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Why African fans love European football - a Senegalese perspective

The local game in Senegal is underdeveloped. Mark Hann/GLOBALSPORT

Casillas throws the ball to Thuram, standing on the edge of his penalty area. The big defender passes to Zidane, who turns and dribbles past two opponents before playing a precise through-ball for Iniesta, who lays it on for Alves on the right wing. Alves curls in an accurate cross, Tevez rises at the far post to meet it with a powerful header – goal!

This may sound like the commentary for a testimonial or charity match, at which an all-star team of football legends past and present line up for a good cause. But at this match there are no supporters cheering the players on. There are no TV cameras recording the play, and not even a single blade of grass on the pitch.

And Frenchmen Zinedine Zidane and Lilian Thuram, Brazilian Dani Alves, Argentinian Carlos Tevez, and Spaniards Iker Casillas and Andrés Iniesta – fabled names from the upper echelons of European football – are nowhere to be seen.

Instead it’s Ameth “Zidane”, Mbaye “Thuram”, Mamadou “Alves”, Saliou “Tevez”, Mohamed “Casillas” and Abdou “Iniesta”, all nicknamed after those footballing icons. We are in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, on a dusty pitch, watching a cup game between two local under-19 teams.

In Senegal European football is hugely popular. While local league teams play in almost deserted stadia, audiences crowd around televisions to follow the latest matches of the English Premier League, the Spanish La Liga, or the pan-European UEFA Champions League.

The latest goals, controversies and transfers in Europe are the subject of passionate debate and discussion on the streets of Dakar. By contrast, the local leagues attract hardly any interest. This is true in very many African countries. But I explore what lies behind this discrepancy in Senegal. As well as why a nation so in thrall to the beautiful game seemingly ignores the major competitions taking place on their own doorstep?

Why the big attraction

There are a number of reasons.

Jean Bertin Uwarugaba, a telecoms engineer of Rwandan origin who has lived in Senegal for over two decades, provided me with one obvious answer:

The local game is underdeveloped. It’s not attractive, because there are no historical rivalries between the teams.

With the deregulation of football broadcasting since the 1990s, the European game has become accessible and affordable to many Africans, especially those living in urban areas. Why should people consume a sub-par product when they can watch the elite level of the game in the comfort of their own homes?

Dakar-based Uwarugaba is a fanatical fan of top English club Chelsea.

I first started watching European football around 1999, in particular Olympique Marseille. Didier Drogba emerged as the leader of that team. After Drogba’s transfer to Chelsea in 2004, I started following the Premier League. I’ve been a fan of Chelsea ever since.

Another reason is the growing presence of African football stars in the top European leagues. This is certainly a big attraction. The Ivorian superstars Drogba and Yaya Touré, or the Cameroonian striker Samuel Eto'o are icons to fans in Senegal. There’s particular pride at the emergence of exciting young Senegalese players such as Liverpool’s Sadio Mané, Lazio’s Keita Baldé Diao or Kalidou Koulibaly who’s playing for Napoli.

However, the two most popular clubs in Senegal at the moment are the Spanish giants, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, neither of whom currently has an African player in their first team squad – other than the Cameroonian born French international Samuel Umtiti.

Top league matches in Senegal are normally poorly attended. Mark Hann/GLOBALSPORT

Specific local context of football

In Senegal, perhaps, the reason for this European obsession can be found by exploring the specific context of football – and sport – in the country. It’s worth looking at one local exception that attracts as much passion and fervour as the European giants – the navétanes inter-district championship, which includes the aforementioned team containing the illustrious names of Casillas, Zidane and Tevez. Saliou “Tevez” is the team’s centre forward, a fast and athletic young man who dreams of a career in Europe.

I played in the local navétanes team. Everyone started calling me Tevez, because I played like [Argentine player] Carlos Tevez. I worked hard, I scored goals, I was technical. We won the cup that year. Everyone in the neighbourhood knows me as Tevez.

Saliou’s exploits in the inter-district team are a reminder that there is a local football competition which ignites the passions and loyalties of Senegalese fans. It just isn’t the official league championship.

The navétanes championships take their name from the Wolof “nawet”, referring to the rainy season, and it’s primarily during these summer months that they take place. Since the 1950s, local teams have competed against one another to defend the honour and pride of the neighbourhood or village, and the navétanes matches often attract huge crowds.

Much is at stake: violent altercations and accusations of occult activity among fans are often reported, making the competition resemble Senegal’s other hugely popular sport of wrestling known for being saturated in magico-religious practices. The popularity of the navétanes championships and the national wrestling arena demonstrate that there’s a large appetite for local sports competitions.

The high demand for European football comes in addition to, not instead of, sport at the local level.

Ultimately, they represent two very different things. The navétanes championships, like wrestling, offer a visceral experience of sporting competition which is rooted in complex local meanings, regional loyalties and historical rivalries. In contrast, the viewing of European football matches on TV allows African fans to partake in the aspirational dreams exported worldwide by the Premier League or the Champions League.

Many young Senegalese boys dream of playing for big European clubs. Mark Hann/GLOBALSPORT

Whether as a consumer, like Uwarugaba, or as a player, in the case of Saliou “Tevez”, there is a strong desire to participate in the football economy at the highest level. In this context, the local league championships are neither here nor there. They lack the passionate support of the navétanes teams, but are also unable to pay competitive salaries necessary to attract the best players.

In a sense, the popularity of European football in Africa is a direct consequence of neoliberal economic transformations, the liberalisation of media and the influx of satellite broadcasting into the African market. The commodification and marketing of European football to an African audience generates profits for telecommunications companies based in the global North, thus exacerbating inequalities and restricting the growth potential of the local game.

But, as pervasive as the globalisation of football may be, there is no denying the genuine passion it inspires among its African fans, and the creative ways in which the global game is incorporated into local narratives.

This article is based on research conducted as part of the GLOBALSPORT project based at the University of Amsterdam and funded by the European Research Council.

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