A game of two halves

The heat of the day has eased and Dire Dawa, Eastern Ethiopia, is breezy and buzzing. Manchester United 4, Manchester City 3. Level at the end of the first half, United ooze dominace from the off in the second. Goals come from the head of Fletcher and Berbatov is denied three times, brillinatly, by Given. Genius Bellamy brings City level twice in style only to watch Owen pounce at the death to take it for United.

I always enjoy watching football in packed bars in interesting places – especially games like that. I sit and chat with strangers happy in the fact that what we’re watching on the screen is an export from the place I come from. I get knowing nods when I say ‘I lived just up  road from there’ and point at the Emirates stadium in North London on the screen. By this virtue I’m a faranji (foreigner) authority and slightly less of the bumbling traveller. I can recall countless conversations conducted solely in the mutually-understandable language of football player names. I can recall countless occasions where the people I’ve met could only identify Wales, where i hail from, as the birthplace of the legendary Ryan Giggs. Beyond the brand messaging for ’emerging’ markets and the universal can’t-help-but-state-the-obvious rubbish spouted by players, managers and commentators the world over, there’s a genuine cross cultural language at work. A cliché to be sure, but true nonetheless.

Is it possible, however, to separate the realities of global football as a multi-billion dollar industry from a simple love of the beautiful game? In one sense football has become a lens through which cultural reflections and disparities are viewed. Western football emotes western affluence and pretsige. To aspire to these championships is, in some way, to  identify with the values of capital and consumption which so define the modern game. Football becomes a transmitter for ideas, ideals and brand consciousness, whilst wrapping itself in the language of universalism and the excitement of competition. Watch premier league games and you can see the hoarding behind Wayne Rooney show the Chinese character rendering of Budwesier –  ‘Baiwei’. This isn’t for the benefit of the Sky Sports punters back in Blighty, rather for a Chinese audience of millions who are to aspire to the glories of western development and generic American lager. This is true sports globalisation and provides an incredible vehicle for coroporate interests.  One only has to look at the way in which American, Russian and Gulf State big money has hooked into the game in the UK to see how the Premiership has acheived a level of global presense which still eludes the powerhouses of American sports franchise. Put it this way, I’ve never been able to have a conversation – from Addis Ababa to Almaty – in a mutually-understandable language of NFL players’ names.

For Africa, total immersion into this relationship of competition and commerce will come next summer in Durban and Cape Town. The addition of several young, high-profile African players into the English Premiership has already done wonders for the profile of game on the continent. This is evident in the conversations I have with people even here in Ethiopia, a world away from the football talent centres of the West Africam coast. A continental soccer identity is developing.

A promotional film for the 2010 South Africa World Cup shown before the northern English derby played heavily on FIFA’s goals of social responsibility and featured lots of nice foortage of township kids knocking the ball around first in barefeet and then in new facilities provided by tournament money. The film ended, however, with the wonderfully frank observation of one official that the main aim of the tournament was to leave spectators’ ‘wallets empty and credit cards trashed’. If you believe in ‘trickle down’ economics then that might give you some hope for positive economic benefits for the townships and slums of post-apartheid South Africa. For others, the promotional images of faux ‘African’ cultural authenticity and social responisbility somewhat jar with the successive shots of bikini-clad beach bunnies pulling pints.  The prospect of legalized prostition for the duration of the tournaments highlights the fact that sex industries everywhere thrive during major sporting events and illustrates a level of socio-economic division still endemic in South Africa.  The universal language of football remains  a highly gendered thing after all. Where I am now the men watch the game and the women serve the beer.  The men watch  sexualised images of the advertiser beemed across the continent and the women sweep the floor.

To say that western football is a multi-billion dollar globalised industry isn’t much of a revelation. To examine the role that this plays in a context of cross-cultural understanding is important and deserves not to be trivialised as ‘merely’ sport. The global rise of Hollywood exported concepts, ideas and values, which, for many, would come to define the post-Cold War moment and ‘globalization’. Is it now possible that football has taken on that mantle? If so, then what is its contribution to a worldwide discourse of modernity, power, wealth and brand identification? Britain doesn’t really manufacture stuff anymore (aside from weapons) and football has become a major cultural and commercial export. It will be interesting to see how global identification with western sports changes as the ‘real’ global economy of industrialization, manufacturing and development become even more dominated by China and India. Will the prestige and glamour of English football retain its pull over a worldwide audience? Only time will tell.  What is clear is that there’s a lot more to the premiership phenomenon than the broadcast of physical competition. On the other hand, it’s not hard to see how football has extended its reach around the world when games of such dramatic quality are beemed into some of the most remote corners of the world. And it was a bloody good game.

Here’s some shots of my journey – via Ethiopia and [if the train runs tomorrow] Djibouti – to Somaliland…


2 Responses to “A game of two halves”

  1. Ah, don’t we all aspire to “generic American lager”!!

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