July 8, 2010

Review: Africa United: Soccer, Passion, Politics and the World Cup in Africa

When is a sports book not a sports book?

Steve Bloomfield's Africa United: Soccer, Passion, Politics and the World Cup in Africa is a book "about" soccer. But only in the abstract. Really, it's about politics and culture of the most misunderstood and under-studied— at least in North America— continent on the globe.

The book wasn't quite what I expected, but that's just fine. It isn't anything like a complete narrative history of soccer on the African continent. For starters, that book would likely be at least 800 pages and would reference many things a fair-weather soccer fan such as myself just wouldn't know about. It would be like an Englishman trying to make sense of George Will's Men At Work or Bissinger's Friday Night Lights— just not going to happen unless you have a deep knowledge of the game.

Luckily, Bloomfield's book reads less like a history and more like a compendium of post 1970-African history. It doesn't take on any sort of narrative structure; instead each chapter is a journalistic vinaigrette on a specific country (or countries). You might call them travel pieces, but they're not the work of an outsider looking in. Bloomfield is a former African correspondent for some UK newspapers. The book talks about soccer, yes, but it's more about HOW soccer relates to the political, social and cultural history of the countries profiled in the book.

As I explained to Econ just a short while ago, Africa United is what you'd get if the Economist ever tried its hand at sports writing.

Bloomfield isn't a sportswriter and, thankfully, doesn't try to write like one. But it's clear that he's a big soccer fan, so he knows the game as well as he knows African politics.

The looks at the game on the field are brief. They're well-written but not earth-shattering game reporting. Mostly, he writes about the matches so he can observe the fans and relate them to other political contexts. In one chapter, for example, he details the rivalry between Sudan and Chad. They were drawn together during the qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations in 2008. They're two of the worst teams in Africa.

Like I said, though, it's not about the games. Sudan and Chad have also fought one another in a series of guerrilla conflicts dating back to the 1970s (Sudan accused Chadian rebels of getting involved in the whole Darfur thing, while Chad likewise accused Sudan of supporting rebels in their own civil war).

I hadn't known anything about this until I read the book. I think most Westerners have a similar lack of knowledge about the going-ons in Africa.

That's why Bloomfield's book is so useful. It uses something everyone DOES know about (soccer... so, I guess everyone but USA and Canada) to events they would otherwise have little exposure to.

For some reason, I've always been interested in Africa. Especially the colonial and postcolonial experience— one of the reasons why I love reading Joseph Conrad, VS Naipaul, Doris Lessing, Chinua Achebe, etc. That's why I decided to pick the book randomly off the shelf a few weeks ago. It's a great, quick read for anyone interested in learning a little more about that continent that nobody except Bono seems to care about. (It's sad, but true... how many Africans besides Nelson Mandela could most Americans name?)

I just wish I had picked it up BEFORE the World Cup began so I would have had some context when I watched Bafana Bafana and the Super Eagles.

Also: Bloomfield maintains two blogs. One is called simply Africa United, and it is about the World Cup. The other, Things Seen and Heard, is about general African current events. Needless to say, I'm following both of them now. Part of me feels like I should subscribe to the Economist so I would know about this stuff. Except $200 is a little steep for a weekly reading on Burkina Faso elections. Anyone have any other ideas for keeping up with international affairs?

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Anonymous Econ said...

Hugo Weaving.

July 8, 2010 at 10:47 PM 
Blogger JHitts said...

You had to look that up. Also, you're not a 'typical' American.

July 8, 2010 at 11:05 PM 
Blogger Naomi said...

Kofi Annan. Haile Selassie. That's all I got. Pretty sad.

July 9, 2010 at 2:06 PM 
Blogger JHitts said...

I guess I could amend that to "Could Americans name very Africans that aren't dictators, Desmond Tutu or Nelson Mandela?" Kofi Annan's a good one, though, I hadn't thought about him. And I guess Orthodox (and millions of "Rastafarian" stoners everywhere) know Haile Selassie. But you probabaly have to think harder to come up with many others. I know I do.

July 9, 2010 at 3:05 PM 
Blogger M. Perkins said...

Well now I know Koman Coulibaly, so we can call the cultural side of the World Cup a success!

I've also got Charlize Theron, Amadou et Mariam, Esau something from the Very Best. And if we're talking historically, Saints Augustine and Athanasius. And King Tut. Also Percy Montgomery was the South African Rugby hero from 2007.

But Egypt and South Africa hardly count, right?

How about Barack Obama? (that's a Tea Party joke, for the record, and it's hilarious)

July 10, 2010 at 7:11 PM 
Blogger JHitts said...

I wouldn't say Egypt and South Africa "don't count," but don't many Egyptians see themselves as Arabs though? That might be a whole different can of worms.

South Africa counts, though. Except, I'm pretty sure there are about 520 Americans, tops, who could name one rugby player, so they don't count as someone a "typical American" would know. (And neither does Matt Damon.) I would say that white South Africans don't count either, but that just sounds stupid. Although, I just looked up "white Africans" and Dave Matthews was on the list. Had no idea on that one.

I think the point is, notable, recognizable Africans are few and far between for most Americans. Obviously everyone will know random exceptions, but our (mine included) knowledge of Africa is sadly limited.

(Except for Barack Obama! I forgot about that guy! LOLZ!)

July 12, 2010 at 12:35 AM 
Blogger SC said...

No shit, Hugo Weaving's from Africa?

Also, the book sounds like Invictus, except not for rugby and not just for South Africa.

July 12, 2010 at 5:08 PM 
Blogger M. Perkins said...

Also had no idea about Huge Weaving. I think the whole name-dropping thing is more for amusement than to refute your point about Africa. Obviously it's true if each of us can only scrape the barrel for a handful of names.

I was mostly joking about South Africa and Egypt not counting. Though when I think of the former I see Danny Glover's "has been revoked" shooting of that "Diplomatic immunity!" South African asshole in whatever Lethal Weapon installment I'm talking about. And when I think of the latter, well, I think of Arabs (as Jack Donaghy says about calling his girlfriend a "Puerto Rican," that just does not sound right).

Have you guys ever heard Afrikaans or someone with an Afrikaans accent? It's pretty sweet. I met a German in Oktoberfest who learned English in Australia, and his German-Australian English accent sounded South African.

Someone recently told me Dave Matthews was from South Africa. I think I always imagined that he grew up in Alabama and met LeRoi Moore at a bar in Tuscaloosa.

July 12, 2010 at 8:25 PM 

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