John, the Masai trinket seller is within five seconds of making a sale. My seven year old daughter, Bella, has her eye on his turtle shell necklace and he sees it. But then something distracts him – the light blue football shirt my son Sebastian is in – and he laughs. “Hey, Manchester City!” he says pointing to his shirt. “What about you?” he turns to my other son, Oliver. “Chelsea,” comes the reply. “Me too,” he says, and he points at his dark blue tobe, and laughs again.
And there on the edge of Indian Ocean with its palm trees and soft white sands, these two Chelsea fans shuffle together for a photograph, unified by their support for a football club sitting thousands of miles away in grey drizzle on London’s Fulham Road.
Although it is a constant background noise in my life – thanks to my sons, their friends and my husband – I have no interest in football. And before if I had been asked for an opinion on the Premier League (which I have to say is unlikely), I would have dismissed it as a gross commercialisation of a previously innocent sport that was once about location and local identity.
But now the Premier League intrigues me. For it is a quite extraordinary global anthropological phenomenon which is creating tribes across the world who speak a sparse but clearly understood language.
In Khartoum, where we live, it is always the first subject a hairdresser or taxi driver will raise with my boys. But I hadn’t given it that much thought. Or the fact that each summer in the UK we bring back Chelsea and Arsenal memorabilia for their friends here. Its unrelenting prevalence only hit me recently in Kenya. Where ever we went during our week on Diani Beach, my boys not speaking a word of Swahili were fluent in Premier League. It turns out it is a simple tongue mainly involving an exchange of names, no grammar, usually a simple combination of a name plus some kind of sound or action: Tevez? Ha, Torez. mmm Rooney? Groan. Messi, joyous laughter. Aguero. Nodding. Oscar. Furious nodding. Sounds easy? But I don’t understand it. I guess you have to watch the matches.
Everyone we met had an opinion, not on Kenyan politics, which actually quite interested me, but on their favourite Premier League club. The guy managing the house we are staying in, Sammy, is a Man United fan. Saleem, our cook supports Chelsea, as was Bonni who took us snorkeling one day. “My wife supports Arsenal,” he told us raising his eyebrows, as if we’d all know what that meant, before adding with a grin “But we still get on.” That day we had driven down a muddy track and on a shack seemingly in the middle of nowhere someone had painted in pale blue painstakingly neat letters: Liverpool, you will never walk alone.
The popularity of the Premier League challenges how I have come to see the world. As a foreign correspondent most of what I deal in is difference. The difference between rebel groups and the government, the difference within the rebel groups, differences with the government, differences between countries. This all come down to one thing really: differences in identity. And here is something (its lucrative nature aside), which points to how much humanity has in common.
Like most people on holiday we had hoped to leave everything behind: no screens, no phones, no email, no internet, no TV. And no TV should have meant a football free week. That I realise now is impossible. The only exception to our screen free, internet free holiday was the night we went to a crowded bar to watch Manchester United beat Chelsea on big screens. Until now, it had not occurred to me that while it is still possible to have a week without internet, it is now impossible to have one without football. But with the Premier League, football will always be with you. Where ever you go. You will never walk alone. Not even if you want to.