Article Review: Arsenal, Africa, and Modern Football
Every team seems to have a “global marketing strategy” these days. From pre-season world tours, to affiliated clubs, to multi-billion-dollar television rights the game has changed a lot in the last decade or two. Today I’ll look at an article by Richard Vokes, Senior Lecturer in Anthropology and Development Studies at the University of Adelaide, on how global football has changed one African country and village.
Vokes, Richard. “Arsenal in Bugamba: The Rise of English Premier League Football in Uganda.” Anthropology Today 26, no. 3 (2010): 10-15. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40650036.
We talk about soccer in a global landscape these days. Teams like Manchester United or Liverpool have more fans worldwide than the cities they hail from. If this article is to be believed, Manchester United claim 659 million fans worldwide. That would mean, if my calculations are correct, they would have to play 8,712 games at Old Trafford in front of a new set of fans until every fan of the club would have a chance to watch them live once.
Most global fans of the game experience the game through an array of media networks that bid massive sums of money for the right to show games in countries around the world. Anthropologist Richard Volkes looks at the way one team, England’s Arsenal F.C., have built a fan base in the small Ugandan town of Bugamba.
Volkes begins his analysis with a reflection on Ugandan footballing history, which like most places finds its roots in a colonial past. Interestingly, in comparison to the article on Russian soccer and social identity, which placed the beginnings of the game in factory teams, Ugandan soccer begins with Christian missionaries in the earliest years of 1900. Attached to the local colleges, Ugandan football quickly became a symbol of modernity and the colonial state (11).
A tour of a national team through Britain in 1956, a first for any African side, became a unifying symbol for a country on the brink of independence. This was followed by Uganda qualifying for their one and only World Cup appearance in 1966. The 1960s saw nearly every state entity field a club side of their own, allowing the countries league to expand into multiple divisions in the 1970s (11).
Volkes points to the National Resistance Movement government’s media reforms after 1986 that helped raise the popularity of English football in the country. Prior to this, tuning into the BBC World Service or other outside media could have been seen as political subversion. By the 1990s most Ugandans, specifically those in urban centers, gained access to the European game via international media (12).
After this review of the national history, Volkes does a well to show how this history trickled down to the village level. The point of connection for Volkes argument and this village level history is in the influence of local leaders and their clubs. Officials would, beginning in the 1980s, provide uniforms, transportation, and other perks to local clubs, while also attracting the best regional talents in an effort to show their exhibit their political clout.
Media technology, at least in part, changed the way Ugandans viewed soccer. The rise of the EPL took the emphasis off local clubs, thus minimizing the ability of local officials to fully display their clout.
According to Volkes’ narrative, most villagers in Bugamba, the focus of this study, do not own televisions. This placed increased importance on those who both owned and worked for the local venues who provided EPL matches via satellite.
Or in Volkes’ own words:
Thus the current interest in English football has created new lines of power and influence in the village (14).
Weaved into Volkes’ argument is the subplot of just why the EPL, and Arsenal in particular, were so popular in Uganda. This is a multifaceted point that the article illustrates well. The easy beginning is the correlation with Uganda’s colonial past. Volkes rejects this simplistic approach for a more dynamic view. The EPL’s fast-paced action filled games played by more African or Euro-African players than other European leagues are more appealing to Ugandans than in other European leagues (14).
Key players for Arsenal in 2009, when the article was researched, included African superstars such as Alex Song as well as many French nationals of African descent. The article must have been written before July 2009, as it identifies Emmanuel Adebayor as part of the club. He was sold, along with Ivory Coast star Kolo Touré, to Manchester City. These players helped for Arsenal, above other EPL teams, to be the most supported club in Bugamba.
Volkes concludes this work with an analysis of how globalism is understood locally. There is a noticable a shift in local understanding of time and space. The EPL game schedule has meant people are more aware of concepts of time. Time, which had been understood as “afternoon” or “late morning” has shifted to more exact times of day. While understandings of space have shifted away from the focus shifting away from “Central Africa” to a more global citizen who beyond their understanding of England, now argue about players and teams from places like the Ukranke or Croatia.
Volkes research is well thought out and considerate of African autonomy in the globalization of football conversation. These are not masses being preached at by world football, instead this village level analysis shows the changes mass media and the beautiful game have brought to Uganda and how locals internalized the European game.
Modern football and the massive move to globalize the game has not come without a price, broadcasts of forigen league games regularly eclipse TV ratings of national teams and domestic leagues in Africa, the United States, and Asia. As nations look to assert thier leagues and national teams, they are now required to fight their way into the conversation. This perspective from 2010 provides an understanding of one aspect of the challenge world football can place on local teams and nations.
What’s your take on the globalization of the beautiful game? Comment here or engage with me on Twitter: @KevinIsHistory. Any edits, corrections, or other correspondence: kevin.mercer AT outlook.com