Soccer slums: The truth about African football

African football is in the spotlight as the World Cup kicks off in Johannesburg this week. But the truth about the game in the slums and shanty towns of the poorest continent is not as the marketing men would have you believe
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It wasn't a big game by local standards. St John's versus the National Youth Congress in a friendly. It didn't even merit a mention on the chalkboards of the nearby video shacks – the barometer of status in the football-mad slums of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya and East Africa's most populous city.

The climax of La Liga (football league) in Spain had top billing at Stamford Bridge – not the opulent west-London home of Chelsea FC but a one-room hut with a television, a tin roof and exposed wiring in the deprived and dangerous Korogocho slum. Outside, on a mud pitch, sodden from unseasonal rains, one player stood out from the kick-and-rush contest. Wearing number 16, Peter Odhiambo appeared to have more time on the ball. His superior control brought occasional calm to a game which was otherwise a flurry of speed and sinew. While teammates called out to each other by nickname – screaming for "Joe Cole", "Messi" or "Nemanja" to pass the ball – Peter, known only as "Captain", languidly directed the play.

Not that anyone was watching.

Behind the goalmouth, a scramble of kids in plastic flip-flops was practising step-overs and juggling the ball. Matatu minibuses, one of them sporting a hand-painted portrait of Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas, cut across the corner of the field, dodging the afternoon traffic.

Welcome to football as it's most often played in Africa.

The problem for Peter is that there are only four teams in East Africa with a real following: Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool – and he doesn't play for any of them. St Johns, even when it's not a friendly, just doesn't cut it. The slum team plays in the equivalent of Kenya's third division.

Peter is an avid Manchester United fan who has been a keen player since he was six years old and spent much of that time dreaming of making it to England. "When I was 15, I was really good in playing football," the midfielder explains. "Some people used to tell me this football can make you be rich and be famous. Since people kept telling me I would make it, I had that vision."

In 2004, Peter was selected by another club to go to the Norway Cup, the international youth tournament held annually in Oslo that is always heavy with scouts from the major European clubs. It could have been his big break. But Peter, who was born in Kisumu on the shore of Lake Victoria and came to Korogocho when he was a toddler, didn't have a passport.

He didn't have a birth certificate either – which is an even bigger deal on a continent where many young players are encouraged to pretend that they are younger than they really are. A helpful official told him it could all be sorted out for a small consideration – about £20 for the birth certificate and another £40 for the passport. Unfortunately for Peter, that was £60 more than he had.

"There was no time, they needed players who were ready to go," he explains. "Where was I ever going to find that kind of money? I didn't have the papers so they took another person."

Now 22, Peter is the same age as McDonald Mariga, who recently became the first Kenyan to play in the UEFA Champions League. Indeed Mariga, also a rangy midfielder, now plays for the new European champions – Inter Milan, a club he arrived at after spells with Helsingborg in Sweden and Parma in Italy.

A couple of months ago, while the rest of the world was watching Chelsea's Champions League clash with Inter to see whether José Mourinho could put one over on his old team, Kenyans tuned in to see whether one of their own would come off the bench to make his European debut. He did, as a late substitute in the second leg, with the Italian side winning 3-1 on aggregate.

Mariga – who was also wanted during the last transfer window by Manchester City – got his break in Sweden after being spotted playing for a Kenya youth team as a teenager. Along with Paul Scholes, he is Peter's favourite player, a strong tackler and a good defender – and Peter watches him at every opportunity: "If you want to play like someone you must see the tactics they're using," he explains.

Seeing his countryman playing in the Champions League while he is still playing in the mud of Korogocho hasn't deflated the captain, however. "I was happy," says Peter. "Young footballers will see him and think: 'Yes, I can make it'."

As the anticipation builds towards the kick-off in Johannesburg on Friday of Africa's first World Cup, the spotlight will be on the continent's star players. The international popularity of Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto'o means that Ivory Coast and Cameroon aren't now always associated in the popular imagination with civil war – or presidents who forgot to leave office – but with goals scored and trophies lifted, too.

This summer's tournament will encourage millions of new Peters to start dreaming. What no one wants to dwell on for too long is the life that awaits those who fall short.

It's an everything-or-nothing situation.

Korogocho – where St John's plays – is the most notorious of Nairobi's 200 slums. The team is sponsored by the Church from which it takes its name and is part of a programme of youth projects run by the Catholic charity Cafod. Nearby, the church also runs a school, where the children have been encouraged to paint a mural of their area.

The slum, which is home to 120,000 people crammed into one square kilometre, is divided into villages – and each village has been depicted with its own characteristics. One has a hypodermic needle and some pills; another, a knife; and a third, a gun. It's a rough neighbourhood, to say the least.

Kevin Ofware, the goalkeeper for St John's, came up the hard way. As a child, he scavenged for rubbish on the Dandoro tip, an ocean of refuse that first gave birth to the slum. He scavenged for anything that wealthier Kenyans might have thrown away that could be recycled, climbing for hours over rotting garbage full of broken bottles and the occasional syringe.

"You had to live with the bullies," he remembers. "They harass the younger ones; they take what you've gotten and sometimes you're even beaten."

Kevin's big chance in football came when he was 15 and was invited to attend a youth trial for an academy in a wealthier area. When he got there he found that most of the other boys were a lot older than they pretended to be. He wasn't selected. "It happens," he reflects. "If you're the only real 16-year-old there, the chances of you being picked are very small. You're in high school and you're playing against men."

Peter agrees. "Now I'm 22 maybe the coach will encourage me to change my age," he says. "The coaches are the people who will urge you that there's still time. Since you're a good player and you're not recognised."

Surprisingly, both of them still believe that they will make it on to a bigger stage. "If you're good at what you do, you'll get noticed," says Kevin.

"I still have three years before I say it's over," Peter adds. "I'm still young, I can still get to Europe."

In reality, however, the odds are against them. Africa's football icons like Nigeria's Nwankwo Kanu were typically scouted as teenagers and then developed in the European club system. Transfers of older players from sub-Saharan Africa are practically unheard of.

For players who remain in the Kenyan league, the rewards are meagre. Being a professional can mean earning as little as £40 a month, according to Bob Munro, the chairman of Mathare United, the 2009 Kenyan league champions.

Kenya won't be at the World Cup finals and the country is more famous for its runners than its footballers. It's not among the continent's heavyweights, like Nigeria, Ivory Coast or Ghana. But the game's recent history in Kenya would be recognisable to fans all over the continent.

Just as it is everywhere else, from Sudan to Zimbabwe, football is wildly popular here – but the English Premier League is king. During the second half of the 1980s and the early 1990s, corruption and political interference hobbled the previously popular local league. According to Bob Munro, well-connected teams would not be relegated, and trophies would be decided in backrooms rather than on the pitch. The fans simply got fed up.

When satellite television arrived, homegrown football was no match for the English game. And more than a decade later, Nairobi is full of video shacks painted with names like "Theatre of Dreams" or "The Emirates", where fights break out over games played a world away in rainy Manchester or London. Some of the poorest people in the world queue up at these shacks weighed down with a satellite dish in order to send money to the richest professional league on earth in micropayments of 10p a time. This is football as it's most often watched in Africa.

Of course, the thing about African football is that there's no such thing. North Africa stands apart, and club football in Egypt could hardly be more different from that in the Democratic Republic of Congo if it were played on another continent. The Cairo derby between Al-Ahly and Zamalek competes for intensity, commercial and political importance with any match in Europe.

In West Africa, Ghana's most keenly anticipated showdown is between the traditional rivals Hearts of Oak and Kotoko, whereas Zambia's top-of-the-table meeting is between corporate successes Zanaco and Zesco – teams named after a commercial bank and the national power corporation respectively.

While the Kenyan experience of empty stadiums and slavish attachment to the English Premier League isn't unique, South Africa offers a noteworthy exception. Its league is popular and well-supported and supplies the bulk of the team playing host at this month's tournament.

Generalisations, however, are useful – and with the African World Cup hoving into view, we're going to be hearing a lot of them.

It seems as though the big advertisers on the continent have decided that Africa is a country not a continent. South Africa's leading mobile-phone operator is marketing itself under the banner of Africa United; Guinness features a fictional football scout in a non-specific African country finding talent in every town; while the main satellite broadcaster features vignettes from the future of wise old African men from Luanda to Lagos reminiscing about the best time of their life watching the finals on television.

The constant message from the footballing authorities is the same. Issa Hayatou, the president of the African Football Confederation, and Danny Jordaan, the head of South Africa's World Cup Organising Committee, are word perfect in their agreement: "Football offers the one platform on which Africa can compete equally," they say. But there are two assumptions embedded in all of this: first, that Africa has an unequal relationship with the rest of the world, and second, that in football it's different.

David Goldblatt, an expert on world football and the author of The Ball is Round, a respected political history of the game, is not convinced. "Does Africa compete on equal terms?" he asks. "The harsh truth is that most of the time international results correlate with GDP per capita and population size – and on the former if not the latter, Africa just cannot compete."

"In the past 20 years, the trickle of African talent to the rest of the world has become a flood," he continues. "Satellite TV, global labour markets, football scouts and academies have performed the same function as colonial railways – getting the raw materials out of Africa and into Europe. In this case, the raw material is talent. As with so much of Africa's trade, the return is poor in terms of money and skills flowing back to the domestic game."

In the hyped-up environment of a World Cup year, South Africa, which has the best league on the continent outside Egypt, has been derided in some quarters of the media for having a weak national team. By contrast, Ghana is lionised for its Europe-based stars. But football at home in Ghana has been hollowed out – not just the biggest stars but the top 250 players have left to ply their trade abroad, often in the lower leagues of Europe, leaving the grassroots game at home in a terrible state.

Whatever the shortcomings of the game's relationship with the continent, the ideas of "football as hope" and "football as progress" have become articles of faith for millions of Africans. Munro, who was a senior UN official before he retired to concentrate on running Mathare, explains that in Kenya, where 70 per cent of people are "desperately poor", the "religion of football" has taken its place in the ritual of the weekend, alongside going to church: "The need to believe in something bigger than yourself means football on Saturday and God on Sunday," he says.

Back in the slums of Korogocho, Kevin's faith in football is not blind – and while he admits that he worries sometimes that he won't make it as a player, he's sure that with "the little education" he has, he will do something with his life. Goalkeepers are often unusual characters so it's no surprise that Kevin isn't copying his friends in supporting Brazil at the World Cup. He will be cheering for Ghana – "the team I feel closest to" – after meeting some of their players at a training session ahead of a friendly in Kenya.

The thoughtful goalie understands the popular attachment to success at the cost of supporting local endeavour, but it's not for him. "We like celebrating what we don't produce," he says ruefully. "We shun what we do produce."

Against all odds: Five African footballers who made it to the top

Emmanuel Adebayor

The 26-year-old striker from Togo currently plays for Manchester City after moving from Arsenal last summer for £25m. Began his career at local side Sporting Club de Lomé, playing for the Under-15s before being scouted by French side Metz.

Samuel Eto'o

With three Champions League trophies, two African Cup successes, and four League championships during his time at Barcelona and Inter, 29-year-old Eto'o is the most decorated African player of all time. Born in Nkon, Cameroon, the striker made his debut aged 14.

Kolo Touré

Born in Bouaké, Ivory Coast, Touré's parents moved him and younger brother Yaya to capital city Abidjan, where there is a football academy, to further their ambition. The defender attracted interest from Arsenal and the 29-year-old now plays for Manchester City.

Didier Drogba

From Abidjan, the striker moved to France in his teens to play for Levallois. Spent seven years playing for French sides before signing for Chelsea in 2004 for £24m. The 32-year-old is the Ivory Coast's record goal scorer with 43 goals.

Michael Essien

The midfielder was brought up in Accra, Ghana, playing for the national team at the U-17 Fifa World Champs in 1999, which eventually led to him joining French side Bastia. Moved to Chelsea for £26m from Lyons in August 2005.

Words by James Orr