Football Crazy

‘2-1! 2-1!’ the young man shouted, on his feet and swivelling towards me. ‘Away, we have beaten them; home, we will beat them. This year, twice! Twice, we will beat them!’

And he waved his fist in my face. Not with any aggressive intent, you’ll understand, but with real feeling, nevertheless.

I guess many of you will have already realised – I am talking about last Saturday’s big match between Arsenal and Manchester United. Then you will also know that the young man’s celebration of victory was a bit premature. In injury time, Gallas scrambled the ball into the Man U net – and Arsenal’s unbeaten record for the season still stands, as well as their lead of the Premier League.

I was at the Kengeles at Nairobi West. I was there because we have DSTV but not GTV at home – so I had to go out if I wanted to see this most important clash of the season so far. Very many more must have been in the same predicament, because the place was packed. So packed that, arriving five minutes after kick-off, it was difficult to find even standing space. It was nigh impossible to put in an order for a drink. It must have been the same squeeze at all the other sports bar places in town having GTV.

A few years ago I was involved in a fascinating consultancy concerning possibilities for cross-border cooperation by media practitioners in the countries of South Asia – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. In all the discussions we had in all the five countries, one topic was dominant – the concern over the influence of India through its uplifting of the major satellite TV channels and the widespread distribution of ‘Bollywood’ movies across the region.

‘It is not Westernisation we are worried about,’ said a retired Head of Pakistan TV, ‘it is Indianisation.’

Here, in contrast, I’ve never heard anyone complaining about the South Africanisation of the media across Africa. Yet in hotels across, up and down the continent you can watch DSTV. What seems to count most is the opportunity to tune to its seven channels of sport – and particularly the Premier League football matches.

So when it dawned that guys (mainly the guys, I guess) with DSTV would from the beginning of this season be able to see only 20% of the Premier League there was an uproar – letters to editors, phone-ins to radio stations, and much grumbling in the bars.

OK, in Kenya we do have an option of switching to the pay channel GTV that now has the other 80% rights acquired from the English Football Association; the cheaper option if you are interested mainly in football – but with much less variety in its programmes. Fans in other countries, though, are less fortunate. When I was in Malawi and Zambia some weeks ago they were really furious – because GTV isn’t operating there yet.

But I am puzzled. Why is it that Kenyans have become so passionate about football teams so far away in England? I mean, when I first came to Kenya there as much talk in the bars about Gor Mahia and Leopards. You would see people queuing to get into their matches – watching football for real. Do those teams still exist?

The crowd at the Nairobi West Kengeles were certainly passionate in their support. When Rooney scored the first goal, the Man U fans leaped in the air. When Fabregas equalised, it was the turn of the Arsenal fans to leap about. There was much shouting, singing and taunting.

And I was the only mzungu there. The only Englishman. OK, there were very few Englishmen playing for Arsenal – and young Theo Walcott is black. Yes, there are many black players in the Premier League these days – but that can be only one reason for the partisan support in Africa. Anyway, there are also millions of fanatical Premier League fans in Asian countries, too. In Kathmandu, in Dhaka, in Bangkok, I saw the same Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool stickers on cars and heard the same conversations in bars and cafes.

Certainly, it is much to do with the power of television…. And today I saw a TV set in the new Steakhouse restaurant at the Racecourse. I could see it has GTV, because it was showing a replay of the Arsenal-Manchester United match. Maybe it will be less of a crush if I go there next Saturday. The steak was fantastic, too – but that is next week’s topic.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation

Photo: crunchsports.com