The French sports daily L’Equipe this evening reports that the latest signings by English soccer club Newcastle United takes the total number of French players. ‘Newcastle pille la Ligue 1’ declares the headline; the Premier League side have plundered the French first division.
The dominance of the world soccer scene by the English top tier has been a process accumulating momentum for two decades. The process was becoming evident in 1998.
Arriving in the Tanzanian capital of Dar Es Salaam late on a Tuesday evening, we had stayed at a convent near the airport before attending a seminar the next morning and travelling inland to stay in the town of Njombe. After having a meal, we went into the hotel’s lounge where a television on the wall was showing a football match. ‘Welcome to Ewood Park, Blackburn on a cool autumn evening’, said the commentator. Had I travelled so far in order to watch a Premiership football match? I realised it was a game that had been played on Monday evening, before we had left Belfast. I leaned over to John our driver and said the team that wins this match will score three goals in the last ten minutes. He looked at me, bemused until I explained that we were watching a recording. Live football came early in the decade that followed, though was surely not as pervasive as it has become in recent years.
In 2010, I sat in a cafe in Kigali in Rwanda and watched the second half of Saturday afternoon match end of season. So caught up with the game, I failed to remember that Rwanda was one hour ahead of summer time in England and that the time was not approaching five o’clock as it was in Manchester, but approaching six o’clock when the equatorial darkness would suddenly descend. Our journey from the capital was made on African roads at night, not an inviting prospect.
A year later, at the Burundi border, the driver collecting us was listening to an excited commentator. ‘An African match?’ I asked.
He looked at me as if I were eccentric, ‘No – Chelsea against Arsenal’.
It seems astonishing that football played in a country which has not won an international title since 1966, by clubs which between them can muster a mere four triumphs in the twenty years of the Champions League, has managed to become such a global brand, finding massive audiences in Asia and Africa.
If any proof were needed of the all pervasive presence of English football, it came in a rural Rwandan village last month: lying on a pathway there was the wrapper from a packet of Premier League stickers. Boys in this small village seemed more likely able to name the players in Manchester United or Manchester City or Chelsea or Arsenal teams, than know anything of the sportsmen in their own country.