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Q&A: Why African teams struggle at the highest level of soccer.
GP: Yet soccer fans in Africa are as passionate as any in the world.
SB: That’s for the same reason that anyone anywhere loves soccer. Even in America they are learning to love it — look at the U.S. team’s performance at the World Cup — and Major League Soccer is getting a lot better. Here in Africa you see it everywhere, from Nairobi slums to a Congolese refugee camps, you don’t even need a ball, you need pieces of plastic tied together with string.
GP: What does hosting the World Cup mean for Africa?
SB: It can fundamentally change the way the world views Africa by reinforcing the idea that the continent is about more than just war, humanitarian crises and disease. One of the reasons I wanted to write the book was to tell a more positive, uplifting story about Africa because, as a journalist, a lot of the stories are pretty negative.
GP: Did you find uplifting stories?
SB: Even Somalia has a national soccer team that plays matches, that represents Somalis in international tournaments. Despite the fact that Somalia’s suffered from a succession of overlapping civil wars there is still something that Somalis can unite behind. It’s a positive story in a country where there are very few.
GP: What did researching a book about soccer teach you about Africa?
SB: African footballers have played an increasingly important part in the high profile English and European leagues recently but we know very little about what African football itself is all about. I thought perhaps there’s a way of explaining more about Africa through its soccer and giving some of the background to where these stars that we all know and love come from, what their lives are really like and what their success means in their own countries.
GP: Where did you research the book?
SB: You could write a chapter about soccer in every country in Africa. Everywhere you go there are soccer stories that help to explain what that country’s like. I wanted a mix of successful soccer-playing nations and less successful ones, I wanted a geographic spread so I could tell a story about the continent and I wanted stories that told different things, ones that looked at ethnic conflict, or war, or how soccer had kept countries together. In the end I went to 13 countries. Each had a different story to tell which gives an overall picture of what soccer is like in Africa and how it reflects society in Africa.
Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect Ghana's defeat in penalty kicks on Friday.