Africans may find their Cup not English enough

Image of Simon Kuper

When the Africa Cup of Nations kicks off in Angola tomorrow, many African soccer fans will ignore it. Instead they will keep gathering in “show houses”, “chicken parlours” and cinemas across the continent to watch the English Premier League. This may be more than a change in viewing habits. Just possibly, it could signify that the brief era of nationalism in Africa is ending.

Of course many Africans, especially in former British colonies, have long consumed English football. In Zimbabwe a decade ago I saw street vendors selling ancient copies of the British football magazine Shoot. White and black yuppies crammed into a Harare sports bar to watch Manchester United. (What has happened to those people since?)

In Uganda, the shared matatu taxis are often painted in the colours of big English clubs. “You’ll Never Walk Alone: Liverpool Football Club”, is a typical decoration. And David Goldblatt, author of the seminal football history The Ball Is Round, describes visiting a Nairobi nightclub for “reggae night” only to find patrons watching a fourth-round English League Cup match on big screens. In Nairobi’s slums, Goldblatt saw tin shacks painted with the elaborately detailed crests of English clubs. On the same trip, he attended the deciding game of the Kenyan championship and discovered: “I was the press corps”. Only one Kenyan journalist had bothered to show up.

So far, so unremarkable: Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe have weak footballing traditions, so no wonder they follow English soccer instead. Supporting Manchester United, say, attaches people to something that feels world-class. But during the 2008 African nations cup, Muhammed Musa, senior lecturer in mass communications at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, returned to his native Nigeria and found something surprising: even Nigerians are turning off African football.

In recent years “football show houses” have opened all over Nigeria, Mr Musa told a football conference in Toronto last month. Often they are simple sheds, where people pay to watch English games as humble as Fulham vs Bolton on television. “These places are jam-packed,” said Mr Musa.

He visited show houses during the African nations cup to observe the crowds, he said, “but to my surprise there were not many people there”. Even when Nigeria played, few Nigerians turned up. The proprietors told Mr Musa the nations cup was ruining their finances: “People are not interested,” they complained. “We can’t wait for this to end so the Premier League can resume.”

Mr Musa polled customers in show houses and found that 90 per cent owned European club souvenirs – replica shirts, for example – but not national ones. He was also struck by what had happened to national television news. The evening bulletin had always been at 9pm, and had helped build the nation by gathering Nigerians in front of the television. In recent years, though, it had sometimes moved if it clashed with a game between two of England’s Big Four clubs. “Now this national ‘we-ness’ is built around Liverpool vs Chelsea,” Mr Musa marvelled.

During some big European games, he said, tensions in Nigerian cities had risen so high that people were reluctant to park their cars in certain spots. Nine deaths were recorded in one town alone when Chelsea and Manchester United met in the Champions League final in 2008. After Barcelona beat Manchester United last year, an angry United fan in Ogbo killed four people when he drove into a crowd of Barca supporters. Mr Musa concluded: “We are seeing people support corporate teams with their lives. The importance of the nation is diminishing, and what is replacing it is allegiance to a corporate club.”

This may sound like an overstatement, but then in much of Africa the nation became an important concept only during the 20th century. In many African countries, the most successful national institution is the national football team. When people stop caring about it, less nation remains.

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