/ 7 June 2006

In East Africa, soccer is ‘very, very important’

It has been dubbed “The Greatest Show on Earth”, and in Kenya that’s precisely what the Soccer World Cup is. So, with just days before the latest tournament kicks off in Germany, excitement among soccer fans in the East African country is mounting.

“I think this is going to be the biggest World Cup ever! For our people in East Africa, soccer is very, very important,” says Lalji Kanbai, the owner of a hoteli (Swahili for “informal restaurant”) in Kisumu, western Kenya.

The advent of satellite television, broadcasting a huge array of matches, is a key ingredient of the football mania.

Satellite dishes have become a common sight in even the poorest of residential areas, incongruously perched atop shacks, alongside sewers. In these settlements, the “beautiful game” provides an escape from grinding poverty.

Entrepreneurs with their eye on the ball have also invested in the technology, so that they can broadcast international matches at their hotelis. They charge the equivalent of 30 United States cents per person, per game — no small amount in a country where more than half the population lives on less than $1 a day, according to official statistics. Yet each weekend, crowds throng the establishments.

And, the cost of viewing pleasure is only set to increase.

“I am going to charge 30 shillings [about 40 cents] for a first-round World Cup game, 40 [almost 56 cents] for the quarterfinals, 50 [about 70 cents] for the semis and then 80 to 100 shillings [more than $1 to about $1,40] for the final,” says Farah Juma, a hoteli manager in the coastal city of Mombasa.

Similarly, dealers have boosted the prices of television sets — and the cost of soccer paraphernalia is increasing by the day. A shirt that went for $15 a month ago now sells for more than $45, according to dealers.

The national obsession with soccer was reflected in a recent incident that saw two rival fans come to blows in a bar in the capital, Nairobi, after a disagreement about a match.

Roy Kirimi and Kenny Marango were arrested and eventually fined about $70 each for assault. Witnesses say that although Kirimi’s beloved Chelsea won the game comfortably, it was Manchester United fan Marango who emerged victorious from the bloody altercation.

“Tell Manchester and Chelsea to pay the fines for you,” quipped the magistrate when the men complained that they could not afford the fines.

But, when violence breaks out on a far larger scale, it’s not a laughing matter. Nairobi’s city centre after a game between English Premier League heavy hitters such as Manchester United and Arsenal can be the scene of alcohol-fuelled war. Police are often summoned to break up brawls that spill out of bars and on to the potholed streets.

“The fans fight like hell!” says Robert Oluoch, a waiter at a bar in downtown Nairobi. “Sometimes they even smash the TVs and windows. It is a matter of life and death to some of them, this game.”

With East African breweries bracing for an unprecedented run on their stocks, there are probably more clashes on the horizon. But for all the fuss they may create, big drinkers are typically granted the best seats in the house, as they are also the biggest spenders.

While the Premier League is usually the major sporting draw card in Kenya, it is likely to be surpassed by the World Cup.

Normally, Ken Adego, Charles Aduogo and Okwara Ochudi would not consider swapping their Manchester United shirts for anything. During the World Cup, though, they plan to support England — and Adego has already acquired the essential replica jersey. Kenya failed to qualify for the tournament.

The country most favoured to win the showpiece is Brazil, followed closely by Argentina and Italy.

It is extremely difficult to find a person who believes that any of the African nations represented at the World Cup — Togo, Côte d’Ivoire, Tunisia, Angola and Ghana — have a chance of progressing further than the first round. An indication of the pervasive pessimism: African team shirts are not even for sale.

Whatever the outcome, this World Cup will be different from previous occasions in one significant respect: large numbers of women are likely to join men in witnessing the spectacle.

“We saw that with the past English season, more women came to watch the games. They were just tired of their men having all the fun. You know what they say: ‘If you cannot beat them, join them!'” Kanbai laughs.

Adego’s wife, Susan, has done just that.

“My husband was never with me on the weekends because of the football, so I decided I would also be with him from now on, at the bar. I met other women there, and now we sit and talk while the men scream,” she says.

Other women have become great lovers of the game — even if not because they admire the technical mastery of, say, a kick by England captain David Beckham that curls the ball around his opponents.

“Roberto Carlos is my favourite player. I just want to hug him when I see him!” says Jenny Njue of the Brazilian fullback, at a hoteli in Kawangware, a slum area in Nairobi. But she can’t say which position Carlos plays.

“No! Didier Drogba! He is a pure man!” her friend adds, about the Ivorian striker.

In preparation for the Cup, Ken Adego has even acquired an England scarf — although it beggars belief to think of anyone wearing it in the searing East African heat.

But, the World Cup is scarcely about rational behaviour. In fact, the first blast of that whistle in Munich, on Friday, is likely to launch a month of mayhem, absenteeism from work and hangovers aplenty. — IPS