Interview With Steve Bloomfield: World Cup 2010 and ‘Africa United’
Travel Interviews: Frank Bures speaks to the author of a new book about the World Cup and Africa
06.11.10 | 8:12 AM ET
We hear a lot about soccer in Europe and Latin America, but less about its role in Africa. As we’ll see during the World Cup, African nations are mad about the sport. It’s woven itself into the fabric of life across the continent. How deep is it woven? Steve Bloomfield traveled from Somalia to Sierra Leone to South Africa to find out, a trip he chronicles in his new book, Africa United: Soccer, Passion, Politics and the First World Cup in Africa. I caught up with Bloomfield, who lives in Nairobi, via email to ask him about it.
World Hum: What does having the World Cup in South Africa mean for the continent?
Steve Bloomfield: This World Cup has the potential to begin to change the way the rest of the world views Africa. For an entire month one of the world’s biggest stories will take place in Africa and, with the odd exception, it should be an overwhelmingly positive one.
Any thoughts on why the sport has achieved such widespread popularity in Africa?
For exactly the same reasons that soccer is popular throughout the rest of the world. It truly is the global game: played in the streets of Nairobi, the refugee camps of eastern Congo and in the parks of Johannesburg. It is also a very cheap game—you don’t even need a proper ball, a few rags or plastic bags tied up with string is often enough.
You note that the world loves to hear about Africa’s ills, while ignoring the “economic, technological and cultural renaissance” there. Why do you think that is?
It’s partly a consequence of how news works. Bad news is far more interesting than good news, so the wars, failed elections and humanitarian crises get most coverage. So even when there are positive stories they don’t quite fit with the way most of us view Africa. By understanding what soccer means in Africa and how it works, I hope it makes it easier to put the more positive changes in context.
You write about the frequent mixing of politics and soccer in African soccer teams. Are there signs that that conflict between the politics and the sport is being resolved anywhere?
Kenyan soccer has been notoriously corrupt for decades, but there are signs that things are starting to improve. The clubs set up an independent premier league and persuaded Supersport, a pan-African satellite broadcaster, to sponsor it. It has been a huge success—both competitive and clean—and could be a great model for other countries.
On balance, in places like Somalia and Zimbabwe, do you think soccer serves as more of distraction, or a reason for hope? Or some mix of both?
A reason for hope. The fact that Somalia, a country riven by a wave of civil wars for more than a generation, has a national soccer team is in itself an incredible achievement. They are, by their own admission, not very good. In fact, they’re one of the worst teams in the world. But for Somalia it really is the taking part that counts.