by Steve Bloomfield
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Talk about a thankless task: writing a book about a sport that few people in this country care about, as played on a continent that few people in this country seem to care about. The World Cup in South Africa, however, provides British journalist Steve Bloomfield with an opportunity to shed a little light on the world’s most disadvantaged continent and its most popular sport – and the many ways the two are intertwined.
Bloomfield is a Nairobi-based correspondent for several UK media outlets, including The Independent, Monocle and formerly The Observer. As he writes in the acknowledgments, Africa United was spawned by an attempt to understand the complexities of Kenyan politics through its soccer. That strategy works surprisingly well, as each of the 10 chapters – covering 13 nations across the continent – touches on that particular country’s history, wars, recent political struggles and other conflicts. Investigating all that through the lens of soccer, both local club teams and the national team, Bloomfield also examines the people playing the sport and those working behind the scenes.
His thesis, then, is that states are only as honest as the people running the institutions, and in most cases here – such as Zimbabwe – if the men and women behind the football association are corrupt then odds are things are also rotten at higher levels. He’s a firm believer that sports can unite divided peoples, and while that’s not a new idea, Bloomfield expresses it in a breezy, readable way that’s entertaining and informative.
There’s no shortage of football travelogues, but Africa United bests many of them right off the bat with two distinct advantages. For one thing, Bloomfield approaches the material from a reporter’s point-of-view, writing as much about the socio-economic situation in each country as much as he does the soccer. Secondly, he’s judicious with the soccer, writing only as much as necessary without going overboard – a critical problem in many similar books, such as Jonathan Wilson’s Behind The Curtain, which chronicles football in post-Soviet Eastern Europe. Too often in Wilson’s book and others like it, too much focus is placed on recalling games, leaving the casual reader lost amid descriptions of grounds, teams and players he or she knows little or nothing about. Granted, there’s plenty of match descriptions here, but Bloomfield has an eye for color and catching the entire scene of the experience, not just the action on the field, making for a livelier read than just a play-by-play commentary.
Most memorable, however, are Bloomfield’s excursions beyond the pitch, including visits to a Coca-Cola plant in Somalia, run-ins with Zimbabwean police and matches between Sierra Leone’s amputee football league. As with similar titles, he also touches on the worldwide dominance of the English Premiere League and illustrates that in nations with struggling soccer teams, clubs like Chelsea, Manchester United and Bloomfield’s beloved Aston Villa are often more important to the people than their own local clubs, such is the reach of globalization.
The author’s background as a news reporter – as opposed to a sports correspondent – proves a huge advantage, as Bloomfield is adept at succinctly summarizing complex ethnic, tribal and regional conflicts in many African nations without getting bogged down in details or letting it overwhelm the reader. Furthermore, each chapter is peppered with anecdotes – such as his visit to a South African soccer stadium being renovated for the World Cup – that flesh out the particular story he’s trying to tell, never coming across as forced or over done.
The stated, altruistic purpose behind having the World Cup in South Africa was to show that Africa is more than just wars, famine and disease. Africa United, then, is a timely look at one of the world’s most misunderstood regions and the crucial role soccer serves there, both in bringing peoples together and – often more importantly – providing a unifying, entertaining diversion from everything else going on in that part of the world.