A couple of days ago I had an unusual experience. I was staying in a hotel in Kampala, with a stunning view of the southern reaches of the Ugandan capital and the northern edge of Lake Victoria. It was the weekend, and in Africa that usually means football (soccer, to our friends over in the US). Two of the guys I was with – Alex and then Fred – filled me in with the details of why they supported their favourite teams: Arsenal and Liverpool. Fred helped my wife and I decipher the superb Lugandan radio commentary during a match between Bolton and Manchester City. Every bar and shack we passed seemed to have sound – and usually pictures – from the matches.
So far so ordinary. What was unusual, however, was that the hotel where we were staying had no coverage of any of this. Somehow, and to my wife’s delight, we seemed to have ended up in one of the few hotels on the entire continent that seemed oblivious to football. After a week on the DRC border, examining vanilla farms for my wife’s work, this was a cruel and unexpected let down.
Football is ubiquitous in Africa. As Fred told us as we chugged along in a Kampalan traffic jam, ‘I love football!’ Village kids kick balls of tied rags about; every streetwise hustler wears the shirt of their favourite (usually English) team; and almost any male on the street of almost any town or city can be diverted by asking them who they support, and whether Arsenal are terminally on the slide. The major leagues are riddled with an increasing number of influential and skillful African players, and the biggest hard luck story of last year’s World Cup was the elimination of a superb Ghanaian team thanks to the skulduggery of Uruguay’s Luis Suarez.
This African love of football is what makes Steve Bloomfield’s entertaining book, Africa United: How Football Explains Africa (Canongate Books, 2010), such an excellent read. Like life in Africa, football has drama, skill, luck, triumph, disaster, pathos, pain, banality and moments of exquisite joy.
While working as the Africa correspondent for The Independent, a British newspaper, Steve reported from all over the continent. Wherever he travelled – to Somalia, Egypt, Sierra Leone, Cote D’Ivoire and beyond – he watched football matches and asked questions. Sometimes the football acted like a mirror to real life in these countries; sometimes it was an alternative reality; sometimes the football itself played a real and vital role in the stories that Steve was covering.
The resulting book is fascinating, and not just for fans of football or those who are interested in Africa. I hope the same can be said for this interview with Steve. I hope you enjoy it!
This podcast has been republished from New Books in African Studies.