x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Just for kicks

As global attention turns to South Africa for the Fifa World Cup,we look at the rash of books about football on the continent.

Boys play football in the coastal town of Hobyo in northeastern Somalia.
Boys play football in the coastal town of Hobyo in northeastern Somalia.

Television cameras across the planet might be trained on the pitches of South Africa this month, but an imminent Fifa World Cup also brings with it scores of new books. Some will be histories of the most-watched sporting tournament on earth: Brian Glanville's The Story of the World Cup, revised every four years, is certainly the first stop for football academics. There are, too, plenty of guides (official and non-official) to the national teams that have qualified and the cities in which they will play.

But this year, as the World Cup goes to Africa for the first time, the bar has been set much higher. The story isn't so much about the professional footballers and their national teams, but the ordinary people who play the game on the incredibly diverse continent. "At the same time that the world's gaze is going to be on Africa, African football has never been so big - every top European club has an African player," says Steve Bloomfield, the author of Africa United: How Football Explains Africa. "So it's important to put that in some sort of context and explain where these guys come from and what football means to them. I wanted it to be about football in Africa rather than African football if you see what I mean - for me, it's not about the goals and the games, who won and who lost, although that obviously plays a part."

In his engaging travelogue around 13 African states, the former Africa correspondent for The Independent deliberately omits three countries that have qualified for the World Cup: Ghana, Cameroon and Algeria. It doesn't matter; perhaps the most memorable chapter tells the story of Bloomfield's journey to Somalia, a country where certain elements of the insurgency kill anyone suspected of being a footballer, as it's seen as a western conceit. But before he leaves, Bloomfield takes part in a game in the street.

"I think Somalia sums up the book," Bloomfield says. "Football in Africa is one of those normal things you get everywhere. It's important to show that even in Mogadishu, people love their football as much as they do in London. In Monrovia (Liberia) and Freetown (Sierra Leone) people are passionate about football, although sadly they're often passionate about English clubs rather than their own ones. That was one of the things I wanted to say... it's as much a part of everyday life as anywhere else.

"Meeting the Somali football team in Uganda, I just saw this incredible spirit - the fact they even have a football team is amazing when you consider one centre back from Mogadishu is running the risk of being killed every day, and his defensive partner, Guled Adan, is a bouncer at the Trocadero in London. "For them, the cliché of not winning but taking part is absolutely true. They can go to tournaments in Africa, fly their flag and say 'we're representing Somalia', even if they lose - and they almost always do."

Bloomfield says that Africa is so rich in stories like these that some chapters of the book practically wrote themselves. "There's an inherent drama in juxtaposing the bad with the good," he says. "In some countries football can be used for quite negative purposes. But then you go to the Ivory Coast and Somalia, football really brings the people together. You want to paint a picture of a continent, warts and all."

These kinds of contradictions are all too common - which is perhaps why so many authors have written about them in the run-up to the World Cup in South Africa. Strangely, though, the continent hasn't been a fertile ground before now. "There definitely aren't enough books about football in Africa - not nearly as many as the other important football cultures of the world have generated," says Ian Hawkey, the author of the similarly expansive look at Africa's relationship with football, Feet of the Chameleon.

It's an interesting point. Since Simon Kuper's Football Against the Enemy in 1994, football books that explore a broader subject matter than merely the sport - "countries and cultures rather than clubs and players", as Hawkey puts it - have become more and more prevalent. He cites Jonathan Wilson's Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football, Alex Bellos's Futebol, about the game in Brazil, and David Winner's Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football as excellent examples of the form.

This is not to say Hawkey's book, which was first published last year, is the first to do the same for Africa. He is keen to mention books by Peter Auf der Heyde (Has Anybody Got A Whistle?) and the Italian writer Filippo Ricci (Scusate il Ritardo) as entertaining chronicles of trips around Africa by sports reporters. Samuel Akpabot, a Nigerian journalist, also captured the social context of the sport in the 1980s with Football in Nigeria. So, armed with the knowledge that these kinds of books are sought after, as well as his experiences in Nigeria, Egypt, Zimbabwe and South Africa, Hawkey felt in a good position to tell the stories of why football has a universal appeal on the continent.

"And I hoped to try and tell some of the history of the game in Africa, the significant episodes and how football is tied into the huge political and social changes on the continent in the last 100 years or so," he says. "But it's also vital to try and convey the joy of football in Africa. When Africa makes international news, it is most often bad news." Peter Alegi, whose African Soccerscapes is another new, perhaps more scholarly, look at the history of the game on the continent, is just as keen to ensure his book corrects these misconceptions. He says he hopes the book will challenge "one-dimensional depictions of Africa as a backward, tribal continent populated by victims of war, corruption, famine and disease".

In African Soccerscapes, he quotes a letter sent by Thabo Mbeki to the Fifa president Sepp Blatter, in which the former South African president wrote that winning the right to stage the tournament would "send ripples of confidence from the Cape to Cairo" and might "turn the tide on centuries of poverty and conflict". Like Hawkey, Alegi points to CLR James's cricket book Beyond a Boundary as a kind of template for what he wanted African Soccerscapes to be. "I was entranced by a radical black intellectual who took cricket seriously - a quintessentially colonial game - and used it to deepen our understanding of social change in Trinidad and the West Indies," he says.

Alegi carries on that tradition, but in unexpected ways. Readers might think that someone whose work often explores the social history of Africa would be scathing of the post-colonial world. But he is keen to point out that the successes and failures of, for example, the football academy system in Ivory Coast - which at its best gives talented youngsters hope and at its worst is barely disguised human trafficking - are not necessarily an African phenomenon, but a global problem.

"Like everywhere else in the world, football unites while it divides, and this paradox is at the heart of the global game's history, culture and popularity. The academy system captures both the empowerment and disempowerment that flows in and out of the game. And it's true that West Africa is the epicentre of this. "But what you can't do is suggest it's some sort of European neocolonialist conspiracy, because Africans are heavily involved in almost every link of this global commodity chain. People make their own history but not in circumstances of their choosing. This is Africans shaping their own destiny."

Which, in the end, is hopefully the real legacy of these books - and the Fifa World Cup.