Soccer, Passion, Politics and the First World Cup in Africa

Africa United

Ahead of the World Cup in South Africa, a spate of books on African football was to be expected.  Africa, after all, has traditionally been underserved as far as football writing goes.  Until last year, the genre could more or less be summed up in three books: Peter auf der Heyde’s Has Anybody Got a Whistle?, Filippo Ricci’s Elephants, Lions and Eagles, and a brilliant chapter by David Goldblatt in his magisterial The Ball is Round.

Of course the problem with writing about Africa is – well, it’s Africa.   It’s a big complex continent made up of over 50 countries, and in a sense it’s quite patronizing to think of it as a single entity.  But at the same time, given the chaotic and underdeveloped nature of African football it’s almost impossible to think of writing an entire book on a single country in the manner of John Foot’s Calcio or David Wangerin’s Soccer in a Football World – there simply isn’t the raw archival or video material available to do this.  So writers are reduced to trying to fit this impossibly vast continent into the framework of a single tome.

It’s a daunting task – so daunting, in fact that writers typically fall back on some pretty standard tropes when discussing African football.  There’s the nation-specific ones: (e.g. “Roger Milla’s Cameroon 1990”; “The Wasted Talent of the 1994 Super Eagles”; “Plucky Little Senegal 2002”), the financial and capacity-based ones (e.g. “why players always strike before World Cups”, “why African Nations Cups are always a shambles”), cultural ones (e.g. “there’s this thing called juju…”).  Even Ian Hawkey’s excellent Feet of the Chameleon fell prey to some of these.

Probably because he is not actually a sportswriter, Steve Bloomfield avoids the trope trap by simply eschewing any kind of history of the development of football in Africa and  describing how the sport is played and lived in some of the continent’s most dangerous countries in his new book, Africa United: Soccer, Passion, Politics and the First World Cup in Africa.  The choice of locales is a by-product of Bloomfield’s research method; unlike people who travel around specifically trying to write a book about football, Bloomfield rather obviously picked up his material while doing “other” assignments around the continent.  And since the Western media (for which he works) tends to only care about those bits of Africa that are in utter chaos or misery, his book chapters read like a check-list of Africa’s disaster zones.

So, for instance, you get some insight into the Chad-Sudan double-header held in Cairo while the two countries were skirmishing over Darfur, or the Congo-Rwanda CAN qualifier where most of the Rwanda players were actually Tutsis from Congo.  Not about the matches themselves, the players or the tactics; Bloomfield isn’t a sports writer and he doesn’t pretend to be (just as well: matches like this do not actually command much interest as spectacle).  What he’s trying to tease out is what these matches tell us about how Africa works and how Africa is changing.

Thus, we can see the progressive return of disorder and chaos in Somalia through the eyes of its national team and its current league champion Benadir Telecom (well, current since 2007, the last time a league could be played) .   We see the triumph of DR Congo’s TP Mazembe, a kind of mid-continent Chelsea, living on the generosity of a local mineral magnate and political chief who wants to see his local team make it to a World Championship and is prepared to pay near-European wages to players who come play in his remote corner of one of the world’s most dangerous countries.

Continuing the tour of the continent’s nastiest places, Bloomfield takes us to Sierra Leone and Liberia to learn about the role football is playing in national reconciliation and about the national league for the disabled for people who have been maimed by war injuries.  We learn about how football exists in the conflict-torn delta region of Nigeria, and how teams in the rest of Nigeria are occasionally encouraged to throw a game against Warri Warriors so that their fans might have something to celebrate and divert them from armed insurrection.  And we travel to Zimbabwe, where the new MDC Finance Minister Tendai Biti holds forth with some penetrating analysis of English football at the outset of the 2009-10 Premier League season (“Silvestre is crap”,  “Liverpool is crap”, etc.).

This approach naturally means that there are a few countries who are essential to African football, such as Cameroon, Morocco and Algeria, which Bloomfield unfortunately simply passes over in silence.  And the fact that his main focus is culture and politics rather than football per se means that the reader is subjected to a little too much of the “hey, all these kids in refugee camps/armed guards at Sudanese checkpoints/delightful Somali urchins are all wearing Arsenal jerseys/love David Beckham/support Chelsea” stuff than is strictly necessary.

But counter-balancing this is the frankly superb discussions of domestic football in a number of countries, including Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Kenya.  Of all the books so far written on Africa, none has come close to the providing the depth of understanding and analysis to the economics and politics of club football as this one.

Inevitably, this book is going to be compared to Ian Hawkey’s recent book Feet of the Chameleon.  Briefly, the two books are essentially complimentary: Hawkey takes a historical approach, concentrates on the football more than the politics, and covers all the nations that matter from a football point of view.  Bloomfield, on the other hand, is relentlessly in the here and now, provides much more detail on the continent’s history and politics (surely there can be no other book on football that provides serious discussion of World bank projects).  He is also much more proficient at describing the social atmosphere around the sport and its institutions and trying to understand not what Africa means to football, but rather what football means to Africa.

There is no either/or here. Read them both. In their own different but highly complimentary ways, they are both richly rewarding.

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