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The African Game

by Ami Kealoha in Culture on 12 June 2006

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To celebrate the sport and culture of African football, Puma enlisted writer Knox Robinson and Nigerian filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu to create The African Game, a photo book documenting the players and people behind the world's most beloved pastime. We checked in with Knox and he told us about the full brass bands and shamans in the stands, the Africanization of football, and getting to know the heart of Africa. Hitting stores 13 June 2006 with a launch party at Reed Space in New York, you can also pick up the book from Rotunda Gallery opening 22 June 2006. For Knox's coverage of the African games next week, go to No Mas.

What was your experience of writing this book?
Puma had an idea to do something special to celebrate their relationship with some of Africa's best national football teams, so they approached the NYC-based creative collective US&THEM collaborate on such a project. At US&THEM we connected with Andrew Dosunmu since I'd worked with him before and knew he was only man for the job.

What was your personal relationship to football, Africa, and African football going into this project?
I've probably been thinking about Africa my whole life, but I'm still perpetually shook by the path opened up by a deep relationship with the place. For this project, I had the abstract goal of doing something different, showing some other side of african life that you dont ever see reported in western media. I had never followed African football before and my relationship to the sport itself was basically tangential and ran along cultural lines. I knew about the South American angle and a couple English teams, the usual Arsenal vs. Manchester United talk. Plus, living in Brooklyn it's nothing to catch Central American matches in Red Hook or Trinidadians playing in Prospect Park. I saw Flamengo win the Rio state championship in 2004.

How did working on this book change the way you think about African football?
Even though i had been to Africa before and I travel in that cultural space, the experience of working and traveling with Andrew made me understand African life on a much more basic level, beyond its amazing music and art and literature. I got a glimpse into the continent's clockworks, its heart.

Given your background in music, what kind of differences did you notice in music's role in the sport?
Once you get past the full body-paint look, it's a little different from how the sport is sometimes seen in Europe. People sing at games in Africa, but they don't make monkey noises, throw bananas, and scream racist taunts at the players they way fans do at stadiums in Spain, Italy, and Germany. Half-jokes aside, naturally there are a lot of celebratory songs and dances, plus a range of elements from full brass bands to shamans putting juju on opposing teams. In the stands it's also about style and culture rather than a corporate sport experience.

What do you see for African football's future and how do you think that will influence Africa itself?
Africa already has a great reputation in football due to quality players and some legendary games at the world cup. In 1990 Cameroon beat defending champs Argentina in the opening stages and Senegal beat defending champs France in the first game the 2002 tournament. Both teams went on to the quarterfinals. But, neither team is in germany right now. It's the kind of thing that points to the idea that African football on a national level is getting more and more competitive. People talk about the internationalization of football, but it's looking like the Africanization of the sport. African players—to say nothing of players of African descent in the rest of the world—are currently among the best (and best-paid) on the planet. It's been those players who have forced the sport's governing body to work with the European Union to confront racism at stadiums there. Meanwhile most of these players maintain strong connections to their countries, so they're working at building back home as well. And, all that's happening when they're not engaged in their primary pursuit of creating magic on the pitch. The world cup is in South Africa in 2010, so whatever happens this summer in Germany is almost like a fuse a being lit to detonate four years from now.

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