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BEEN THERE, SEEN THAT
on 6 June 2010
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.