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'300 million were regularly tuning in' - Inside Africa's obsession with Premier League football

In an extract from his book, David Goldblatt looks at the continent’s remarkable devotion to the English top flight.

Arsenal and Chelsea are two of the most widely supported English teams in Africa.
Arsenal and Chelsea are two of the most widely supported English teams in Africa.
Image: Adam Davy

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from The Age of Football: The Global Game in the Twenty-first Century by David Goldblatt.

A Sportmarkt survey of 2011 found that 72% of Africans were interested in football, 55 per cent watched the EPL and 39% followed an English team.

No one can count the number of Africans in football bars, but the standard estimate was that 300 million Africans were regularly tuning into just the EPL. One suspects that the current numbers are much higher.

English football may be the game of the people in Africa, but heads of state and prime ministers are equally engaged. Presidents Mugabe and Nkurunziza of Zimbabwe and Burundi respectively both publicly declared for Chelsea.

Ian Khama, the President of Botswana, watched the national team play Togo wearing a vintage Manchester United jersey. The vice-presidents of Nigeria and Kenya declared for Arsenal on Twitter.

The first tweet from Kenya’s William Ruto read: ‘DP @WilliamsRuto: I support #Arsenal. I just don’t know where we are at the moment. #GOKInteracts.’

Atiku Abubakar, Nigeria’s VicePresident under Obasanjo in the 2000s, tweeted, in the midst of a particular fraught party conference, ‘this was just what is needed an @Arsenal win to lift me up at a moment like this.

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda was amongst many African Arsenal fans who joined the Wenger in/Wenger out debate.

Less vocal on social media but no less supportive were Rupiah Banda, President of Zambia between 2008 and 2011, Prince Seeiso, the younger brother of the King of Lesotho, Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma, and President Adama Barrow of the Gambia, who acquired the Arsenal habit whilst working as a security guard at an Argos catalogue store in north London.

Both of Africa’s richest individuals – the Nigerian king of concrete Aliko Dangote and Ethiopian-Saudi business magnate Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi – support Arsenal and have both suggested that they would like to buy the club.

The intersection of politicians and English football clubs has become so pervasive that African newspapers have begun to use the Premier League as a metaphor or analogy for their domestic political conflicts.

In Kenya, for example, politicians were systematically compared to Premier League clubs. William Ruto was Leicester City, who ‘emerged from nowhere and took the position of the big boys’, while Kalonzo Musyoka, an ex-vice-president whose own presidential ambitions had faded, was Manchester United, ‘once the talk of the town . . . but slowly depreciating.’

The preponderance of Arsenal fans amongst African leaders was broadly reflected on the ground. Measured by numbers of official African supporters’ clubs – more than 20 compared to Manchester United’s four – Arsenal was Africa’s team, its fanbase reaching to the most unlikely corners of the continent, from South Sudan to Tunisia. Kenyans were the second most common visitors to the club’s website, Nigerians the fifth.

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Africans were particularly prominent in the global ‘Wenger Out’ campaign, with banners noted and shared on social media at an anti-Zuma protest in South Africa, a big music gig in Nairobi and in the stands at a game in Ethiopia.

Sharp-eyed visitors to the Emirates in recent years may have noted the large banner of Emeka Onyenuforo, founder of Arsenal Nigeria, hanging from one of the flagpoles outside the ground. The group had 10,000 members in 2017, while Onyenuforo was on the road establishing new supporters’ clubs in Benin, Ghana, Togo and Niger.

Research by Twitter on the geography of the clubs’ online followers suggests that Arsenal has support all across Africa, especially in the east, but has conceded top spot to Chelsea in West Africa, where the presence of Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Jon Obi Mikel at the club has won over many fans.

More anecdotal evidence suggests that there are still plenty of Liverpool supporters out there but, as a young Nigerian and Ghanaian both said to me, ‘Liverpool is for old guys.’ This may yet change.

While the embrace of European football is pan-African, it has reached its apogee in Nigeria. Amongst the most popular TV hits of recent years is Celebrity Fan Challenge, a game show performed in front of a live audience of 6,000, in which Nigerian celebrities – from rappers to Nollywood stars – face off against each other in competitive banter and games over whether Arsenal or Manchester United is the biggest club.

Even the local radio traffic reports are peppered with Premier League updates, transfer rumours and details of contractual disputes.

Thus at the pinnacle of Nigerian society, the rich, the famous and the powerful all flaunt their football affiliations and, in the case of Atiku Abubakar, actually attend the Arsenal home games on a regular basis.

In an evening spent with the Chelsea Official Supporters’ Club, Lagos branch, I met Suliman, who founded the group and worked as an accounts officer for a second division Nigerian football club; Adekunle, a banker; Kamal, in insurance; Funny Bone, one of Lagos’s leading stand-up comics; and Henry, who ran his own import–export company.

An evening spent with the Tottenham Hotspur Official Supporters’ Club Lagos branch was equally instructive. A similar social mix, they highlighted the importance of the African diaspora and the longstanding interactions between ex-colonies and the imperium in creating these webs of footballing attraction. Here were Nigerians who had acquired Spurs while living in Britain, going to school in Cornwall, working in Mill Hill and going back and forth between Lagos and London on business.

Viewed from Lagos, the Premier League is not merely a great sporting spectacle and soap opera, it is also a slice of the global North that Nigerians can enter, if not freely then certainly with more ease than most international border posts.

It is a realm of consumption and glamour that is tangible, and it is a world where things work. In fact, many Nigerians like the Premier League as a whole as much as their club. ‘The EPL is like a religion,’ one told me. ‘It can really affect your mood. The thing with the Premier League is that I would watch Stoke v Leicester or Sunderland v Bournemouth. I would watch El Clásico, too, but Osasuna v Malaga? Forget it.’

The Age of Football: The Global Game in the Twenty-first Century by David Goldblatt is published by Macmillan. More info here.

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