Africa and the English Premier League: A Love Story

“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.

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Among my examples, for me that most striking came when I was on a boat in western Uganda, far from any major urban center and not many miles from the quiet tragedy that is the Democratic Republic of Congo.  While on a wildlife cruise we passed a fishing village where some of the locals had taken to marking their canoes with favorite tags.  One, apparently, was a fan of Manchester United and to my great dismay had turned his two man fishing vessel into a moving billboard for that icon of the ills of global capitalism—the American Insurance Group.  I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to cry.

This habit of tagging one’s life with the monikers of EPL clubs proved to be surprisingly popular across the communities I visited.  In one village outside of Jinja, Uganda houses had been marked with tributes to Arsenal and Chelsea:

Arsenal decorated huts in Africa
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Likewise, at a school near Kyarusozi, a Ugandan student had used chalk to pay tribute to Patrice Evra of Man United, and to document Liverpool’s triumph over Arsenal on the chalkboard that served as the school’s official timetable:

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And then there was the business side of things; In Dandora Kenya (an area in Nairobi) local businesses both identified themselves with their favorite teams and set up small businesses by creating improvised home theaters to show Premier League soccer:

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Finally, when I was travelling through Kampala, Barclays Bank (which has a large presence in Uganda and a few other African countries) sponsored a visit by the Premier League trophy sans players or teams:

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Beyond conveying the power of branding, I think such scenes fascinate me because they highlight what seems initially to be an incongruity.  When outsiders think about Africa we often think of poverty and under-development; in service of rationalizing the value of our relative wealth we imagine life in Africa to consist largely of desperation and necessity.  Seeing passionate fandom for distant and ultimately frivolous endeavors such as the Premiership seems counter to what we imagine of Africa.

I always think of this fallacy as akin to the subtly pernicious popularity of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—we like the idea (despite much evidence to the contrary) that life is a pyramidal progression that makes for simple and logical paths up from the “basics” like food and shelter to the really good stuff like love and aesthetic pleasure.  But human needs are more complex than that, and it is possible to simultaneously suffer from global inequalities and genuinely enjoy a good London derby.  But that still leaves the question of whether the global reach of the Premier League is ultimately a good or bad thing for Africa.

Soccer as neo-imperialism?

When academics and intellectuals talk about globalization they usually talk about bad things.  A 2007 Economist article about the popularity of the Premier League in Africa, for example, was titled “Neo-imperialism at the point of a boot: The English premiership sweeps all before it.” The charge of “neo-imperialism” is a common theme of fears about globalization, the idea being that modern global power dynamics allow Western influences to overrun local cultures.  Certainly the popularity of the EPL does logically suggest that even beyond competing with local leagues for business (which is a real problem—but one I also worry about in the US and MLS with the increasing availability of the EPL on outlets such as ESPN), former colonial masters still unduly define the parameters for how to organize, present, and maybe even play soccer.

At least one African graduate student (whose work I stumbled across in researching this post) has analyzed the influence of the EPL as a form of “media imperialism.” Looking at the case of Premiership fans in Zambia, Leah Komakoma notes the widespread popularity of the Premier League in Lusaka and recognizes the potential that popularity creates for Zambians to come under the sway of European marketing and ideals.  But ultimately that potentiality depends upon the people themselves—and Komakoma argues that the Zambian Premiership fans she interviewed were competent enough to decide for themselves what they want to take from their soccer consumption.

Franklin Foer made a similar point in an article he wrote for Foreign Policy about globalization and soccer titled “Soccer vs. McWorld” (written before the publication of his interesting book on similar topics How Soccer Explains the World).  Arguing that Sven Goran Eriksson’s tenure with the English national team was more a matter of the Swede adapting to a stereotypically English style than imposing his own continental ambitions, Foer claims

When Eriksson succumbed to Englishness, he upended one of the great clichés of the antiglobalization movement: that a consequence of free markets is Hollywood, Nike, and KFC steamrolling indigenous cultures.  It is ironic that the defenders of indigenous cultures so often underestimate their formidable ability to withstand the market’s assault.

So do African communities possess this “formidable ability” or is this just an excuse for unfettered corporate capitalism to steamroll the soccer world?  In my opinion it is probably a little bit of both.  As most soccer fans of any nationality can attest, the EPL is a masterpiece of entertainment marketing that provides pleasures similar to any addictive (potentially dangerous) drug.  The telecasts brim with energy and atmosphere, while the storylines and allegiances create an unending stream of drama and conversation. Despite my most virulent resentments of economic systems that allow for insane concentrations of wealth among Premier League owners, I can’t seem to stop myself from getting up at ungodly early hours (at least for a Saturday) to catch Fox Soccer Channel’s west coast presentation of Manchester City v Wolverhampton (Man City of all teams!).

What’s more, part of the appeal of the EPL in Africa is what appeals about being a sports fan anywhere—it’s enthralling to identify with teams that offer a sense of community, aesthetic pleasure, and emotional engagement.  The recent enthusiasm over American sports writer Bill Simmons seeming conversion to soccer fandom through his gushing about watching the US play Mexico at Azteca, for example, was preceded by his own intentional effort to find an EPL team to support (likely to the confusion of many Africans he chose Tottenham—not a team I ever saw mentioned in Uganda or Kenya).  Is Bill Simmons just another victim of neo-imperialism?

If we grant that EPL fandom is an enthralling endeavor, and that African soccer fans have every right to share, then the most interesting question here may not be whether the globalization of the Premiership is a neo-imperialist endeavor but whether African fans can find additional spaces in their hearts (and their pocketbooks) for local leagues?  Unfortunately, the reality is that many African nations have neither the infrastructure, population base, nor the expendable income to support high level leagues.  There are, however, some gradations within that generalization—and a recent piece by Mark Gleeson offers some optimistic projections about South Africa’s Premier Soccer League.

It may then be the case that leagues in smaller and poorer nations will continue to struggle—those Ugandan schoolboys will likely continue to attend more carefully to the travails of “Liverpol” than the latest Ugandan Super League showdown between Kinyara Sugar Works FC and Uganda Revenue Authority (known locally as the “Taxmen”).  But those struggles likely have more to do with the widespread challenges of underdevelopment than with loving the EPL.  As with so many things in Africa, there is a disconnect between human experience and global systems of inequality—and soccer gives us all a chance to think about that fundamental question: Who do you support?

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