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4.3 out of 5 stars
Africa United: How Football Explains Africa
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VINE VOICEon 21 July 2010
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Steve Bloomfield writes well, and his intimate knowledge of Africa is very clear without being pushed to the fore inappropriately. There are some very fine sections - I was particularly touched by his description of amputee football, for example - and he makes a number of points that would not be out of place in an academic account of Africa's progress. He avoids the trap of concentrating on the countries that are already well known, and he amply demonstrates the fervour felt for the game even in places that have been starved of success for some years.

His descriptions of corruption tend to be in the past tense. I cannot imagine that he has no current examples, but it is understandable that he might not wish to share those, given that parts of Africa are apparently very dangerous places to be, more so for foreigners than for locals.

I have two small reservations. The accounts of matches are sometimes in the style of a fanzine and jar with the rest of the writing. That is just a minor point, because they take up a small part of the book. The other doubt relates to the decision to write about Africa country by country rather than thematically. This means that, because the same issues arise in multiple places, there is inevitably some repetition, whereas a theme could compare countries, uniting or distinguishing as he thought fit. But this is a small quibble, and I'm not even sure I would have preferred a book written that way.

A book well worth reading for its insight and style.
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Maybe this excellent book from the pen of former Independent correspondent Steve Bloomfield could also carry the alternative suffix `How Football Saved Africa', as, after reading this, that is what appears to be holding the continent together. Taking a trip through thirteen of the 50 or so countries that make up Africa, Bloomfield has mixed the `big guns' of Egypt and Nigeria with those teams that will be perennial strugglers when it comes to qualifying for their own Africa Cup of Nations, such as Chad, Rwanda and Somalia, a country that had the shortest ever World Cup campaign lasting just 90 minutes in losing their pre-qualifying game to gain admission into the qualifying group stages.

However, this isn't a book solely about football. A large percentage of the pages are taken up with the politics of each featured country and how it affects the `beautiful game'. It may sound as if it's a cure for insomnia; it isn't. It is actually very informative in that department, explaining the tribal systems that make up a nation's infrastructure (or lack of it in most instances). It also shows what can happen to a nation's football team when the president/dictator decides to interfere, which is nearly always the case.

What is also unavoidable is how incompetent those same people appear to be. Whilst they are prepared to take their country's natural resources for their own gain, the rest of the nation they claim to love suffers from a chronic lack of investment, football included. (When the team wins, they take the credit; if the team loses, the manager is told not to return.) The redeeming feature is the Premier League. The tentacles of that monster may be inescapable, and mostly to the detriment of local teams, but the African players that ply their trade in England are the ones that have managed to do what no politician has; to unite a country.

Reading this makes you realise that, though football is only a game and there are more important things in life, to most in this book, football really is all they have. It's just a shame that it takes a World Cup tournament to be held on the continent for stories such as this to be made available to a wider public. I mean, how many would read this, or how many books would even be written, if South Africa were not the host nation?
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VINE VOICEon 22 June 2010
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Steve Bloomfield's book is a well-written, easily-digestible run through some of Africa's nations, using the narrative of football to provide a context for the political goings-on in those countries.

It's a concept that could easily appear a little glib or patronising, but his journalistic style, which combines reportage with historical background, steers clear of either.

He is able to describe the progress or otherwise of a football team in a match or over a campaign in the same style as the progress of a country towards (or more usually away from) democracy and fairness, and talk about how their national teams can at the very least offer a hope that many African nations, with their uneasy histories and tribal divisions, can see that there are ways of joining in a common cause.

The football reporting is done well and not, in my opinion, so over-detailed as to be off-putting for those not aren't very familiar with the game to be overwhelmed.

But most importantly, the football stories provide a bit of light relief and hope amongst the tales of, largely, mis-managed and corrupt nations, often at war with themselves or neighbours, and whose people are almost permanently unable to avoid being downtrodden.

It's what makes this book on a par with Richard Dowden's excellent, more detailed and very sobering 'Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles', which chapter after chapter details the often-depressing political and social histories of many African nations, but not always with the element of hope and lighter moments which Bloomfield brings to his book.

Important and well-written though it is, Dowden's work can make taxing bedtime reading, whereas Bloomfield's is a much easier task, not because he shies away from the dark side of what goes in in various nations, but through the hope and occasional humour of episodes involving those countries' national sides.

It's also a great way of engaging the reading football fan with African issues in the context of the current World Cup.

There is a growing consensus, supported by those such as Dowden and Jonathan Dimbleby's recent TV series on Africa, that the continent needs to be understood as a more complex beast than the one portrayed by TV news reports of refugee camps and starving children. African music is one way of showing this, and the its growign popularity should be welcomed, but success of its football teams should be another. The message is simple - given a chance ordinary African people can develop skills and talents which compare in quality withteh West, but with their own stylistic and cultural twists.

As I write the host nation are preparing to take on France to try and make the second round. Let's hope the miserable French side do their duty, roll over and allow Africa a little more hope...
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VINE VOICEon 13 November 2010
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The subtitle of Africa United, How Football Explains Africa, is an extreamly broad area and one which can't possibly be covered in one short book. However, Steve Bloomfield recognises this and instead focusses on 13 African Nations across 10 chapters in his book. Whilst this book doesn't 'Explain Africa,' it certaintly goes a way to explaining the rise of African fooball across the globe. This non-fiction text particularly focusses on retelling historical events of how football has helped to bring people together through desperate times of war and political unrest.

Steve Bloomfield has spent many years in Africa and has interviewed numerous footballers, fans, politicians and others across the continent and thus is extreamly knowledgable. I particularly liked how he put the historical and political circumstances of those countries mentioned to complement the detailed knowledge of the football. There are many themes that run throughout the chapters and I enjoyed reading about how the Ivory Coast team has united the north and south of the country and how football has given amputees hope in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

There is still a long way to go until Africa is seen on a level playing field with many other countries in the world and this is recognised. Whilst the majority of African's support one of the top European clubs and sponsership in practically non-existant, the hope is there and it is that light that Bloomfield captures from the people he meets.

Overall this is a realistic yet optimistic book and a compelling read if you are interested in football and the development of the game in Africa.
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on 19 October 2010
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My first encounter with African football - I suspect like many people now in their 40s - was the hapless Zaïre team at the 1974 World Cup. Three group games, three stuffings, home to meet the displeasure of an angry dictator: a poverty-stricken shambolic team from a poverty-ridden shambolic country, was the media message, present at the World Cup really to make up the numbers and not to be placed in the same league as the big European or South American powers. Fast forward 36 years and African footballers are represented in every major football league, winning plaudits: it's difficult to imagine the Premier League without them. Some African national teams can compete at a high level, as recent World Cups have demonstrated. And yet, when the players based in Europe go home they still, too often, find a poverty-stricken shambolic domestic game in a poverty-stricken country.

So what's going on? Steve Bloomfield sets out to explore the possible answers in this book. The subtitle perhaps overstates the connection between football and wider issues - "How football illustrates Africa" might be a better summary - but clearly this is not simply a story about sport, there are wider issues of economic development to be looked at. You can always spot a colony (or a country that whilst nominally independent is de facto an economic colony) by looking at the infrastructure on the map: a developed country will have roads and railways geared to movement around within the country, whilst a colony will have transport systems designed simply to get resources out: to move minerals or agricultural goods out of the hinterland to the coast and away to the colonising nation that will profit from them. (See, for instance, the railways in Guinea or Mali.) You could look at the many Africans working as footballers in Europe and see them as part of a similar process, as product in a pipeline that strips the country of its resources for use elsewhere, with dubious benefit to the country of origin: to what extent does African football's engagement with the wider world now actually benefit Africans apart from those lucky individuals who get paid Premier League wages?

Bloomfield visits a selection of African countries and reports back on their football scene: some established powers (Egypt, Nigeria), some lesser footballing countries (Kenya) and one that can scarcely even be called a country any more (Somalia). He looks at the issues outlined in the preceding paragraph with a clear eye - he is not simply a sports-junkie on a tour - but also, as a football fan, can identify with sport's power to inspire or to build bridges (see, for instance, amputee football in Liberia, the unifying force of the national side in the Ivory Coast, or the way that the Somalia team is about the only attempt left at creating something that stands for the whole of that failed state). As a journalist based in Africa, he brings to the exercise an ability to find his way around Africa, to find the story, and then to write it up smoothly and readably. The country-by-country method does lead to some repetition - in particular, the themes of corruption and political manipulation recur with depressing regularity. In addition, it has dated a little even now since it was written in the approach to the 2010 World Cup - the first to be held in Africa - and would probably benefit, in the fullness of time, from a new edition that would look at how that did or did not benefit African football. These minor quibbles aside, however, this is a thought-provoking but also lively read, recommended of course to anyone with an interest in world football but also to people with an interest in Africa in general and the problems of international development.
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VINE VOICEon 23 August 2010
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Although clearly motivated by the arrival of the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, this is a thoroughly researched and well considered book by Steve Bloomfield, a journalist with considerable experience of the continent. It doesn't attempt to be comprehensive in its geographical coverage or to paint a full historical picture, but instead it presents detailed insights into a selected range of African countries and their football, ranging from large, strong footballing countries, to those who have no hope of ever reaching a major tournament. Each chapter is about much more than football, as Bloomfield outlines recent political and social events in the country and relates them to the ways in which the game has developed there. There are some fascinating stories of football surviving against the odds, and the ways in which it provides an antidote to corruption, division, poverty and tension. All is not positive, though, as the game has suffered under various regimes and through corruption in a number of countries; interviews and comments from local sources are often revealing and critical. It's sufficiently different from Ian Hawkey's more historically founded Feet of the Chameleon to merit reading both for a fuller picture of the game in Africa. Written in an engaging style, this is a book for any football fans interested in delving beneath the surface level of the recent world cup with its new stadiums and the presence of the world's footballing elite in South Africa.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 6 August 2010
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During the World cup I had a strong desire to do all things football and I decided to read this book to brush up on some of my history and find out who Football became so big in Africa.

Steve Bloomfield really got me interested from the off, the introduction had a lovely little story from his personal experience which I thought was a lovely touch. The book really explains football in Africa and the politics and everything else around it. I felt I learnt a lot from everything I read however like some of the previous reviews have stated, some of the book feels a little rushed, probable due to its world cup release.

In short, if you want to broaden your football knowledge in Africa or just looking for a Football book to read then I am sure this will keep you interested.
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There are some very good things that can be said about this book. For a start it is very well written in a pleasant and informal way. As well as that, the author clearly knows what he is talking about, both as regards soccer and in respect of African politics, and it could be said of the latter that it takes a bit of getting to know. Add to that sound and level-headed judgment, and we have already got a formidable little catalogue of virtues. The other side of the issue, in my own view, is that the book does not live up to its title or to the author's objective, so far as I can understand that.

What Steve Bloomfield is aiming to do is stated in his Introduction. `Football in Africa often reflects the political and cultural struggles that a country is experiencing.' he tells us. It does that anywhere I guess, but a far more arresting statement follows `football can also have an incredible unifying effect.' He reinforces this with a claim that at a time of deep political division in the Ivory Coast football served as a unifying factor. Well, I'm sure it did to some extent, but the extent was probably the duration of the match. The very last words of the book are `For ninety minutes nothing else mattered.' (referring to a game in Somalia), and I read everything in between searching for anything that would give a more general significance to this unifying factor.

The front cover in my edition carries the subtitle `How football explains Africa'. This strapline may of course be editorial and not the author's own, but the book's very title has to be his and it is `Africa United'. Whatever Africa may be, united it ain't, and this choice of title, leading the reader to carry on in the hope of finding some grand overview, is not the best. Really, what I feel this book is crying out for but lacking is generalisation. What can be said about African football overall? Is the aim to illustrate African politics and social issues from football, or to illustrate football from the conditions in Africa? In some cases, e.g. Egypt, we are shown how football came to the government's rescue; but when it comes to Zimbabwe it is the political and economic environment that we are shown affecting the governance of football; and in general the two issues of politics and football seem to march along side by side, with only occasional and temporary interactions.

The book is always threatening to disintegrate into a string of instances and one-off reportage. In particular I felt that I could have done without most of the blow-by-blow reports of matches. There are certainly football supporters who relish and constantly relive this kind of thing, but I imagine that your average follower of the game can remember very little from before his team's most recent match, and that the laboured accounts of free kicks in such-and-such a minute, or time added for injuries on some other occasion, will satisfy neither kind of reader.

One particular theme, though, did strike me as helping to unify the book, though I'm not sure that the author intended this. Near the beginning he relates what may have been a narrow escape in Sudan, and right at the end he ponders the power of the beautiful game to provide another kind of escape, from the unpleasant realities of everyday life and, not infrequently, everyday death. I should not end what has been a comparatively critical notice without at least saying that the book is very readable and interesting, whatever limitations I seemed to detect. It may actually be that reading it as a continuous narrative in the way I did is not the best way of taking it. The chapters are laid out methodically country by country, and I can think of no particular reason why they have to be read in the order as presented. All the same, do please read the Introduction first. I think you will want to form your own idea of what the author may be intending.
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VINE VOICEon 28 October 2010
If you, like me, are intrigued by Africa and a football fan; the sort that eagerly anticipates the African Cup of Nations, then this is a book you must own. Comparable to Simon Kuper's 'Football against the enemy', this book looks at a football topic in varying African nations and lifts the lid to look beyond the game into the country. Africa appears a mystery and unsolveable, but the human side shines through and leaves you wanting to cheer every African team on at the World Cup. African football fans are no different to those anywhere in the world, their beautiful game merely faces rather more challenges.
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on 12 October 2010
I was bought this book by a family member due to my interest in sport and the developing world. Steve Bloomfield has an excellant reputation and his writing style is engaging and very informative. The structure of the book allows you the option of dipping into specific chapters, but the energy keeps you reading.
I enjoyed this book so much I bought a copy for one of my closest friends so that he would understand the details of the references I continually make to the information contained within these pages.
An excellant and informative read that I am sure I will read again in the near future.
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