The pull of European football ยูฟ่าเบท in terms of both sporting spectacle and its encrusted cultural meanings are strong, but the parlous state of domestic football on television and in the stadium is equally important in pushing people away. Compared to the multiple cameras and microphones on European television coverage, and its slick editing and graphics, African football just can’t compete.
Many games, if they are shown at all, have been covered with just a couple of fixed cameras showing the whole pitch, with the occasional cut to a hand-held camera on the touchline. The stadium itself is often more unappetizing, with facilities of any kind thin on the ground. ‘In our own stadium,’ argued a Zambian fan of both beer and the Premier League, ‘refreshments are not allowed.
African leagues and federations have been considering change. Some have proposed shifting their entire seasons from the ufabet European, September-to-May, model to a summer league. Others have tried to shift their kick-off times. The general manager of FC Abuja was candid. ‘Whenever we play at the same time as an Arsenal game, nobody shows up. As to the football itself? The cameras, however few of them there are, do not lie. The ball does not move sweetly, the pitches are, more often than not, in desperate condition.
There is still talent in Africa, but more than 3,000 of its professionals are playing outside the continent. The top one hundred or so are concentrated at the biggest and richest leagues in Europe. They are on television almost every day, and they are not coming back.
In a series of paintings and collages, the Ghanaian artist Godfried Donkor has cast the African footballer of the mid-to-late twentieth century as a saint, and presented him like a Russian icon, head surrounded and illuminated by a halo of light.25 In Santo Eusebio, the Mozambican, who played his whole career for Benfica and Portugal, is set against the share prices of the Financial Times.
In Santo Omam, we see François Omam-Biyik, the player who put Africa on the world’s football map when he scored Cameroon’s winner against Argentina in the opening game of the 1990 World Cup, with covers of Ebony magazine, a style and political trend-setter amongst midcentury African Americans and the wider African diaspora, floating behind him in space.
These works of art feature the heroes of decolonization, civil rights and black pride: Haile Selassie, Jackie Robinson and Duke Ellington. Donkor’s pictures capture the African stars of another age: today’s icons would have to put the African footballer in the context of more contemporary models of success – TV stars and rappers, the slick preachers of prosperity and the real-estate hustlers – but the esteem in which they have been held in Africa has not diminished. If anything it is much greater.