Despite Europe’s Domination of African Soccer, Fans Support Latin America

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Argentina v. Brazil, 2008 Summer Olympics, Lionel Messi on the ball both Brazil and Argentina are in the semi-finals and finals respectively, at the 2014 World Cup in Brrazil- Photo Credit: Andre Kiwitz

In spite of the dominance of European soccer in Africa, African soccer fans seem to largely support a Latin American win in the World Cup final this year. Although I try not to assume which country teams my fellow Africans will support based on country of origin alone, it seems undeniable that most African soccer fans are throwing their support behind their fellow Latin American teams from the Global South.

At the start of the World Cup, the average African fans (from the continent to its Diaspora) were overwhelmingly rooting for one of the teams from the continent. Now that all the African teams are out of the World Cup, African soccer fans seem to be lending their cheers to the Latin American teams of Brazil and Argentina. I find this trend pretty revealing when one considers that the average African soccer fans spend most of their time watching European Leagues – not Latin American ones.

Dominance of European Leagues in Africa:

All over Africa, the European leagues such as the Bundesliga, La liga or the Premier league dominate. One can go to any gathering of Africans and find supporters of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea or Arsenal. This gives rise to many friendly rivalries between friends and family. English soccer in particular has captivated both Africans and voluntary Diaspora Africans.

In my own family, I have a mother that supports Manchester United and a father that supports Liverpool. My three Diaspora African nephews who live in the United States, support Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, respectively. This gives rise to sibling soccer rivalry rooted in England. It was no surprise then that as African tourists en route to England, a stopover to visit the football clubs was one of their priorities – and nestled in their suitcases between large boxes of Tylenol, photographs and other “essentials” for their grandmother in Malawi, was a Manchester United Football Club Jersey for her.

In all cases, the British Premier League rivalries on the continent have not just been friendly exchanges. In rare instances, the rivalries have resulted in fights or even death as we witnessed earlier this year a Kenyan Arsenal fan killed a Kenyan Liverpool supporter over a match. Other African soccer fans have committed suicide when their favourite team lost thereby signifying that Africa, to some extent  is inheriting British soccer fan behaviour as well.

There is no mistaking the level of impact that the English Premier league has in Africa. Not only is there a dominance of British soccer leagues on African televisions, radio and newspaper headlines across the continent, it has also found a way to penetrate the heart of Africa by permeating tradition through chitenjes (kitenges). On my last trip to Malawi I was taken aback to find rural Malawian women wearing traditional chitenjes’ branded with Manchester United and Chelsea logos.

Of course, one won’t readily find these in the respective football clubs’ mainstream merchandise catalogs, but these products are made available in African markets. This makes it clear that this multi-billion dollar industry is tapping into the money from Africa’s bottom billion as consumers. The English Premier league can therefore be seen as a site for revenue and cultural dominance through sports. Oftentimes, this cultural dominance of English soccer occurs at the backdrop of struggling national leagues who’s own t-shirts or chitenjes collect dust on shelves. I have been hard pressed to see Malawian fans wearing chitenje’s featuring local teams as loudly and proudly.

Local Leagues Lagging Behind

European leagues seem to get more support form African fans then local fans, particularly amongst the elite and middle classes. Many Africans follow European leagues at the expense and detriment of their national leagues. Would-be local team fans often lament that they don’t follow local teams because of their experience, the poor funding, corruption or a host of other reasons however, greater support for local teams would help increase experience and funding.

It is important to note that European leagues and FIFA are no strangers to accusations of corruption and match fixing. Perhaps part of the larger appeal of the English league for Africans also lies in the sheer number of African players that play in that league. This has lend a hand to many memorable “African” soccer moments by Africa’s players in the European leagues. It is plausible to say that watching the English league is one way in which African soccer fans can support African players who now have the added advantage of funding and more rigorous training.

The European leagues are also more accessible to African fans as the games are carried on M-Net or other cable networks making it hard for local games to get viewers. They are also easily available as live streams online, making it relatively easy to follow and support the European leagues and players. The popularity of European soccer, led by the British Premier league has  had a lasting impact on local leagues therefore one would expect this to translate to Africans throwing greater support behind European teams during the World Cup.

Who Africa Supports at 2014 FIFA World Cup – Brazil.

In spite of the dominance of the European leagues on the continent (and England in particular), it is clear that on the international stage, Africans largely supported continental teams of Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Algeria at this year’s World Cup first. England’s early elimination from the World Cup did not end the World Cup for African fans. England’s departure for African fans was nowhere as hard hitting as the eliminations for African teams.

On the world stage, African fans become the continents primary supporters – and its biggest critics. Spend a few minutes listening to African fans and you are bound to hear comments such as, “what are they doing? No control of the ball”, “they are playing terribly”, “they are playing like amateurs”, or even “they deserve to lose, look how they are playing today…” – all this coming from fans that actually want them to win.

At first, I found these comments odd, however it reflects a fan base cautious of throwing in all their emotion and support for African teams every four years only seeing their hopes dashed. It also reflects a fan base that still roots for Africa in spite the onslaught of European dominance of the sport. European soccer may have colonized the  pockets and airwaves of Africa’s fans, but the emotional support of Africa’s fans seem to lay outside of Europe at the World Cup.

Now with the African teams out, Africans are throwing their support behind Brazil and Argentina in the next two games. In spite of the dominance of the European leagues on the continent, at the international games the African fan base is behind Latin America. Ask many African fans weather they support Germany or Argentina for the final and few are supporting Germany although they are more familiar with the Bundlesliga then the Argentinian national league. In part, this is because they many of them are former colonies that would like to see for formally colonized have the limelight for a change. In part, it is because some African fans naturally like to support countries which are considered “underdogs” economically.

Lastly, since many Latin American countries have a large African Diaspora or are descendants of Africans, Latin Americans are the “closest” to an African team that they are going to get. It is important to note that many of the European teams have African dual citizens or citizens playing for them as well but Latin America which shares African heritage, people, and music remains closer to the heart of Africa’s soccer fans.

There seems to be a shared sense of solidarity when it comes to soccer that is shared amongst the Global South. The support of Latin American teams at the World Cup over European teams demonstrates that the sense of solidarity on the global stage. It is support that is often reciprocated – many soccer fans from Latin American and Asia support African nations in their World Cup pursuits every four years. Although it may seem like there is European colonisation of the soccer on the continent, on the international arena, Africans throw their support behind African first and Latin American second.

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