Why Nigerians Love Arsenal . . . and the EPL

By | May 23rd, 2017 | No Comments

The author at home with Spurs fans in Lagos

The English Premier League is an obsession for millions of African fans. Author and fútbologist David Goldblatt recently traveled to Lagos, Nigeria, to find out what this cultural phenomenon looks like and why there is such deep reverence for Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Spurs, and . . . Bournemouth.

In a newly released piece for Bleacher Report, Goldblatt hears from Emeka Onyenufuro, founder of Arsenal Nigeria, that “Monday to Friday lunchtime, I’m working in my job [as a manager in the power industry], but from Friday afternoon to Monday morning, it is all Arsenal.”

The quality of EPL play and the excitement of watching some of the world’s best players, including N’Golo Kanté, Victor Moses, Yaya Touré, and many other African superstars, partly explains the intensity of local passion for and dedication to the EPL. But another explanation is that the middle-class Nigerian men at the heart of this piece have willingly capitulated to the EPL’s “attention merchants” (Tim Wu docet): “It’s the branding. . . it’s just so professional,” a fan explains.

The author takes us into various public viewing spaces where the South African-owned satellite provider DSTV beams in live games, highlights, and talk shows that collectively stoke the obsessive compulsions of the Nigerian EPL fan. When not watching matches (and praying that frequent power cuts don’t ruin crucial moments in the broadcast), the lads follow their favorite clubs on social media for several hours a day.

The piece also features a fascinating description of the Socialiga, a football and basketball league and “social space to network with their peers, flirt and raise some money for charity.” It left me wanting to know even more about this astonishing kind of grassroots social entrepreneurship.

The Nigerian photographer Andrew Esiebo’s images complement the prose quite beautifully. And Esiebo’s camera does not lie: David Godlblatt found his most welcoming home in Lagos at Spurs Nation (see photo above).

Read the full article here.

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How We Speak Sports

By | April 18th, 2016 | No Comments

eepa_11477Image: Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C.

Cross-posted from The Allrounder

[First published on November 13, 2014]

We don’t just watch sports – we speak and hear sports. To find out how language shapes our lives as fans, we asked some of our writers to tell us about the ways that people talk sports in English and their native languages. Kay Schiller hails from Munich, fellow historian Peter Alegi grew up in Rome, media scholar Markus Stauff lives in the Netherlands, and sociologist Pablo Alabarces teaches at the University of Buenos Aires. Together, they offer a Rosetta Stone of sports talk.

You’ve all lived for a time in English-speaking countries. Did anything in particular strike you – say, the first times you went to a stadium or watched a match on television – about the ways that native speakers of English talk about their sports?

Kay Schiller: I have lived in the UK since 1997. One of the things that struck me as a non-native speaker when going to see Chelsea, Spurs, Liverpool, ManU, or, more recently, Blackburn Rovers was that I had a tremendously hard time understanding the terrace chants, despite being quite fluent in English. I suppose that this is similar to what English fans experience when they attend a Bundesliga match.

Thankfully, there are now websites that explain what you hear in the stadium. You can learn that Blackburn Rovers fans at Ewood Park have several profane chants for Burnley, such as “Burnley are s**t s**t s**t , they always gonna be s**t.” One major difference with Germany is that while this kind of folklore can be found in the supporters’ curves of stadia, you wouldn’t hear otherwise respectable-looking people participating in chants like these – or middle-aged ladies calling the referee a c***.

I’m not sure what this suggests about the different football cultures of England and Germany, or culture more generally, but I find it worthy of note. Perhaps it’s reassuring that even with all-seater stadia and the continuous jacking-up of gate prices in English football, some things do not change.

Peter Alegi: At venerable Fenway Park in Boston, sitting in the bleachers with my dad (obstinately wearing a Yankees cap), the usual chant we heard was: “Yankees suck!” At New Haven Coliseum, where my older brother and I followed minor league ice hockey, it was: “Shoot the puck!” At basketball and American football games, giant electronic scoreboards demanded chants of “Deeeeee-fe-nse!”

This was a world away from the Italian football stadiums and basketball arenas I grew up with.

What first struck me in the U.S. was a lack of spontaneity in the language of fans at the grounds. The PA announcer, the scoreboard, and recorded music directed the orality of the crowd. Maybe this was because of the corporate nature of American sports, with its top-down manufactured stadium experience that transforms fans into consumers. It’s also hard to chant and sing when spending so much time, money, and energy eating and drinking during games. In any case, the second thing that hit me about the U.S. context was the lack of creativity in the language. Much of the spoken word among fans, chants and commentary alike, seemed very direct and not terribly imaginative, a bit like the English language!

In Italy, our oral culture at the stadium was far more creative. I remember sitting in the stands listening to self-appointed bards who would rise to recite absorbing monologues in the vernacular (dialects are hugely important and richly diverse in Italy). These men (rarely were they women) explained the causes of our striker’s inexplicable impotence or the reasons for the referee’s situational ethics. The language was often metaphorical, indirect. The best insults were the ones delivered with a perfect balance of grit, humor, and linguistic dexterity. Even my intellectual Roman mother, with a PhD in Italian literature, relished such vulgar poetic performances (“vulgus” in Latin means ordinary people, after all). This creative genius came through in the songs we sang. Fans developed an art of crafting lyrics and combining them with a dizzying range of musical sources: classical (Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” was a favorite); operatic (Verdi, of course); patriotic compositions (“La Marseillaise”); marches (John Philip Sousa!); folk/traditional (“La Società dei Magnaccioni,” “O Sole Mio,” and “Auld Lang Syne”); partisan resistance (“Bella Ciao”), and loads of pop (from “Yellow Submarine” to Antonello Venditti’s “Roma, Roma, Roma”).

Eventually, I came to appreciate the comfort and safety of U.S. stadiums and arenas. But to this day, their canned and often lifeless aural culture makes me nostalgic of home.

Click here to read on.

Fandom, Mzansi-style

By | September 30th, 2013 | 6 Comments



Guest Post by *Liz Timbs

In eMpangeni, a small city of 110,000 people in the sugar-producing area of Zululand, South Africa, my host family, the Khuzwayos, seemed typical of the local football fans I had read and heard so much about before arriving for two months of isiZulu language training. Both my “brothers,” Lindane and Njabulo, played soccer and supported PSL Champions Kaizer Chiefs. Lindane, however, also admitted to being a big Cristiano Ronaldo fan.

When I left eMpangeni for Durban (pop. 3+ million!), I found similar loyalties in my new host family, the Nenes. My brother, Ntuthuko, and my sister’s boyfriend, Mthembeni, were both diehard supporters of Kaizer Chiefs, so I “had to” fall in line with them. I was so proud when I finally bought my amaKhosi jersey, but my sister, Noxolo, was horrified; she emphatically told me that she wouldn’t go out with me in public if I was wearing it . . . but that’s a story for another time.

My other sister, Nothando, is an athlete in her own right, so we spoke often about sports. One evening I started asking her about football and was struck by her statement that she preferred watching European matches, especially La Liga contests, a lot more than the South African PSL, let alone Bafana Bafana, the country’s struggling national team. I must have looked completely shocked when she said this, because Nothando started laughing at me (a fairly common occurrence, to be honest) and then went on to explain that European teams’ play was tighter and more professional than that of South African sides.

“They jika too much, those guys,” Nothando declared. In isiZulu, the verb ukujika literally means “to turn,” but the term has also become shorthand for showboating on the football pitch. South African players, in her opinion, cared far more about showing off than about playing clean, controlled football, so she liked to watch world-class teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid instead.

When I went to Pietermaritzburg, the provincial capital of KwaZulu-Natal, to spend time with Izichwe Football Club, I decided to make it a point to ask the players which teams they supported in order to see if Nothando’s opinions would be echoed by other teenagers.

In one of my first interviews, taking care not to ask about a South African team specifically, Asanda told me that he supported Chelsea. He gave a careful, detailed response about their playing style and the specific reasons why he supported the Blues. When I asked him if he had a favorite South African team, his response was less enthusiastic: “I wouldn’t say there is one, but I prefer Orlando Pirates.” Looking back now, I wish I had pushed him on the reasons why, but I had caught him during one of his school breaks and time was short.

When I spoke to the other players on the team, I got largely the same reaction. They would first respond with their favorite European clubs (e.g. Barcelona, Arsenal, Manchester United), then almost as an afterthought they named a South African team, usually Kaizer Chiefs or Orlando Pirates. (One boy was partial to Mamelodi Sundowns, while none supported Maritzburg United).

So what does this tell us about the nature of fandom in South Africa? Maybe nothing terribly revealing given the fairly small sample that I’m pulling from. But taken with the other “evidence” that I gathered over two months it suggests that South African fans have multiple allegiances.

At the Amazulu-Manchester City “Mandela Day” match at Mabhida Stadium, I saw exponentially more people wearing the colors of Manchester United than AmaZulu green. In the market stall where I bought my Chiefs and Bafana Bafana jerseys, there were far more European soccer jerseys available than South African ones.

It seems that the trend is to support European teams first, then the local South African teams. Is this just because of the quality of play, as Nothando Nene told me? Or is it about the accessibility of televised games and the incessant marketing of Messi, Ronaldo, and other global mega stars? Is sport ushering in a new form of colonialism or is there more going on here than meets the eye?


*Liz Timbs is a PhD student in African history at Michigan State University. Her research interests are in the history of health and healing in South Africa; masculinity studies; and comparative studies between South Africa and the United States. Follow her on Twitter: @tizlimbs

Filed under: Fans

Football “Bookzines” Gain Popularity

By | October 11th, 2012 | 5 Comments

“Neither magazine nor book, but somewhere in between,” is how journalist and author Jonathan Wilson describes the genre of long-form football writing currently gaining popularity in the United States and Britain. I call this genre the bookzine, a hybrid form that lies at the intersection of academia and popular journalism.

In an insightful article at Forbes.com, Zach Slaton notes how in September 2012 “three English-language print publications – XI Quarterly, The Blizzard, and Howler – either debuted or had their latest issue released all within a month of each other.” Each of the three magazines has a distinct style, edge, form, and funding model. Published in both print and digital editions, XI Quarterly and The Blizzard are more narrative and non-commercial than Howler, which emphasizes visual graphics and has a deal with Nike. “We’re embarking on a golden age for such writing,” Slaton writes, one “that may just be sustainable given the niches each one fills.”

The main triggers powering this new trend, according to Slaton, are “the globalization of the game and the tearing down of historical publishing structures.” He’s right, of course, as satellite and cable television, Web publishing, video and audio streaming online, Facebook, and Twitter expanded access for soccer junkies almost everywhere.

Having spent almost twenty years as a sort of football academic, I wonder why this supposed “golden era” is happening right now. Are there some deeper, longer-term factors fueling this sudden explosion of bookzines?

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Playing a Fine Motherwell…Again

By | September 8th, 2011 | 1 Comment



Motherwell, the Scottish Football Club who introduced a sophisticated passing game and a collective team approach to spectators in South Africa, are once again at the forefront of the game’s development. This time Motherwell are showing how to tackle the hooligans that hang out in far too many board rooms.

According to a report by Gavin McCafferty in today’s “Scotsman“, Motherwell plan to bring two fans on to their board as a first step towards the aim of making the club owned wholly by supporters. There will be a £300 one-off fee, with a voluntarily annual fee of £50 thereafter to retain benefits. More wealthy supporters and businesses can pay up to £25,000 to join, with added benefits, but each member will have one vote. The members will vote representatives on to the club’s board, initially two, but chief executive Leeann Dempster yesterday revealed the end game was full ownership and total democracy in running the Lanarkshire club.

About 300 fans turned up at an open meeting on Monday and Dempster was encouraged by the general feedback from supporters. “They can contribute to the financial security of the club,” Dempster said. “This is the first time they have the opportunity to be properly involved. I think that’s what excites people the most – the thought of being able to nominate or be nominated to be on the board. Two members of the society will be on the board. They will enact the wants of the other members. “We want to get to a stage where that will develop further and more members will come on to the board. Hopefully to a point where, once it’s clear that the model is working, we can transition full ownership of the club over to the society. You can’t go from a model of having one benefactor on the board to the next day having supporters running the club. That would cause enormous problems. So we’re not naive enough to think you can just do that and forget about it.”

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Filed under: Fans

The Price of Loaves and Goals in Mozambique

By | September 3rd, 2010 | 4 Comments



Angela is mopping the again floor at Milanos. The Revolta Popular appears to have ran its course. A closer inspection reveals although most folk want to believe it is over…”more or less”, they say. The reality maybe somewhat different.

Angela made it to work, but many others have not. Some shops are open, but many are not. The schools are closed. The roads are not congested. A few Chappas (mini buses) work their regular routes. Spacious rides with extra leg room today.

I traversed as much of the city as I could in the past five hours. What I mean by “the city” is that which makes the cut on most of the tourist maps of Maputo, not including the predictably safe Embassy area of Sommerchield and the more exclusive Polana district, save for a visit to Maputo Central Hospital and the Josina Machel Secondary School. Here is what I heard and saw and felt from folks along the way.

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Filed under: Fans, Players

Los Charrúas on Twitter

By | December 2nd, 2009 | No Comments

I will be Twittering on Uruguay for The Guardian during the World Cup draw in Cape Town.

Expect a heavy Uruguayan flavour in the coming hours.  A virtual Dulce de Leche of Uruguayan football.

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