Let me start with a disclaimer, I have never really been a passionate sports fan willing to shed tears after a loss or to lose my voice after a win. The only exception could be the times when I am supporting my former school’s cricket team because we saw the game as our lifestyle.
I occasionally invest enough emotions when Uganda’s football team (The Cranes) is playing although it has failed to qualify for Africa’s biggest tournament for more time than I have been alive. On other occasions I have lent my support to African teams that make it to the World Cup. The Suarez-Ghana moment is a bitter memory I will die with. I will also never forget the Senegal that Bruno Metsu (RIP) coached or the dances by Roger Milla.
What I honestly failed to adjust to is the prevalent fanaticism that people have for the English Premier League. The current love for the English game started around the time when the lanky Nwankwo Kanu moved to England to play for Arsenal FC.
Soon everyone was either an Arsenal or Manchester United. A few others supported Leeds and Liverpool while Chelsea and Manchester City joined the party much later. Today there are arguably more Arsenal or Manchester fans in most African countries than the members of leading political parties.
English football loyalty is now an acceptable form of identity in countries where local football is being ignored by the day. After one has known your name, he or she is more likely to ask which team you support and they do not mean Gor Mahia, APR or KCC. I have even seen journalists asking our politicians which clubs they support in England almost making you wonder whether those who voted them in office are British citizens or residents.
Last week a Ugandan newspaper carried a story of a man who lost his house after betting that Arsenal would win the game against Manchester United. His friend on the other hand had offered his car and wait for it – his wife, if Manchester were to lose the game.
Before you even laugh at this, remember that around 2009 a Kenyan man committed suicide after Arsenal lost a game to Spain’s Barcelona FC. I have seen colleagues at work depressed after ‘their’ team has lost. I also failed to understand the bit where these English teams are referred to in the first person. It just sounds like one of my friends has bought off an English team!
Despite the above examples, sports fanaticism is not entirely a bad thing. There is a constructive side to it. Just look at what the Indians have done with cricket. Imagine the business possibilities that would abound if we invested such passion in our local games.
I love the fact that clubs like Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards in Kenya, Yanga and Simba in Tanzania, APR and Rayon Sports in Rwanda and Vital’O in Burundi still command a good following and their games can still fill up stadiums.
For some strange reason in Uganda the real passion is now reserved for the national team. Gone are the days when the rivalry between SC Villa and Express FC brought life to a standstill.
I remember in the 90s seeing my uncle crying like a baby when SC Villa lost to Express FC. He had all the paraphernalia for the club he loved; jersey, scarf, cap and flag. He would be all dressed up in blue before a big game.
Imagine how much our economies would grow if the passion and money we pour towards far off leagues in England and Spain was kept for our local teams? Imagine if there were as many replica jerseys for Tusker FC (Kenya), Azam (Tanzania) or Police FC (Rwanda) as they are for Chelsea.
We have been able to support our musicians like Chameleon, Diamond, Wyre, Kitoko and Kidum. Why don’t we do the same for local sports clubs? How can we claim to love our countries when we are not willing to love our own sports clubs? How else do we expect to develop the game by abandoning it?
On a positive note, I find it interesting that a Ugandan, Dan Sserunkuma (Gor Mahia) is a big star in the Kenyan league; a Burundian, Cedric Amisi (Rayon Sports) is a huge star in the Rwandan league while Tanzania’s league is reaping big from Rwanda’s Haruna Niyonzima (Yanga) who has just been voted footballer of the year. That is integration right there.