Meet Africa’s new colonisers: Messrs. Rooney, Messi and Murdoch

English Premier League Manchester United football

Manchester United often take centrestage in Africa

Perched atop of a treacherously over-burdened Toyota Landcruiser pick-up, plowing along the dire sandy track linking Tanzania and northern Mozambique, about 15 of us hold on for at least a few minutes more of life, notably one Manchester United fan, an Arsenal enthusiast, a Liverpool devotee and even a Real Madrid supporter.

None of them have been, or are ever likely to travel to the cities of their footballing desires; they probably can’t even pinpoint Manchester on a world map.

But they follow their fortunes and suffer their misfortunes as closely as fans back in the misty heartland of the English Premier League (EPL) do.

An hour earlier, I was being ferried across a hippopotamus and crocodile-crammed inlet on a small motorboat, the no-man’s land between the two borders, pushed through the shallows by six dodgy sharkish touts that had ‘befriended’ me, one sporting a Celtic shirt (Scottish Premier League), one a Barcelona jersey, one a Liverpool away jersey and two others various vintages of Man U’s money-makers.

Africans (well, African men principally) are obsessed by European football in general, but the English Premier League in particular.

In fact, if you judge purely by footballing allegiances, then the EPL (led by the despotic Rupert Murdoch) is recolonising Africa – well, at least its young males.

When an African asks you what team you follow, they are not referring to your country or your local team; they want to know whether you’re Arsenal or Man U, Chelsea or Liverpool.

Premier League kit (or reasonably accurate representations thereof) is essential wear for the African football fanatic and the competition’s paraphernalia is ubiquitous; more prominent than supporter gear for national teams.

I’ve seen bus drivers with Gunners (Arsenal) shirts as their uniform, an old woman complementing her vivacious traditional baby-carrying wrap with a Manchester United head scarf, a young customs agent with a Liverpool fetish (shirt, socks, bracelets) and countless trucks, taxis and buses garishly emblazoned with pilfered images of their favourite players, sometimes misspelt comically: Roonoy, Drugbar etc.

So why do the young male populations of Africa care so much about the fortunes of the far flung foreign league?

Obviously Murdoch’s substantial network of satellite television agreements (and pirated transmissions thereof) is the vehicle for the flowering fixation.

Diminutive villages with scant other tangible connections to the outside world grind to a halt when Man U or Arsenal are on the telly. Local bars advertise the games and charge admission. Young lads will stealthily wander in from the fields a little early.

During the battle the dusty main street is devoid of young men; grunts, groans, boos, shrieks, and squawks filter out through shacks with satellites lashed to their tin roofs. 

On one Ugandan bus journey, a pre-season Manchester United versus Manchester City game was played three times, back to back, on the small television, most passengers as transfixed the second and third time around the derby unfolded.

Local media willingly lap up the fervor – and they would be crazy not to, a guaranteed readership or ratings avalanche.

Local Premier League television chat shows abound, including a nightly two-hour special in Ethiopia; Arabic EPL team-themed newspapers sell energetically at newsstands in Khartoum, the Man U version particularly hot property; and taxi car radios track the latest scores and injury reports on regional radio stations.

The concentration of Africans playing in the Premier League begins to explain some of the zeal and regional connections with teams are tangible.

In Nigeria, Chelsea are the team because of Ivory Coast player Didier Drogba and a couple of other west Africans starring for the west London side.

Of course, this doesn’t explain why Uganda, with no players in the Premier League at all, is head over heels in lust with Man United.

Ask many young African why they support Man U, Arsenal, or Liverpool and the answer will be along the lines of “because they are the best” or a shrug of the shoulders as if to say “why wouldn’t I?”

The jerseys seem to have a natural association with success, a brand as much as a football team to many; a marketing executive’s wet dream.

The preference for European football, and dereference to its big names, even permeates when national sides are battling it out.

I watched the Nigerian national team (the Super Eagles) take on Argentina on a malfunctioning television in a packed local restaurant in a city in the east of the country. The Nigerian fans were enthralled as Barcelona’s megastar Lionel Messi almost single handedly slaughtered the Super Eagles’ defence, scoring a couple of goals and setting up much of the attack.

I asked a young guy (wearing an Arsenal shirt) why the crowd were applauding almost as intensely when Messi scored as when the Super Eagles were attacking (however briefly).

“He is our friend, he plays for Barcelona and they are the best team,” said my star struck neighbour. Regional is the new global it seems.

So who is Africa’s favourite player and which team most takes its fancy?  

Using my infallibly scientific method (trying to mentally note every time I saw someone wearing a football jersey) the results are clear cut.

The most-featured player on the football shirts worn by the African youth are (in order): Wayne Rooney (Man U), Lionel Messi (Barcelona) and Didier Drogba (Chelsea).

The most popular team? It fluctuated widely through the various countries with the popularity of Barcelona, Arsenal, Chelsea and, lately, Liverpool ebbing and flowing.

But the undisputed champions of Africa, hands down, are Manchester United – whether they win this year or not.


Steve Madgwick