Monday, May 24, 2010

Africa: The Shrine of Football

There are four major religions in Africa: Traditional African spiritual beliefs, Christianity, Islam and Football. Of these, Football is by far the most widespread and commonly practiced. It has millions of adherents spread across all 53 African countries. In many respects, Africa is the most diverse continent on the face of the earth. But a love (or more accurately, a reverence) for Football is one of the major unifying elements in this vast and diverse continent.

On the face of it, sport is all about a contest played within an agreed set of rules. In fact, it is about a lot more than that. A whole more. Sporting achievement represents something deep within the human psyche. That is why great champions of sport command respect and financial rewards seemingly out of all proportion to their prosaic sporting activities: Usain Bolt running in a straight line; Michael Jordan inserting an orange ball in a bottom-less basket; Tiger Woods striking a small white ball into a cup in the middle of a raised lawn; Pele kicking a football through a large rectangular frame; and so on. I think Bill Shankly, the legendary Scottish manager of Liverpool Football Club, put it best when he said: "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I'm very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."

Sport is not just about the prosaic activities carried out by sportsmen (and women) on the field of play. It is drama, real-life drama, with moments of comedy and tragedy; with blood, sweat, tears, grit, pain, determination, despair, triumph, disaster, ecstasy, agony. And yes, even life and death at times. Sport is human life played out on the football field, the golf course, or the athletics track. It is about honour and, occasionally, villainy. It is the human condition writ small, but played large.

And in Africa Football is even more than the sum of all these things because it is the universal, though unofficial, religion, the only continent where this happens to be the case.

So it is fitting that this year, 2010, Football is finally coming to its spiritual home: Africa. It's true, Football's historical home is England, but it is only in Africa that Football has attained the status of a universal religion.

Hello World! Welcome to Africa, The Shrine of Football.

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