewood. He dragged a six-foot log more than a quarter-mile back to the tent, and broke it apart with his hands and feet.
Later, he assembled kites from sticks, clear plastic and paper — and talked about attaching soda cans to them stuffed with gasoline-soaked rags, to sail over the fence and maybe set something or someone on fire.
At 10 p.m., he and his friends began barbecuing a feast for 12. It didn’t end until 2:30 a.m. It takes a long time to cook 22 pounds of chicken wings on a grill about 18 inches across.
Sitting around the fire, a friend named Abu Moaz, 25, said he wanted to use a kite to drop leaflets in Hebrew and Arabic warning Israeli soldiers to “evacuate your houses and return to the countries from which you came.”
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Everyone liked the sound of that.
Mr. Gerim went home to sleep, but was back at the tent at 8 a.m. on Friday, sweeping again, building the wood fire, drinking tea with his neighbors.
He went to Friday Prayer, then ate a falafel sandwich.
At 2:30, he was crouching behind the barbed-wire barrier, whirling his slingshot like a helicopter rotor, aiming in vain at Israeli soldiers again and again.
Around 5 p.m., he saw a group of men a few hundred yards to the south, and ran to see what they were doing. They had breached the barbed wire, and were trying to get to the main fence marking Israeli territory. Mr. Gerim hung back, and did not try to join them.
Near him, a man fell, hit in the stomach by what seemed like a grenade fragment, Mr. Gerim said.
He was not shocked by this, he said afterward.
“I could be shot or killed anytime,” he said. “It doesn’t matter.”
Night had fallen now; the protesters were headed home. And soon Mr. Gerim was singing again — this time a Lebanese tune of weariness with conflict.
“Enough is enough,” he crooned softly in Arabic. “Enough for miseries, promises and words. School students, church bells, a soldier, a knight and the calls of prayer — all pray for prevailing peace.”
HBO’s “Paterno” is a film about a real-life sex-abuse scandal in which the abuser and the abused are relegated to supporting roles. A dogged reporter (Riley Keough) and one brave victim (Benjamin Cook) get a fair bit of screen time to help fill in the historical record, but they’re not at the center of the story. Jerry Sandusky, the perpetrator, is relegated to a cameo.
The writers, Debora Cahn and John C. Richards, and the director, Barry Levinson, focus instead on Joe Paterno, the beloved head coach of the Penn State football team who froze in the headlights and got run over by history. There’s a lot of clamor and fuss in “Paterno,” which has its premiere Saturday, but at heart it’s a film about the lack of action — about things that didn’t get done.
The tightly constructed film — at 1 hour 40 minutes, it’s a chamber piece by current television standards — is set during two weeks in 2011, before and after the indictment of Mr. Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach, on 52 counts of sexual abuse of minors. Paterno, whose epic career ended when he was fired a few days after the indictment was announced, lies inside an M.R.I. machine (he died of lung cancer in January 2012), and we watch both recent and more distant events as he recalls them.
Al Pacino plays Paterno, and in keeping with the film’s conception, he gives a tamped-down, contained performance. His Paterno is still intelligent and possessed of the quick, pragmatic instincts of a leader at 84, but he’s hollow: His life is built around a work ethic, and his fatal failure to follow through on reports of Sandusky’s crimes isn’t about corruption or complicity, it’s about single-mindedness. He simply won’t allow himself to be distracted from football.
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A lot of people in “Paterno” have reasons to ignore what’s happening, and the film uses reactions to the Sandusky indictment to represent years of refusing to look. “Have you read it?” is a constant question, and the answer is often no. Paterno puts it off until the discord in his own family and the nagging force of his memories drive him to start reading.
The film’s picture of Paterno is, if not sympathetic, certainly nuanced. His perceptions and his responses to events are often smarter and more generous than those of the people around him, who are concerned only with protecting him and the school. (Kathy Baker is excellent as Paterno’s wife, Sue.) But his only frame of reference is football, and even there his vision is constricted — in the film’s scheme, the Penn State players are as much in the background as the children Sandusky abused. Paterno talks a good game about education and shaping young lives, but his main concern is his own professionalism. “I had a job to do,” he cries. “I was working.”
At the “Paterno” premiere on Monday, boldface names like Allison Janney and Jeffrey Wright joined a wolfish-looking Mr. Pacino for a reception at Porter House in Manhattan, where the three-course dinner featured filet mignon and a football-size slice of coconut cake.
Absent from the festivities was Mr. Scaramucci. HBO, the home of liberal darlings like Bill Maher and John Oliver, did not confirm whether or not the Mooch had been asked to attend.
“Anthony Scaramucci has a co-executive producer credit on ‘Paterno’ based on early financing he brought to the project prior to HBO’s involvement,” a network spokesman wrote by email.
Mr. Scaramucci said Mr. Pressman had invited him to the premiere, but “unfortunately, I had a prior engagement in L.A.”
“Paterno” is not the first entry on Mr. Scaramucci’s cinematic resume.
He was the executive producer of “Big Words,” a 2013 film about a group of failed rappers in Brooklyn set on the eve of Barack Obama’s election. He co-produced “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete,” also from 2013 and also about a group of African-American friends in Brooklyn.
He met Mr. Pressman during the filming of “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” Oliver Stone’s 2010 sequel to his 1987 film. The sequel included a walk-on role for Mr. Scaramucci, who spent his pre-political life as a financier.
The two men pursued a few projects — at one point negotiating with Jackie Robinson’s widow about a biopic of the baseball star — and eventually zeroed in on Joe Posnanski’s 2012 biography, “Paterno.” (The book was used as source material for the HBO film; the journalist Sara Ganim, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the Penn State scandal, was a consultant on the project.)
“He liked the experience of ‘Wall Street,’ and he liked the business as a sideline,” Mr. Pressman said.
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The Trump administration no longer employs Mr. Scaramucci, but it retains at least one aspiring movie mogul: Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, who was an executive producer of “Mad Max: Fury Road” and other major pictures and is married to Louise Linton, a producer and occasional actress.
Mr. Scaramucci, who has also invested in a Manhattan restaurant, the Hunt & Fish Club, and the New York Mets, indicated on the phone that Hollywood was unlikely to be his sole focus. Still, he mustered up a bit of the showbiz hard sell.
“What’d you think of the movie?” he asked. “It was great.”
Ms. Nixon, an education advocate and actress best known for her role in “Sex and the City,” has also personally been reaching out to community leaders, knowing she must crack Mr. Cuomo’s hold on the black vote — he scored 77 percent support in the race’s first poll — to have any chance at victory.
Black leaders in clergy, politics and the media are well aware of the courtship and savoring their newfound leverage.
“We’re free agents,” said the Rev. Johnnie Green Jr., the pastor of Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem, who hosted Mr. Cuomo on Sunday after he said he rejected a request the week before to introduce the governor at a sister church. “We’re like LeBron James in the hotel room waiting for the phone to ring.”
Senior administration officials say the governor’s recent activity has nothing to do with Ms. Nixon and everything to do with the state budget, due next week, where the governor is seeking to mobilize black support for some of the thorniest remaining issues, including on public housing and school funding. Mr. Cuomo has appeared at black churches during past budget seasons.
Mr. Miller, the pastor of Brown Memorial Baptist Church, said that after he hung up with Mr. Cuomo’s team, he sent text messages to another 30 black pastors across New York City to ask that they not reflexively acquiesce. “I requested that they think carefully about hosting the governor until he becomes responsive to our concerns,” Mr. Miller said, specifically citing minority and women contracting.
Mr. Cuomo has had a complex relationship with black leadership in the state dating back to his first failed run for governor, in 2002, when he challenged H. Carl McCall, then the state comptroller who was seeking to become New York’s first black governor, for the Democratic nomination.
But in recent years, black voters have provided him a bulwark of support. Mr. Cuomo’s last challenger, Zephyr Teachout, never penetrated Mr. Cuomo’s political standing in minority communities. She finished with an abysmal 14 percent of the vote in the Bronx.
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“Clearly, Cynthia Nixon understands that if she can’t break through Andrew Cuomo’s African-American firewall, she has no shot at being competitive,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn, a Cuomo ally.
Before she launched her campaign, Ms. Nixon gave a quick heads-up call to the Rev. Al Sharpton, the influential civil-rights leader and media figure. She also sat down privately with the Rev. Michael A. Walrond Jr., senior pastor at the 10,000-member First Corinthian Baptist Church in Central Harlem; she showed up to services unannounced the following Sunday. Bertha Lewis, president of the Black Institute and a longtime community activist, said Ms. Nixon also called her days before announcing a run to solicit her opinion.
The exact minute that Ms. Nixon announced her campaign on Twitter — 2:02 p.m. last Monday — she personally texted Elinor Tatum, the publisher and editor of the Amsterdam News, the historic black newspaper, to alert her to the news. Ms. Nixon granted her first sit-down interview to the paper.
“She understands how important the African-American vote is,” said Ms. Tatum. “And she is not taking it for granted.”
Ms. Nixon, who also attended services at a predominantly African-American church, Mount Pisgah Baptist in Brooklyn, on Sunday, is expected to follow up her call to Mr. Sharpton with a meal together soon at the famed Harlem soul-food restaurant Sylvia’s, likely at the same window table where Mr. Sharpton met separately with Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders as they ran for president.
Mr. Sharpton “will weigh in after he’s met with Ms. Nixon,” according to Rachel Noerdlinger, a spokeswoman for Mr. Sharpton. Mr. Sharpton has worked closely with Mr. Cuomo on criminal justice-matters, praising him at the governor’s mansion as recently as last month.
Not all of Ms. Nixon’s early maneuverings have played well.
She made her first stop in Brownsville, for instance, without alerting the area’s elected officials. Alicka Ampry-Samuel, the local Brooklyn councilwoman, called it “disrespectful.”
Ms. Ampry-Samuel said she still had not heard from Ms. Nixon or her team as of Friday but has spoken with the governor’s team multiple times in recent days, mostly about the state budget.
In addition to his private outreach, Mr. Cuomo has appeared alongside mostly black and Latino residents multiple times this month at New York City Housing Authority developments to decry their “filth” and threaten to declare a state of emergency.
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Earlier this month, the governor met with a small group of influential black leaders in Albany about education equity funding, related to a proposal he made in January.
One of the attendees, Rev. Alfred L. Cockfield, II, executive pastor of God’s Battalion of Prayer Church in East Flatbush, got a call from Mr. Cuomo’s team afterward asking if the governor could appear at his pulpit.
Mr. Cockfield said he knew “it was strategic” for Mr. Cuomo, and that he experienced some pushback from some Democratic elected officials, but decided to let him speak anyway.
“It’s the first time any sitting governor came to our church. Why would I turn down that opportunity?” he said.
The governor’s speech was about closing Rikers Island, fixing public housing and equitable education funding — all issues tuned to appeal to an African-American audience, and potentially at stake in the state budget.
“It tells you he thinks there’s a vulnerability there,” said Bill Hyers, a senior strategist advising Ms. Nixon.
”The governor has overwhelming support in the African-American community but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t take any African-American votes for granted,” said Charlie King, an adviser to Mr. Cuomo who has helped with black outreach, “And I know that he won’t.”
Mr. Cuomo’s operation pointed to his track record for the black community, including increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour, raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18 and issuing an executive order naming the state attorney general as a special prosecutor for police-related civilian deaths.
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“Why in the world would we abandon him when throughout his time in office he’s never abandoned us?” Mr. Jeffries said.
Some black leaders are looking for more.
Mr. Green, president of a group of pastors named Mobilizing Preachers and Community, said he rejected Mr. Cuomo’s first request to introduce him at a black church a week ago in part because he is unhappy with the governor’s record on minority contracting. “Why should we continue to give him access to our pulpits?” he said in an interview earlier in the week.
But as he introduced Mr. Cuomo to on Sunday, he said, “Someone said wise men disagree but fools fall out.” He praised the governor for providing money to public housing and pushed him for more: “We ask Mr. Governor that you not stop there.”
Mr. Cuomo swayed and clapped as the congregation sang, he hugged and kissed members of the choir and he quoted scripture three times in his speech.
Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte, who has been critical of Mr. Cuomo on minority contracting, said the governor’s team has begun reaching out to her almost daily about Vital Brooklyn, a $1.4 billion proposal from March 2017 to address poverty and violence, since it became clear Ms. Nixon might enter the campaign.
Another wrinkle is that Mr. Cuomo’s lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, is facing a challenge from Jumaane Williams, a black New York City councilman from Central Brooklyn. Shortly after Mr. Williams announced, it was floated that Mr. Cuomo was considering swapping Ms. Hochul for Lovely Warren, the mayor of Rochester, an African-American woman.
“Governor Cuomo generally is concerned about himself so I’ve found he treats people in those positions like chess pieces,” Mr. Williams said.
Mr. Cuomo has since said Ms. Hochul would be his running mate.
Eric L. Adams, the Brooklyn borough president who has been critical of Mr. Cuomo, leapt into the middle of the primary last Tuesday when he requested on Twitter that Ms. Nixon tour a Brooklyn public housing complex with him. “This campaign season gives us the chance to raise these issues,” he said.
It took Ms. Nixon all of 25 minutes to respond on Twitter: “I accept.”