Afro football fever

Football historian and broadcaster David Goldblatt’s new, encyclopedic book of football opens with a chapter on Africa. Here we republish an excerpt.

Ugandan soldiers serving with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) play football with young Somali boys in the central Somali town of Buur-Hakba. Image credit Stuart Price via AMISOM Flickr CC.

It can be hard to see how the real energies and possibilities of African football survive in the niches left by globalization. Sometimes one needs a sharper eye. Both visitors and the leading lights amongst a new generation of African photographers have that. Taking football as their subject matter, they have helped capture the game’s deep historical meanings and living everyday presence. The Senegalese, Omar Victor Diop, dressed as little-known but important figures from the African diaspora, took a series of self-portraits based on paintings from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. Styled and posed like the African studio photography of the twentieth century, Diop made the twenty-first century connection to these images by adding an object. Pedro Camejo, the only black officer in the army of Simon Bolívar, wearing goalkeeping gloves. Badin, first a slave, then butler and diarist to Princess Sophia of Sweden, holding a red card. The Belgian artist Jessica Hilltout offered no ironies or self-conscious intertextuality in Amen: Grassroots Football, a photo journal of a seven-month trip across rural and small-town Africa from Togo, Mali, and Ghana to Mozambique, Lesotho, and South Africa. If the many photographs of players, feet, home-made sandals and torn sneakers veer towards the gratingly pitiful, her photographs of their hand-made balls are quietly breath-taking. Constructed from twine, condoms, rags, and tape (and each exchanged for a factory-made ball), in Hilltout’s photographs they come to seem like finely cut jewels, testament to the exquisite ingenuity, craft, and resourcefulness of Africa’s poor. The sharply dressed African women in portraits by Nigeria’s Uche James-Iroha seem confident on the ball, and set against tattered football nets, put a face to the rising tide of women’s football in Africa. More straightforward but emotionally richer is Andrew Esiebo’s brilliant series Grannys, double portraits of African women as football players and as grandmothers with their grandchildren. His collection of street football, For the Love of It, shot in South Africa, Nigeria, and Ghana, is the most exceptional of all, capturing in a blaze of chromatic brilliance the harsh environments and momentary joys of the game: teenagers playing three-a-side on a patch of concrete cleared of broken glass beneath the vast raised motorways of Lagos; a cross-legged game of disabled football on the hot tarmac of an Accra taxi rank.

Steered by such imagery one can see that that life is emerging in women’s football in Africa, taking off with what looks like the same kind of energies that fired the men’s game when it first arrived. Africa has acquired its first professional women’s leagues in Nigeria and Burundi, and when Isha Johansen was elected to head the Sierra Leonean Football Federation in 2013, she became its first woman football president. Africa has also acquired its first openly gay male footballer when, in 2016, the second-division South African goalkeeper Phuti Lekoloane came out. This was an act of uncommon bravery on a continent where football has become the site for some of the homophobic moral panics, nurtured by the Evangelical churches and opportunist politicians, that have occupied the African media. In 2009, Uganda’s FA went as far as to systemically outlaw sodomy in its statutes and conduct a witch hunt amongst coaches. In 2013 the Zambian authorities tried to do the same, though both were thwarted by FIFA’s insistence that such statutes were not in accordance with their own. Nonetheless, a vice-president of the Nigerian football federation—a man hitherto silent on widespread accusations of heterosexual abuse in Nigerian football—thought “Lesbianism kills teams. The coaches take advantage.” In South Africa, teams kill lesbians. In 2008, Eudy Simelane, a high-profile out player with the women’s national team, was gang-raped, stabbed twenty-five times, and left for dead in an act of calculated “corrective rape.” Yet the seeds of something else are stirring when, in Botswana, the football association starts supporting five­-a-side tournaments for the nascent LGBT rights community.

Life is also stirring in Africa’s private and civic sectors. It remains the case that the vast majority of clubs in the continent (outside of South Africa) are controlled or funded by state organizations: armies and police forces, city and regional governments, ministries of state and national oil and mining companies. None of this is good for football governance. In the case of Nigeria’s state governments, it is simply disastrous. In this context, the transformation of football clubs into conventional businesses has introduced a degree of transparency, shared decision-­making, and financial responsibility absent hitherto. It has also created a constituency in football with a direct interest in anti-corruption programs. This kind of change has been most invigorating in Kenya, where real advances can be seen in the quality of local football and its governance, but the same process can also be seen at work in South Africa, Tanzania, and even in Nigeria.

One African side has actually made it to a World Cup final: Angola’s amputee football team, runners-up to the Russians in 2014. Their victory was the product of the devastating and widespread use of landmines in the country’s brutal civil war. The same tragic conditions have made Liberia African champions. A transformative sport for the disabled, and the often traumatized and excluded veterans, amputee football has acquired huge public support. The opening match of the 2007 African Cup in Sierra Leone between the hosts and Ghana drew 10,000 people. The same hunger for alternatives to poor-quality professional football can be seen in Senegal, where the neighborhood-based amateur navétanes championships draw bigger crowds and stir infinitely more passions than the moribund official league. In Lagos, young professionals dissatisfied with both the grim conditions of local football and the passive consumerism of the Premier League have started their own amateur tournaments, the Twitter Premier League and Socialiga, as new kinds of social events for urban middle-class youth.

For the hundreds of millions warehoused in the shacks and self-builds of Africa’s slums, there is, before anything else, the problem of where to play. In the absence of public investment, the only options are the rare open spaces in these super­dense neighborhoods and, given the complete absence of municipal refuse services, these are invariably piled high with rubbish and food waste. MYSA, the Mathare Youth Sports Association, was born of this dilemma in one of the largest slums in Nairobi. It now runs football coaching, leagues, and boot libraries for 25,000 youths in Kenya, 5,000 of them young women. Teams score three points for a win, one for a draw, but six for doing their part in a now highly organized clean-up operation (and at least seven members of the squad need to show up). MYSA is also run by the youth of Mathare in a long-standing democratic framework, which has created a pipeline of educated, confident social entrepreneurs and local leaders, and made MYSA the backbone of civil society in the city and a key provider of health and education services. It has also won the World Street Football championships twice. MYSA, though, is just one of a vast archipelago of NGOs that have emerged all across Africa, tapping into the game’s extraordinary social potential. Alive and Kicking were Africa’s first manufacturers of footballs. Based in Kenya, they crafted super-­durable, low-cost leather balls designed to survive on the rough terrains of the continent, selling half and donating half of their output. The Tanzanian club Albino United provided a safe space and an educational tool for football players with the eponymous condition—one which carries a deep and pervasive taboo in much of Africa.

But, perhaps more than anywhere, African football lives in the courtyard of Luzira prison on the south side of Kampala, where Barcelona play Manchester United, then Chelsea play Hannover 96. Built in the 1920s by the British colonial authorities to house 500, Uganda’s highest security prison now holds 3,000 inmates, yet none of the just 100 guards on duty carries a gun. Once a byword for the abuse of human rights and torture, it is now the most humane and successful prison in Africa, with an open-­door policy to the world and a recidivism rate closer to Scandinavia’s than Britain’s or America’s. Its hybrid prison culture draws on western concepts of human rights and individual rehabilitation, Christian notions of redemption and forgiveness, and African traditions of collectivism and restitutive justice. On a day-to-day basis the success of the prison depends on keeping the peace: the consent of the prisoners themselves to the rule of law. This is delivered by UPSA, the Upper Prison Sports Association, and the ten football clubs, Barcelona and Manchester United included, that have been established in Luzira since the mid—2000s. A democratic association with statutes drawn up by staff and prisoners, UPSA elects all its officials, has open accounts, and under spartan conditions runs a player and club registration system, a transfer window and arbitration system, and provides match officials and sponsored tournaments—all with a degree of transparency and efficiency that would put most of the continent’s football associations to shame. The reformers of the English public schools sought through sports to turn out muscular Christian gentleman who would go on to rule the empire. UPSA has attempted something much harder. It has tried to establish a space in which the rule of law is paramount, corruption is not tolerated, and transparency is king. At the same time, UPSA has kept the peace, relieved the boredom and in innumerable cases transformed the lives and outlook of its players and officers. African football is still alive, and it lives in Luzira.

Further Reading