Every time anyone is signed by Barcelona, there will be a wide variety of reactions. Alexandre Song is no different from any of those. Having been purchased for €19m from Arsenal earlier today (yesterday for the majority of those reading this), Song is just another player in a long line of dissected transfers. He is at once a compatible midfield dynamo and an overrated waste of money. As someone who has not particularly noted his abilities prior to this, I tend to fall on the latter side of the argument more so than on the former, but as with all signings by Barça, I’m also willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
To Sport, on the other hand, Song is an African who reminds them of Yaya Toure. It is almost as if, because he is also a midfielder, he must remind them of the Ivorian. They are both black, they are both African, and they are both taller than 5’5”. Therefore they are the same. He is described as a ball-winner, as a physical beast, as a typical midfielder. That is all Yaya, they say. Yet they defeat their own argument by pointing out that Song was also the leading assister in the Premier League with 14 (there seems to be a bit of a translation issue with “throughballs” and “assist” but that is the nature of statistics in football—I neither know nor care which is correct as it is about perception more than actuality). He is a ball winner and pass machine, Sport says. So he’s Yaya because he’s a physical specimen or because he’s intelligent on the ball? Or is it because he’s tall and African?
The United States considers itself an open country. If you have talent, you will rise to the top and succeed amongst the greatest. In sports, those who are able to out-perform will be exalted. The National [American] Football League is generally known for its acceptance of talent from whatever walk of life. Yet it seems obvious that whenever I watch a game where the quarterback of one team is white and the other is black, there is a wild deviation in descriptors used by the commentators. Tom Brady and Tony Romo are intelligent pocket passers with an eye for the game while Michael Vick and Cam Newton are athletic machines capable of making defenders miss. Ben Roethlisberger understand opponents’ moves before they happen while Donovan McNabb always had a faster reaction time than anyone. The bottom line for these statements: white is intelligent, thoughtful; black is athletic, strong.
Sport is no different in this. Alexandre Song is no more Yaya Toure than Seydou Keita was. And yet, because they are all three black, all three African, they must be from the same school: powerful, tall, and fierce. It is a trope and it should be watched out for.
I love Yaya as a player because he is intelligent, technically gifted, and has the tackling skills of a Gringot’s goblin in a gold vault. He is physically large and certainly capable of running down lesser hominids (“to Yaya” a person – Spanish: Yayaear – is to destroy their soul through physical carnage), but his true strength lies in his on-the-ball abilities. Javier Mascherano is equally capable of physical assault, yet he is not “a physical specimen.” Carles Puyol crushes the souls of lesser men on a regular basis, but he is “an intelligent defender.” It is a double standard and it should not be allowed to continue.
Whatever your thoughts on Song, whatever your opinion of any black or African player before him, be sure to judge him on what he actually does, not on his height or the size of biceps. Keita was not an enforcer; rather, he was a midfield genius capable of more deft tricks than he ever got credit for from the media. Do not be fooled, Song is an individual, not a player created from a sub-Saharan mold.