Uganda: The home of English football's most ardent fans

It’s a cold, wet Sunday evening outside the Little Highbury pub. Inside, patrons are glued to a huge television screen showing an eagerly awaited football match between two English Premier League teams: Arsenal and Chelsea.

Yells, curses and sighs of relief punctuate the proceedings. Packed with soccer fans, many wearing the jerseys of the team they support, Little Highbury is a testament to the enthusiasm that surrounds English football in… Kampala.

Kampala?

Yes indeed.
Over recent years, Premiership fever has taken hold of Uganda’s capital and other towns in the East African country, attracting supporters across the board: everyone from cart pushers to those who notch up frequent flyer miles have embraced the league.

It no longer comes as a surprise to find a group of primary school children passionately and authoritatively discussing who scored what goal in last night’s match, in which minute—or who is getting transferred to which team, at what cost. As likely as not, a five-year-old girl in a rural area will have the names of Liverpool players at her fingertips.

Fan clubs for British teams have been set up, and a good many Ugandans may now be more able to recite Premiership statistics than identify the captain of their own national side.

Some parents have even named their children after football players or the home grounds of Premiership teams. Aldrine Nsubuga, a manager at a Kampala-based insurance company, called his first daughter Anfield: the name of Liverpool’s home ground. Local musician Bebe Cool, an Arsenal die-hard, baptised his only son Thierry after the team’s captain, Thierry Henry. (Little Highbury is named after the Arsenal stadium.)

“There’s lots of Ugandans who know much more about the English Premier League than some English fans,” says 53-year-old Danny Thompson, a British businessman and Arsenal fan who has lived in Uganda since 1997.

“I have a [Ugandan] friend who knows much more about Arsenal than I do. He has never been to England, and he is just a young guy.”

Allan Ssekamatte, sports commentator and chairperson of Uganda’s Chelsea fan club, agrees. “The Premiership has really absorbed this country. You would never tell that it is Africa,” he said.

“The Premiership is just one example of how the world has become a global village.”

Ssekamatte believes enthusiasm for the league stems from the chaotic state of local soccer administration.

“Local football has been very, very disorganised,” he says, alleging mismanagement and corruption amongst sports administrators.

Dennis Mbidde, chairperson of an Arsenal fan club, says improved information technology has also played a role. “The coming in of the internet has… contributed [to support for the Premiership],” he said.

As important has been the arrival of satellite television links which allow matches to be relayed live. MultiChoice Africa has become the main satellite broadcaster of league soccer, through its DStv subscription service. Three local FM stations also relay the games live.

On a lighter note, Ssekamatte admits that Premier League mania may have more to do with being trendy than a love of the game: “It has become a social fad. If you do not have and support a team, then you are out of fashion. So some people have begun supporting the Premiership to make a fashion statement.”

Fad or no, it’s something that is putting money is the pockets of certain Ugandans.

Although official statistics indicate that 38% of citizens live on less than a dollar a day, there is a demand for Premiership jerseys, which sell for $12 to $30.

“The market for the Premier League jerseys is even larger than the one for local gear,” says David Katumwa, managing director at Katumwa Sports Centre, the main supplier of sports jerseys in Kampala. “People want to identify with the winning team. For instance now, Chelsea jerseys are selling more.

Certain entrepreneurs have taken to setting up makeshift cinemas called “bibanda” where matches are screened, and a nominal entrance fee charged. On occasion, translations of match commentaries into the local language are provided.

During the football season, bar owners who have invested in satellite television also make a killing in cover charges and beer sales.

But, it’s not just about watching your favourite team kick a ball around. Arsenal fans have become involved in efforts to improve communities through poverty eradication activities, anti-corruption crusades and helping Aids orphans.

Last month, they donated $1 700 to help expand the Kasubi Children’s School in Kampala, which caters for orphans.

The fans have also travelled to the war-torn district of Gulu in northern Uganda, where fighting between rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and government forces has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, over 20 000 children have been abducted to serve as soldiers in the LRA, or as sex slaves for rebels. In an effort to avoid this fate, over 4 000 children are now “night commuters”, travelling to Gulu town every evening to sleep in its streets. Many do not attend school for fear of being abducted by the LRA.

In spite of this hardship, there is still knowledge of—and support for—the Premier League.

“It is amazing the way they [the children] support football there. They come out of their IDP [internally displaced persons] camps and watch the games in the midst of their poverty and disease,” says Mbidde, noting that there are even Arsenal kids’ leagues in Gulu and Arua districts.

“It is so touching to see these people in that area, in those unique settings, supporting the club with all their hearts,” he added.

“Despite the suffering, there is something that makes them forget about the war.”

“The experience I got there was very humbling.”

Fans also lend a hand in organising weddings and funerals for their fellow supporters. Members of the Chelsea fan club who are in need can borrow funds from the club, which requires those who join to pay annual subscriptions of up to $60.

Five years from now, says Mbidde, his club hopes to have a membership of 3 000, a Ugandan version of the Arsenal side—and to lure Thierry Henry to Uganda.

Ssekamatte is scarcely less ambitious.

“We hope to open Chelsea House here, where everything is branded as Chelsea. Fans can then watch their football there. We can then invite some people from the parent club to come over,” he says. - Sapa-IPS

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