Delirium erupts as Sadio Mane, the Senegalese winger, scores in England. In Africa, people jump up and down; some dance, others sing – not a single person is seated. This is the scene at the Ridgeway Racebar, in Johannesburg’s East Rand, as around 200 fans gather to watch Liverpool’s opening match of the 2016/17 English Premier League season against Arsenal. But they’re not just celebrating because an African scored; they’re celebrating because they’re fervent Liverpool fans.
Despite living more than 13,000 kilometers from Liverpool’s stadium, Anfield, and many having never set foot in the English city, these fans have an almost messianic dedication to the football club. These Liverpool supporters are not unique; the powerhouses of English football, such as Manchester United, Arsenal, and Chelsea, have millions of fans in Africa.
The Official Liverpool Supporters Club – Gauteng (OLSC Gauteng) at Ridgeway Racebar is a home away from home for Liverpool supporters in Johannesburg.
“The thing with a supporters club is, for a lot of people, getting to Anfield is a once in a lifetime experience. We’ve made our own sort of Anfield here, and we’re affiliated with Anfield in the UK. We get legends to come watch matches at the club; we’ve had [former players] John Barnes, Mark Wright, we had the ladies team. That kind of stuff allows us to get a little closer to the game, that’s what you get with a supporters club rather than watching a match with mates at your house,” says Chris Midgley, the Brand Liaison and Spokesman for OLSC Gauteng.
“It’s great to have three or four mates at home watching a game against Arsenal, but when you’ve got 300 [people] together, singing You’ll Never Walk Alone, it makes it worth it,” says the Chairperson of OLSC Gauteng, Kailin Pillay. You’ll Never Walk Alone is the clubs anthem, originally a song from the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel and made famous by Gerry and the Pacemakers, a group from Liverpool.
OLSC Gauteng was the winner of the best Official Liverpool Supporters Club globally for the 2015/16 season. It’s easy to see why; Liverpool is in the blood.
“There’s something different about Liverpool… I like the way that Liverpool supporters are. I believe in what they believe; I like it that the motto is ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. I like the idea that we stand together,” says Pillay, who is a dramatic arts teacher at Crawford College in Sandton.
“I’ve supported Liverpool since primary school… The club has become so important with milestones along the way. I met my wife at the supporters club, our club treasurer married us. Liverpool is a proper family. We went on honeymoon to watch Liverpool play; our first holiday together, we also went to watch Liverpool play! When I met Kailin, I didn’t know anything about him, we didn’t have anything in common bar the fact we both supported Liverpool and that was enough for us to be great mates. There are lots of guys in there, I can walk into the room and strike up a conversation with them. We’ve got guys who are extremely affluent and guys who aren’t. For us, there’s no class level, no race level, we’ve got one thing in common,” says Midgley, who is a strategist for his own advertising agency, 36c.
So, why is the Premier League so popular in Africa?
“Two clubs: Chelsea and Arsenal. Arsenal had a number of African players, [Nwankwo] Kanu, Kolo Toure, and then Chelsea started doing it with Didier Drogba, John Obi Mikel and Michael Essien. All those African players won Premier League titles, which builds the profile of the league in Africa,” says Pillay.
This profile means money. Kelvin Storie, Group Managing Director at media agency Vizeum South Africa, says a 20-second advert during a Premier League match costs around R23,000 ($1,600). The more African players, the more popular the game is, says David Sidenberg, CEO of BMi Sport Info, an independent research company in South Africa that focuses on the sport and sponsorship market.
“It is no surprise that Manchester United is the team of choice in Southern Africa. In addition to being the most successful team in terms of English Premier Leagues titles won, they signed local South African star Quinton Fortune who plied his trade for seven years with the club and won a title in the process,” says Sidenberg.
“With the possible exception of Nigeria, Chelsea tends to be West Africa’s first choice. Not surprising when one considers that the likes of Drogba, Solomon Kalou, Samuel Eto’o, Victor Moses, Essien and Mikel are all West Africans who have played for The Blues. [In Nigeria and East Africa], red is the preferred color, but here it’s for the Gunners (Arsenal), largely off the back of the ‘Invincibles’ 2003/2004 title-winning season. The club’s list of African stars is also long. One of the greatest Nigerian players in the nation’s history, and the most decorated, Kanu is undoubtedly most remembered for his time at Arsenal during their celebrated run.”
Mark Gleeson, a football journalist and commentator in South Africa, believes the league would be as popular in South Africa if there weren’t Africans on the pitch.
“[The league having African players] helped a little bit, but in my opinion it’s more to do with the colonial connection. It would still be as popular even if they didn’t have those players,” he says.
“I think there’s a cultural link with South Africa and England. The Premier League has been part of our lives growing up as football fans, and the media has always covered it generously.”
Gleeson also thinks the Premier League’s history and money makes it difficult to ignore.
“It’s regarded as the world’s best domestic league and it has a history.”
“The Bundesliga and other have certainly made huge strides in recent times, but there is still much work required before it can compete for eyeballs with the English Premier League and/or the local African football leagues,” says Sidenberg.
While the likes of Drogba, Essien and Toure are popular figures in Africa, the Premier League is perhaps more popular now that the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sergio Agüero and Eden Hazard are playing for English clubs. This is apparent at the Living Room, a restaurant in Accra, Ghana, that has grown in popularity since it started broadcasting European football matches. A week before the Premier League starts, the restaurant is packed with supporters watching championship winners Leicester City play FA Cup winners Manchester United.
For Kwame Oduro, wearing a blue Manchester United away kit, the success of the team in the last 25 years made the Red Devils the team to support.
“We have had players like Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, and Ruud van Nistelrooy, who are by far the greatest players of all time and also if you count how many titles we have won,” says Oduro.
Other are not as easily persuaded.
“I don’t like Manchester United because they are overhyped. Yes, they have the history and clearly more money than sense, but in all honesty, football is more than history, it’s about the passion of the players and the fans support,” says Chelsea fan, Steven Appiah.
Titles are important to the fans at the Ridgeway Racebar in Johannesburg; Liverpool has 41 major titles, more than any other English club.
“The biggest year that we’ve ever had, in terms of members, was 2013/14 when we just about won the title. Previous to that was 2006 when we won the Champions League,” says Midgley.
“If we win today, we’ll have 200 sign ups. When the team wins, everyone wants to be a part of it,” adds Pillay.
As it happens, Liverpool beat Arsenal 4-3. A fan walks past with the latest Liverpool jersey he got when he signed up as a member of OLSC Gauteng for R950 ($65).
“I may live in South Africa, but my heart is in Anfield,” he says, when asked why he became a member.
Another supporter, Andrew Arntze, has supported Liverpool since he was six years old and has a tattoo of the club’s emblem on his leg to prove it.
“It’s in your heart,” he says.
As the match ends, the whole place breaks into You’ll Never Walk Alone. If you watch the Premier League in Africa you’ll never be alone.
– Additional reporting by Peace Hyde