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Q&A: Why African teams struggle at the highest level of soccer.
If the Black Stars had gone through to the semi-finals it would have been the furthest any African team has ever gone in World Cup history. GlobalPost talks to Steve Bloomfield, author of "Africa United: Soccer, Passion, Politics and the First World Cup in Africa" about African soccer.
GP: Why do you think African teams have not done as well as expected at the World Cup?
SB: Cameroon’s performance in 1990 was the breakthrough, reaching the quarter-finals but no one’s pushed on since then. It doesn’t help that three of the six African teams at this World Cup changed their coach in the months before the tournament. The other problem is the best
team in Africa, Egypt, who have won the African Cup of Nations the last three times, didn’t qualify.
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GP: Does the generally poor quality of the local game have something to do with it?
SB: Too much football in Africa simply isn’t good enough and that means it doesn’t get the fans and the sponsorship it needs to improve.
As a fan are you going to watch the English Premiership on television or go to your local rundown stadium to watch 22 guys you’ve never heard of play bad football on a worse pitch? Satellite television and the marketing power of European clubs had a devastating effect on the local game because local leagues just can’t compete in quality and that has the potential to damage the next generation of African footballers.
GP: The World Cup has been going since 1930 but this is the first time Africa has hosted the tournament. What took so long?
SB: Egypt was the first African country to enter in 1934. By the 1960s Africa was still ignored. It’s really only in the last 20 years that African soccer has been recognized by the rest of the world as
important. Gradually representation has increased to six teams and with that came the idea that it is time for Africa to host a World Cup.
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.