By Mark Garcia-Prats
Steve Bloomfield is a British journalist who has lived in Nairobi, Kenya since 2006. He was a former African correspondent for The Independent and now writes for different publications including Monocle, Newsweek and The Observer. His first book, Africa United, published in June by Harper Collins, gives a picture of modern Africa by telling the story of soccer’s influence in thirteen African nations. From nations at war, to this summer’s World Cup, Steve explores the culture and politics of a sport whose intense passion unites a seemingly disjointed continent. Steve found time in between attending games in South Africa to answer some questions for Publishing Perspectives.
PP: In your book Africa United, you write about the way that a country’s football can reflect that country’s politics, while at other times, football can be a stimulus for social change providing well needed examples of courage, hope, and justice. Do you think your book reveals more about the social power of football or more about African politics?
SB: I think it’s a bit of both really. You can’t really understand African football properly without having an understanding of African politics. There’s numerous examples in the book of how a country’s football reflects its politics, whether that’s in Egypt where you’ve got an authoritarian regime that tries to use football as a way of uniting people behind their government, or whether that’s in Kenya where you have rival factions in their football association clamoring for power, mirroring the factions in the government clamoring for power. On the other hand, like in Ivory Coast, you see the way football can transcend that and influence the politics. Both politics and football are closely related.
In Africa United, you discuss the profound ways that football has changed Africa. Perhaps you have some thoughts on how Africa has changed football for the rest of the world.
You only have to look at the all the big European teams to realize the influence that Africa now has on the global game. The majority of the big European clubs have African players — often they are the most important players — whether that’s at Chelsea with Didier Drogba or Samuel Eto’o at Barcelona, now Inter Milan — (Eto’o has won two European cups in two years with two different clubs!). Something that I wanted to do with Africa United was to put African football into a bit of perspective and context. We are familiar with Drogba and Eto’o but not familiar with the backgrounds they come from and the context in which they are playing.
What was the greatest challenge you faced in writing Africa United?
The biggest challenge was choosing which countries to write about and which not to. I could have comfortably, with enough time, written chapters about thirty different countries across the continent, rather than thirteen. There are many stories that I had to forgo, but it was important to be sure that I had a balance.
Do you think the media coverage of the World Cup has the potential to change the world’s perception of Africa as a continent?
I think we get a very one-sided view of Africa through the media. It tends to be focused on the negative — national crises, corrupt leaders and so on. Though these are an important part of Africa’s story, it’s not even half of Africa’s story. To see a World Cup being held on that continent can help chip away at that image. For one month, we are seeing an overwhelmingly positive news story from Africa. So every time a match announces a game in Johannesburg or Capetown, or even just in sports reports when we hear “in South Africa, France lost to Mexico,” all these things help to chip away at that image that many of us have of Africa. So yes, I think over time it could help change the way the Africa is perceived by outsiders.
When did you first develop an interest in writing about Africa?
Africa as a continent has always been something I’ve been interested in. From a very early age I found most of the stories about Africa that were covered in British media particularly interesting. As a journalist, I was always looking for new challenges and wanted to have a stint at some stage in my life as a foreign correspondent. I was fortunate enough that the opportunity to move to Nairobi to be the African correspondent came while I was at The Independent. There are few places around the world that really struck me as places I wanted to go and live and experience and write about — Africa was the main one. I was fortunate enough that the right job came up at the right time, and I managed to persuade the right people that they should send me.
So far during this World Cup, how have you thought the African nations have fared? Any surprises or disappointments?
It’s been a bit disappointing, but I think also perhaps we had quite unrealistic expectations. The African teams weren’t necessarily going to do brilliantly here. There was this hope that since it was in Africa, the African teams would do well. It was purely that — a hope — and it was based on nothing more than that. But just because this tournament has been a poor showing for African teams doesn’t meant the next one in Brazil won’t be more successful. I think football is very strong on this continent… and Ghana has advanced to fly the flag.
Steve Bloomfield is currently reporting in South Africa. Read his blog as he covers Africa’s first World Cup.