Given the continent’s history and the progress that is being made here
every day, perhaps it is a bit dramatic to claim that colonialism
still exists in Africa. In a footballing context, however, I’m not so
sure the claim is that ridiculous.

Manchester United and Barcelona
may not be charging through the black heart of Africa, replete with
khaki safari suit, pith helmet, rifle slung casual-chic over the
shoulder, machete in one hand, gin-and-tonic in the other, a trail of
hand-less Congolese in their wake, but they are killing African club
football nevertheless.

This was originally going to be a piece about the 2012 African Cup of
Nations, but the truth is, when compared to Jonathan Wilson or Gary
Al-Smith, I really can’t offer much in the way of originality or
insight. Afcon 2012 has, however, reinforced an idea that I had been
thinking about for the past year or so. When I moved to South Africa,
I expected that the local football culture would be similar to what I
had experienced in Mexico or Argentina ⎯ European football is
certainly popular in those countries, and the average football fan
probably supports a European team, but when it comes down to it the
domestic league is king. Sure, Barcelona and Real Madrid are popular
in Mexico City or Buenos Aires, but not more popular than Club América
or Boca Juniors.

Yet, in my (admittedly limited) travels through Africa, the domestic
leagues take a noticeable back seat to the big European leagues. Take
a look around Cape Town or Joburg on an average weekend and you’ll
probably see 10 European club shirts for every one South African club.
Here in Cape Town a Santos shirt (one of two local clubs in the PSL
and the only local side to have ever won the league) is scarcer than a
virgin on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras.

Of course, the number of replica shirts you see in the supermarket is
not necessarily an accurate reflection of the popularity of a specific
league. Only the naffest of the naff wear replica shirts in Spain
(oh, and pasty British tourists, but that’s a different matter) yet
somehow or other the Camp Nou still packs ‘em in week upon week. The
thing is, that’s not the case here.

Unless one of the “Soweto giants©” of Kaizer Chiefs or Orlando Pirates
is playing, the likelihood is that the stadium will be empty. This
despite many teams playing in stadia that were either newly
constructed or heavily renovated for the World Cup, despite ticket
prices across the Premier Soccer League set at 40 rand. (A point
here: for many people in South Africa, 40 rand is a lot of money.
Relatively, however, your average South African fan has it far better
than your average English fan when it comes to ticket prices. And,
realistically, how much less could the clubs really charge?) Indeed,
even Chiefs and Pirates home games rarely see attendances of more than
10,000. Only the “Soweto Derby (also©)” regularly sells out.

Now I don’t know for sure why the PSL has such difficulty attracting
people through the gates, and I’m sure there is not one simple
solution, but I can’t help but think that Europe has something to do
with it. The EPL is by far the most popular thing on television every
weekend, and every single game is shown on three of SuperSport’s
(Africa’s version of Sky) seven channels. All of Barcelona’s and Real
Madrid’s games are shown. The day of a big Premier League match (the
biggest of all being Man United-Liverpool) the streets are empty, save
for the few stragglers who can’t quite fit into the doorway of the
packed bar with the TV.

I don’t have a ton of experience in other African countries, but on a
recent trip to Mozambique I noticed a similar phenomenon ⎯ as I walked
around the capital, Maputo, I noticed lots of Portuguese league
merchandise everywhere. I’m a card-carrying Benfica sócio and my last
night in the country, when I had basically run out of money, I was
still able to enjoy the evening thanks to a few beers and a big screen
projection of the Benfica-Gil Vicente match in a restaurant heaving
with Mozambican Benfica supporters. On the wall of the restaurant I
noticed a sign stating that the next night the Sporting match would be
shown on the big screen, as well. The language, colonising power, and
league in question might be completely different, but the obsession
with European leagues is not only a South African thing.

Surely this cannot be healthy for African football. Surely it cannot
be a coincidence that Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, all countries
where European leagues take a back seat to the domestic league, are
the only non-European countries to win the World Cup. Much like
Scotland, Argentina’s league has, in the past decade, suffered a
noticeable decline in quality. But still supporters show up. Yet
across Africa, from domestic leagues to the African Cup of Nations
(where Gabon literally gave away tickets), supporters stay away. Why?
Why is Ajax Amsterdam allowed to merge two Cape Town football clubs
(one of which had over 30 years of history) into one and form Ajax
Cape Town, a top flight team whose express purpose is to provide
players for the Dutch mother ship? Why can I watch two UEFA Champions
League matches on free-to-air television every match week, yet I can’t
recall a single CAF Champions League match being shown on South
African television last year?

Let me stop before I turn into José Mourinho.

The international media’s obsession with the big European clubs ⎯
specifically Barcelona, Madrid, Man United, Man City, Chelsea,
Arsenal, and Liverpool (both of whom are still popular despite limited
success recently) ⎯ may seem perfectly acceptable to the directors of
those clubs and the moon-faced bureaucrats at UEFA, but the reality is
that it’s killing club football internationally. Like the European
colonisers of the 19th-century, European clubs are storming through
Africa (and Asia, if the videos of Liverpool’s summer tour to Malaysia
are anything to go by), spreading the gospel of the Champions League
and destroying local football in the name of civilisation. Or, as
it’s known in footballing circles, tiki-taka.
By Doug Mulliken.
You can follow him on Twitter @bandaroja<

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