Football, along with births, deaths and marriages, is a universal human rite. In Africa, it's also inescapable. The starting line-up for Chelsea is scratched into the wood shacks of Lagos's floating slums; the FA Cup will be playing live in the bar of a two-camel town in South Sudan; an illegal logger on the side of a volcano in DR Congo is probably wearing a shirt with Rooney written on the back; and a million Messis trick their way past a flurry of tackles from South Africa to Somalia every day.
If you're English, and say so, then football will almost certainly be the first thing you talk about when landing anywhere in Africa. You're not being patronised or accommodated, just welcomed into the commonest conversation to be had: what's happening in the English Premier League.
On a continent too often referred to as though it were a country, football redeems the generalisation. Africa loves football. And football, slowly and unevenly, is being shaped by this relationship. The nature of this phenomenon is explained lovingly in Steve Bloomfield's Africa United.
While most European audiences' only conception of African football has come with recent additions to their own teams or through World Cup shocks, Senegal beating France or Cameroon humbling Argentina, the author takes you further: to Egypt, Sudan, Chad and beyond, to watch the game there. The result is a superior travelogue in which Bloomfield, a self-declared Aston Villa fan, makes for good company.
While the passion for the game is similar wherever he goes, the context changes constantly. In Egypt, which come closest to seeing itself as an African country when celebrating regular successes in the Cup of Nations, football provides a safety valve for an otherwise authoritarian state. The book is at its best when the author plays wide-eyed fan, as when meeting Egypt's captain Ahmed Hassan for a late-night trawl through Cairo. He can't believe he's "in a Porsche with the captain of Egypt" who is on his way at midnight to finish some paperwork at his limousine hire company but finds time to chat to a reporter. Even in Africa's most successful footballing nation, the name of the of the game is distracting attention from the exercise of power.
Africa United also goes off the beaten track to visit some of the continent's footballing minnows. Comparatively well-known stories, such as Didier Drogba and his Ivory Coast teammates' role in reconciling a country rent by civil war, sit alongside more obscure epics - like DR Congo's TP Mazembe and their victorious African Champions League campaign, bankrolled by an almost cartoonish provincial governor.
In Kenya, Bloomfield finds that football is a microcosm of the broader society with a governing body divided by tribal loyalties, hobbling the game and wasting a huge pool of talent in the battle for power and money. While Hollywood remembers South Africa' victory at the 1995 rugby World Cup, recently given the big-screen treatment in Invictus, the unexpected triumph of the football team and the African Cup of Nations that followed a year later explains more about the rainbow nation.
Bafana Bafana, playing with a racial mix that actually reflected the country more than the white Springboks could, beat the continent. It left "Coloured" striker Mark Williams, who scored the winning goals after coming off the bench in the final, with the nickname "nation builder". The author finds that South Africa's relative stagnation since as a footballing power reflects its troubled progress in fulfilling the enormous hope it was burdened with after the largely peaceful passing of apartheid.
This book's point, as Bloomfield admits, is not to create an encyclopedia of African football but to show how the game explains Africa. "It's about how football can rebuild a country, end a war or provide a beacon of light in a time of despair." As the first African World Cup kicks off in Johannesburg, the assumption that African teams "turn up, play with a bit of heart, let in a sloppy goal or two then go home" is getting old. In truth, as Bloomfield points out, it has been old for a while.
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