Two great events in the last week. The first, in Chiang Rai, Thailand. The second, in Moscow, Russia. 6,500 km apart. Both involving soccer players.
One, extremely high risk and nerve wracking. Twelve teenage lads and their coach, members of the Wild Boars football team, rescued from a cave (really a grave) in northern Thailand, 4 kilometers from its mouth, through a treacherous, flooded passage whose images are scary even to one sitting safely a continent away. Their rescue – complex, unprecedented, extremely dangerous.
The second, a pleasurable, thrilling, albeit tension-inducing World Cup Final match between France and Croatia. The two teams truly world-class, making the outcome uncertain until the final moments of the game.
To my eyes, the Croatian team put on a better performance than the victors. They dominated the ball, kept the French under siege and demonstrated superb coordination and skills.
However, I was rooting for the Africa/France team. After all, Le Blues was an African affair, with names like Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Samuel Umtiti, Benjamin Mendy, Blaise Matuidi, Ousmane Dembele, Steve Mandanda, Presnel Kimpembe, Djibril Sidibe and Steven Nzonzi.
Besides their excellent sportsmanship throughout the tournament, the predominantly African team playing under the French Tricolour was a powerful demonstration of the folly of the racism and xenophobia merchandised by the likes of America’s Donald J. Trump and France’s Jean Marie Le Pen and his daughter, Marine Le Pen. The beautiful mix of skin colours in the Africa/France team was a not-so-silent affirmation that immigrants and their descendants had added great value to Europe and North America.
So, the Africa/France Team’s 4-2 victory over Croatia was a brilliant conclusion to a great argument that they had silently made with their feet throughout the tournament. France was better off because of her immigrants.
As expected, the message from Moscow was completely lost on Mr. Trump. He tweeted: “Congratulations to France, who played extraordinary soccer, on winning the 2018 World Cup. Additionally, congratulations to President Putin and Russia for putting on a truly great World Cup Tournament — one of the best ever!”
I don’t know whether or not Trump actually watched the Africa/France versus Croatia match, but I am tempted to think that he did not. A man who, only two days earlier, had warned European leaders to watch themselves “because a wave of immigration” was negatively “changing the culture” of their countries, could not have been pleased with the stellar performance of the Africa/France soccer team.
Happily, one leader who gets it is Monsieur Emmanuel Macron, the president of France. The image of the French leader leaping to his feet, arms raised and shouting in celebration of his national team’s exploits is evidence that he gets it. A video of President Macron “dabbing” with Benjamin Mendy and Paul Pogba in their dressing room is a rejection of Trump’s xenophobic noise.
So, one message from the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow was that Africa continues to enrich world culture, just as its people have done in every aspect of human endeavour.
Countries that have received significant numbers of African and Asian immigrants have reaped great dividends in their academic institutions, their health and other scientific industries, their legal systems, their architectural sciences, their financial and management sectors, their economies and their cultural growth.
There is a second message, from both the soccer tournament in Russia and the cave rescue in Thailand, that invites consideration by those who claim sole credit for the successes of their armies, organizations, governments and other group activities.
There is no single individual who has claimed monopoly on the processes that led to success in either situation. Governor Narongsak Osottanakorn, the commander of the Thai rescue mission, did not claim credit for an operation that would not have succeeded without the extraordinary work and bravery of 200 divers, 2,000 Thai soldiers and thousands of other volunteers and staff of many agencies.
Likewise, the coach and captain of the French soccer team will not claim credit for their victory. No single player would have defeated the Croatians without the full participation of his teammates.
That is why we smile with bemusement every time we hear former guerrilla leaders claiming that only they and their relatives liberated Uganda from the clutches of the armies of Gen. Idi Amin Dada and Mr. Milton A. Obote. Numerous Ugandans risked their lives in the long struggle for freedom. Thousands died.
Most are forgotten, of course, just like many who have been pushed aside in the re-writing of Uganda’s post-independence history. However, their forced absence from the historical record neither erases the fact of their heroism and sacrifice, nor accords any single person the licence to claim sole credit for their collective achievement.
The third lesson from the last week’s events is that success is rarely a chance occurrence. It requires clarity of purpose, formulation of a plan, with well-defined priorities and assembly of the very best team possible, under the leadership of a credible person who trusts and respects everyone. The leader must ensure that the team puts the plan into practice, with the requisite patience and perseverance that enhances the chances of success.
What happened in Thailand was not a miracle at all. It was the work of mortal men and women who understood teamwork, had a clear purpose, a plan and the right priorities. They were long prepared for such disasters and had the scientific knowledge and skills to execute their mission.
Of course, they did not hesitate to seek help from the experts all over the world. And great help they got – from Australia, Britain, China, Finland and the USA. A Canadian was among the divers.
For a brief moment, the world was united, with our hearts and minds focused on a distant cave that threatened to end the lives of our young brothers. Their bravery warmed our hearts. Their danger unsettled us. Their colour and their race did not matter. They belonged to the human race.
Just like the colour of the young men on the soccer field in Moscow did not matter to their French countrymen. They were Les Blues, draped in The Tricolour, hoisting the golden trophy, and making their president and millions of their countrymen dance and shout with joy in celebration of France’s enriched culture. We danced with them.