June 10, 2010


World Cup Time: Two must-reads for soccer fans and neophytes. (Ashley Woodiwiss, 6/10/2010, Books & Culture)

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."

It's in Bloomfield's final chapter, on South Africa, that we find the reason for the global appeal of this game. The words come from John "Shoes" Moshoeu, a black former player on the "rainbow" South Africa national team that won the 1996 African Cup, who describes what soccer meant for blacks under apartheid: "We could forget about everything and just play." Among human games, soccer possesses the most accessible possibility for such playful forgetfulness. For as Shoes goes on to explain:

You can play anywhere, anytime. You don't need specific equipment. You can get something round to kick about. For me, soccer is a poor man's sport. It has given a lot of people from underprivileged societies a lease of life. It was something that would make us happy.

What does the World Cup mean for Africa? A chance to show the world how happiness can still be found in the midst of misery. That's no small lesson to meditate upon while in relative comfort and security we watch the Super Eagles (Nigeria), the Indomitable Lions (Cameroon), the Black Stars (Ghana), the Elephants (Ivory Coast), the Desert Foxes (Algeria), and Bfana Bfana ("the boys," South Africa). The Cup in Africa? Yes, please.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 10, 2010 1:37 PM
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