Africa United and the Meaning of World Cup 2010

We hear a lot about soccer in Europe and Latin America, but less about its role in Africa. As we’ll see during the World Cup, African nations are mad about the sport. It’s woven itself into the fabric of life across the continent. How deep is it woven? Steve Bloomfield traveled from Somalia to Sierra Leone to South Africa to find out, a trip he chronicles in his new book, Africa United: Soccer, Passion, Politics and the First World Cup in Africa. I caught up with Bloomfield, who lives in Nairobi, via email to ask him about it.

World Hum: What does having the World Cup in South Africa mean for the continent?

Steve Bloomfield: This World Cup has the potential to begin to change the way the rest of the world views Africa. For an entire month one of the world’s biggest stories will take place in Africa and, with the odd exception, it should be an overwhelmingly positive one.

Read the rest of the interview here.


More Books: Soccer & Africa

One day I was sitting with my students at Ekenywa Secondary School just outside Arusha, Tanzania, where I was then teaching English. We were watching a soccer game, when I turned to John, my star pupil, and asked a question that had been on my mind.

“John,” I said, “do you know what the Hand of God is?”

John, who was a devout Christian, smiled.

“Yes, of course!” He said. “Maradona, when he made the goal in the World Cup, like this.” He made a fist and punched the air. “Wonderful!!”

I’d suspected as much.  Everyone seemed to know the famous Hand of God goal: the Argentine’s famously illegal point against England in the 1986 World Cup.  Soccer, it seemed, was a language we could all speak and the soccer field was a place where we could all meet.

This was some years ago, and in the meantime the sport has only woven itself more tightly into life across the continent, as African teams get closer to the top, and African players occupy more spots in the world’s great clubs.  Now, with the World Cup finally taking place in South Africa, I wanted to put together a list of books about Africa and Soccer.   New titles are flying onto the shelves in anticipation of World Cup 2010, which begins very soon!  If you need to bone up, here are some titles:

Feet of the Chameleon: The Story of Football in Africa, by Ian Hawkey

This book is about the history of the sport on the continent and covers everything from the 1994 plane crash that killed the entire Zambian national team, to soccer and the Algerian liberation struggle. ESPN soccernet called it, “fascinating, funny [and] beautifully written.”

Africa United:  Soccer, Passion, Politics and the First World Cup in Africa, by Steven Bloomfield

A great read that gives you a good view of how football is lived and played in 13 of Africa’s 53 countries, and a good primer for anyone headed to South Africa, either virtually or in real life.  My interview with Bloomfield will be on soon.

Belly of the Atlantic, by Fatou Diome

This novel by Senegalese Diome chronicles the lives of several young people who dream of a better future across the ocean in France, where one of them is scouted by a major soccer club, but where his dream is not at all guaranteed of coming true.

More Than Just a Game: Soccer vs. Apartheid: The Most Important Soccer Story Ever Told, by Chuck Korr and Marvin Close

Moving south, this is the story of the Makana Football Association, which was formed behind the walls of Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was famously imprisoned. A great story of soccer providing a glimmer of hope where there is little to be had.

African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World’s Game, by Peter Alegi

This is a slightly more academic look at how Africans, the author argues, “wrested control of soccer from the hands of Europeans,” making soccer their own form of “national culture.”  Because of this, they have now had so much success that their playing and style are highly prized commodities in Europe.

Africa, Football and FIFA: Politics, Colonialism and Resistance, by Paul Darby

An even more academic look at the evolution of football in Africa, in the context of western colonialism and resistance. Not exactly light reading, but for serious students it might be worthwhile.  Available for free here.

The African Game, by Knox Robinson and Andrew Dosunmu

A lush celebration of the sport and its fans across the continent, this book came out around the 2006 World Cup and “follows a narrative of the sport in Cameroon, Senegal, Togo, Cote D’Ivoire, Angola, Ghana, Tunisia, and Egypt.”  Apparently a documentary is also in the works.

The Best Books about Soccer (meaning football)

And so, the madness is almost upon us. In a matter of weeks, the entire world will have its eyes turned to the southern end of the African continent.  Wars will stop.   Businesses will shutter.  Divisions will momentarily heal as people from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe suddenly recall their oneness as they watch the best soccer players in the world vie for the crown of World Cup Champions.    In celebration, I’d like to offer my list of the best books on the sport, the phenomenon, and the lives that revolve around that ball almost as surely as the earth goes around the sun.  For anyone who needs to be reminded why we love this game, here a few titles:

Among the Thugs

Yes, there are thugs, and yes this is not so much a book about soccer as about its fans—and British ones in particular.  But Bill Buford’s frontline report on British hooliganism in the 1980s paints a humorous, insightful and sometimes painful look at the world of football supporters whose passion is transformed into something else. At times both hilarious and terrifying, Among the Thugs is ultimately an exploration of the “raw terrible power” that exists within each crowd, such as those that will be gathering to watch their teams play in South Africa

The Miracle of Castel di Sangro: A Tale of Passion and Folly in the Heart of Italy

In 1996, Joe McGinniss was bitten by the soccer bug, and flew to Italy where he planned to follow a team from the hardscrabble mountain town of Castel di Sangro, which had just been bumped into Serie B. McGinniss is a brilliant writer and he somehow captures the thrill and tension of that season, in which all the team’s and the town’s hopes are pinned on its unlikely charge for the top.

Fever Pitch

Before he was a household name as the wry and tender chronicler of our aimless angst and our love of mix-tapes, Nick Hornby was an Arsenal fan. In this memoir, he tells a lifetime worth of stories about the games he’s been to and what they meant to him.  At times, this can feel a bit exhaustive, but for serious fans of Hornby or soccer there are many rewards therein.

Global Game: Writers on Soccer

If soccer really is the world’s game, then this is the world’s book on it, with contributions in translation from Günter Grass, Antonia Skármeta, Mario Vargas Lhosa alongside English offerings by Ted Hughes, Charles Simic, Gay Talese and others.  Together the pieces create a rich picture of how soccer is woven into the lives of people across the globe.

Soccer in Sun and Shadow, New Edition by Eduardo Galeano

For more in that vein, Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s wonderful book is a poetic meditation on the history of the sport and his love of it, somewhat easier to digest that the 1,000 pages of the semi-official history, The Ball is Round.  Galeano covers everything from soccer’s Chinese roots, to the colorful characters who have paraded across the field in so many World Cups, to how Nike beat Adidas.

Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference

This is the story of a team of refugee kids who came from all over the world–Congo, Kosovo, Libera, Afghanistan–to a little town outside Atlanta, Georgia where they found each other on a soccer field.   Based on Warren St. John’s brilliant story in the New York Times about “the Fugees” it goes much more deeply into their attempt to find a place (and a life) in America, and how their coach and the sport helped them do that.

How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization

Obviously, many of these books are about soccer, but their true subject is the world, and Franklin Foer’s book is no exception.  Perhaps the most ambitious and wide-ranging of all, Foer travels across (mostly) Europe, and uses the sport as a way to explain everything from the rise of the new oligarchs to the implications of migration to how we construct the identities at the core of our lives and our teams.