Africa United: Soccer, Passion, Politics, and the First World Cup in Africa
Harper Perennial, 2010
299 pp., $14.99
How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization
Harper Perennial, 2010
288 pp., $14.99
World Cup Time
I've watched my seven children have a go at it in the suburbs of Chicago. I've seen children give it a rip in the slums of Nairobi, on the hillsides of Rwanda, in the parks of Bucharest, and in the dusty courtyards of Kabul. It's soccer. And it rules. And finally, after an interminable four-year wait, the World Cup begins again. This year's event will be held June 11-July 11 in South Africa, that continent's first-ever opportunity to host the world's greatest sporting event. (I waste no space defending or justifying this self-evident truth.)
In the predictable cunning of the market, and just in time for the Cup, loads of soccer-themed books have issued forth for our reading pleasure. Franklin Foer's How Soccer Explains the World and Steve Bloomfield's Africa United can be seen as high- and middlebrow efforts to situate "the beautiful game" in contexts beyond the pitch. Both writers are professional journalists with a mad love for the sport. Both give us fluid, engaging accounts not just of soccer and its teams and their fans but also of the important cultural and political roles the game has in countries across the globe. And both have their confessed loyalties: Barcelona for Foer, Aston Villa for Bloomfield. (The expression of their loyalties reflects the status of each club: For Foer, Barca, that perennial European soccer power, represents "one of God's greatest gifts to leisure time"; Bloomfield simply acknowledges that "finding a Villa fan in Nairobi is impossible.") It must gall Bloomfield to have his book published under the title Africa United, with a bold red cover, as both clearly suggest Manchester United, the bête noir of his beloved Aston Villa. But such is the price we pay when we dance to the market's tune.
Now we embark upon a month unlike any other. As Bono claims in one of those ESPN/World Cup commercials, "this is the one month every four years when we all agree on one thing." While neither of these books attempts to tell the story of soccer with the encyclopedic sweep of David Goldblatt's 2006 history The Ball is Round, both do have interesting stories to tell, and both are well worth reading at this particular moment, although for different reasons.
If one wants a single book to better understand the meaning and significance of this particular World Cup, then Bloomfield's Africa United is the one. His book is clearly a one-off, written to capitalize on this historic moment of the World Cup coming to Africa. Having lived in Nairobi since 2006 as a correspondent for the UK's Independent, Bloomfield recounts his travels up and down the continent, "searching for the stories which put Africa's soccer in context." In Africa, he says, "soccer can rebuild a country, end a war or provide a beacon of light in time of despair," and he proceeds to persuade us that this claim is not mere hyperbole. The story of soccer in Africa thus contributes to what Bloomfield calls "Africa's economic, technological, and cultural renaissance," a promising trend "ignored in much of the West." Here then is a narrative counter to our standard, media-driven impressions. But only somewhat. For while there is hope, beauty, and possibility in Bloomfield's account, there are also the all-too-familiar themes of corruption, violence, and abuse. As he acknowledges, "soccer in Africa often reflects the political and cultural struggles that a country is experiencing." Thus, Bloomfield complicates our understanding of Africa rather than romanticizing it. His Africa feels real because of both the beauty and the corruption he finds there.
Each chapter in Africa United is a set-piece that involves a team or two (club or national), several characters around whom Bloomfield builds his story, and some riveting political and cultural analysis. Perhaps the most moving is his eighth chapter, which centers on the Leone Stars of Sierra Leone versus the Lone Stars of Liberia. At the outset we meet Moussa Manseray, who asks the author to simply call him Messi (after the Argentine striker Lionel Messi, arguably the current best player in the world). Like Messi, Manseray is fast and possesses great ball control. But now Bloomfield comes with the clincher: "There's one big difference between them, though. Moussa has only one leg." What has soccer done for Sierra Leone? It could not stop that country's civil war (though in Ivory Coast it could and did), but it could provide a source of play, passion, and purpose for the war's thousands of amputee victims. Soon after the fighting stopped, the first soccer team of amputees was formed. This was followed by five clubs and then the creation of a national amputee team. This has become a continent-wide movement, with Liberia winning the 2009 Africa Cup of Nations for Amputees. Like wheelchair basketballers in the United States, amputee footballers in Africa have enjoyed both social and psychological rewards from this civil society experience. Soccer's small step in national reconciliation is remarked upon by one player, Samuel Eastman, who confides to the author that he has no problem playing on the same team as former rebels. States Eastman, "If we can come together, then the whole country can come together."