The World Cup is here, arise Africa's brave 'sports tribes'

Thursday June 14 2018

Egypt players,  Russia 2018, Fifa World Cup,

An Egyptian football fan poses for a picture in front of a mural displaying their national football team at Cairo International Airport as supporters head to Russia to attend the World Cup 2018, on June 14, 2018. AFP PHOTO | KHALED DESOUKI 

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The 2018 football World Cup is upon us. If you are a hostile alien, the World Cup is, perhaps, the best time to invade Earth.

In 2014, when the tournament was held in Brazil, it’s estimated that 3.5 billion people — nearly half of humans on the planet at that time — watched it.

This year, there will be five African countries in the World Cup: Senegal, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and Tunisia.

We have come a long way from 1934, when Egypt became the first African country to participate in the World Cup. And 1934 is, therefore, a good date to try and explore how Africa has changed through the World Cup.

That was the time before live broadcast, of course. However, although there are people who are alive in Africa today when the World Cup was played that year, there was absolutely no chance they would have got to watch even a story about it months later.

That’s because there wasn’t a single TV station in Africa then. The first television service was to be introduced in Morocco 20 years later, in 1954. And Egypt itself had to wait until 1960.

The most interesting World Cup stuff in Africa started happening after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the end of the Cold War a year later.

Africa entered a new wave of political and economic liberalisation that led to the freeing of the airwaves.

So, until the 1994 World Cup, and even then in less than a handful of cases, everyone who watched the tournament live in Africa did so on State-owned TV!

In fact, the first time a reasonably large number of Africans watched the World Cup on a private TV channel was in 1998, when it was held in France.

In that sense, how we watch the World Cup in Africa is also a separate history of our relationship with our governments, their power to mediate our television (and cultural) experience and how that, in turn, has changed.

Pay TV

An 18-year-old African child from a well-to-do middle class family that has a pay TV subscription that brings him all his football games is, perhaps, most different from his father in his World Cup viewing experience.

But all this would have turned out differently without another political development — the beginning of the end apartheid in South Africa in 1990, with the release of Nelson Mandela after his 27-year spell in prison.

That, and Mandela’s election as president in 1994, led to the South African companies spreading out into once-forbidden territories, and that is how pay TV first arrived in virtually all of Sub-Saharan Africa, via MultiChoice’s DStv.

MultiChoice was really the end of State TV’s control of the World Cup and the further liberalisation of the broadcast space and emergence of a multitude of independent channels the last nail in its coffin.

However, MultiChoice led to something that has become a defining feature of sports consumption in Africa; the rise of the sports pub.

For many years, sports, and especially the World Cup and European club football, became sweetest when watched with a horde of other football fanatics in these sports pubs.

That was partly because sports clubs allowed the entrenchment of what you might call “sports tribes” (Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal fans) and also became a platform for them to gather in ritual.

In addition, sports pubs became an important sports Roman-style arena, where the sports tribes gathered to go to war as they do victimless battle by taunting one another.

So, here we are today. Watching the World Cup in Africa is an experience that even a fiction writer with the most fertile imagination would not have conjured up just 35 years ago.

It’s a change, as we have noted, driven by global and particular continental politics — the end of the Cold War, and the social and economic changes it brought — and the demise of apartheid.

And there is something else. Africa’s representatives highlight yet again the absence of southern and eastern Africa and the Horn.

It is a divide that wiser men and women will, hopefully, study and explain to us. But every World Cup reminds us that West and North Africa are much better at collective/team sports like football and basketball.

Southern Africa excels at short distance races (plus jumping) and East and Horn of Africa rule the world when it comes to long-distance running — all of them involving a lone hero persevering against a chasing field and breaking the tape at the finish in dramatic fashion.

The beauty with the World Cup in Africa, then, is the things it says about us that have totally nothing to do with football. We shall continue this conversation in the days ahead.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is publisher of and explainer Twitter: @cobbo3