“Who do you support?” For your average American that question, particularly without any context, is almost impossible to make sense of. But as I learned on a tour of Uganda and Kenya with a group of American educators in the summer of 2008, for a surprising number of Africans (particularly the teenage students we met) it is among the first questions a Western visitor will be asked. And, to the further confusion of American visitors, the right answer is almost always one of the “big four”: Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, or Arsenal.
Part of the confusion was that many of the African students assumed all English speaking visitors were, in one way or another “Englishmen” (in the same way many Americans assume “Africa” is all one place). But mostly it was just a matter of one of the odd and interesting effects of globalization: in many parts of Africa pieces of one’s identity are wrapped up in the English Premier League. With the start of the new EPL season and the countdown to South Africa 2010 I was reminded of those exchanges, and inspired to think a bit about the ways that European soccer and African soccer get wrapped up in the dynamic flows of globalization (a topic that has been previously raised on Pitch Invasion).
The phenomenon of Premier League fandom in Africa is not the only interesting example of soccer and globalization, and I hope to write some future posts about issues such as European teams that set up youth academies in Africa and related issues of labor immigration. I also recognize that the popularity of the Premiership in contrast to other elite leagues varies significantly between African nations, often due to different histories and languages (when I lived in Angola I saw more knock-off versions of Benfica jerseys than I had previously assumed to exist in the world—related both to an interest in the Portuguese league and a local version of the club).
But for no other reason than entertainment value, the strange presence of the Premier League in the many parts of African consciousness is a fun place to start. When I was travelling in Uganda and Kenya I found it greatly amusing to observe the markers of Premiership fandom in all sorts of odd places—from graffiti on rural huts to logos on urban minibuses. And throughout I’ve found it interesting to reflect a bit on what it all means.
Seeing the Premiership in the most unexpected places
African passions for European soccer have exploded with the increasing availability of television and satellite broadcasts. I saw an example of this process during my first stint in Africa when I lived in Malawi between 1996 and 1998. At the time, I was told, Malawi was the most populous country in the world still without any television stations. But they were working on it, and South African satellite television was starting to become widely available in urban areas. When the Institute where I worked obtained one of the first satellite televisions in the area, it immediately became a week-end gathering place for soccer fans and Saturdays with the EPL became a major local happening.
In the ten years between those Saturdays and my trip to east Africa last summer the infusion of media technology (including television, internet, and cell phones) has been the single most obvious change in African life. Though most households still do not have televisions of their own, televisions are available at various points in most communities and budding entrepreneurs regularly charge token admission for coming together to watch soccer. The improvisational effort is often impressive—in an electricity-less Angolan refugee camp where I worked in 2002-2003 the local televisions were hooked up to car batteries for the important matches.
Interest in watching the EPL has also grown with the increasing presence of African players in the Premiership; last year the BBC published an account of the EPL’s popularity in Nigeria, tying interest there to the 1997 signing of Celestine Babayaro by Chelsea. That account (along with a similarly themed article on soccer in Kenya) also highlights one of the major concerns about the EPL fandom in Africa—that it is taking fans and resources away from already tenuous national leagues within African nations. While I take up that concern below, the pervasive interest in the Premiership is beyond question.