TCS interviews Musa Okwonga

Felix de Grey 20 November 2013

For the intent football fan, the person whose life revolves around the game, whose every waking hour is spent reading and thinking about it, there are few more interesting writers than Musa Okwonga. Author of the acclaimed A Cultured Left Foot and journalist for a number of media outlets, the man himself admits to his terror at the prospect of ‘regurgitating’ that which has been said before. It is handy, then, that much of what he writes occupies unusual niches and draws playfully from pop culture. As an interview subject, I am delighted, if unsurprised, by his lucid and enlightening take on football, not to mention his willingness to chat considerably beyond our allotted time.

It should be noted that Okwonga is much more than just a football writer. He is a poet, political commentator and vocalist of electronica act The King’s Will; the Renaissance man otherwise absent from today’s backpages. This background heavily informs his work:

 ‘I use a lot of references to pop culture, other sports, sometimes literature. For example, I drew a parallel with [Sun Tzu’s] Art of War, because [Brazil manager, Luiz Felipe] Scolari gave a copy of it to his players before games. A lot of the military ethos is about counter-attack, and as football becomes more defensive it too becomes about counter-attack. It’s about not so much beating people as springing the trap.

‘I take all my experiences over the last 15 years and just try and use them as a funnel through which I see football. My thinking is that, in order to be a football writer, you [have to] bring something new to the discourse.’

Now, perhaps more than ever before, it seems that Okwonga’s work has earned a place in the discussion of the game. With the proliferation of blogs and social media commentators, the struggle to be different has rarely been so pointed. At a time when Twitter affords journalists greater influence than ever before, Okwonga remains circumspect:

‘There are a lot of people who think football writing has become too intellectual and there’s definitely a problem with that. You want to hear something new, and one of the ways to do something new is to get really analytical. Other writers go for the shock factor, because that’s the way to get the most hits.

‘Equally, you now feel like you’re writing to a genuinely global audience. You get tweets from Indonesia to the US, and these people aren’t any less passionate than those over here. In some ways they might be more so because it’s harder for them; they’ve got to stay up to watch the game. And while I’ve experienced discrimination, it’s definitely been outweighed by the reactions and generosity of fans.’

Interestingly, for one whose profession is threatened by social media, Okwonga is unequivocally positive about the platform it gives fans. When I put it to him that football fans are becoming equally concerned with the machinations of FIFA as they are with the results of their club, he hesitates:

‘I don’t think that this generation is any more politicised than the last one, but I think this generation has the tools to make that protest more effective. I think part of that is to do with social media though, and the scrutiny that FIFA and these organisations are now afforded. There might have been the same discontent before, but there was no way to network it so effectively.

‘I think change is going to come from the grassroots, and will be supporter-led. It was really exciting when you had the protests in Brazil during last year’s Confederations Cup. Players could easily have turned their backs on that, but they explicitly endorsed it, to the extent that you had [Brazilian football icon] Neymar saying he was dedicating every goal he scored to those protestors. That was incredibly powerful, because you had support from leading sporting figures. It’s good to see footballers step up to their responsibility.’

The notion of the footballer as an icon and a mouthpiece for the fans is an increasingly pertinent one in an age of mega-expensive entertainment. Fans are now treated as consumers, and decades of loyalty are forgotten as soon as market demand exceeds their capacity to spend. It is a problem, Okwonga notes, that is by no means unique to football:    

 ‘I went to see Kanye West a few months ago, and the tickets were fifty pounds each. A lot of people can’t afford that to see their heroes. They can’t attend the gigs, and the same is true of football, it’s really sad. Football is not sustainable. There’s the same parallel between the amount of debt that the economy was sustaining, and the amount of debt that football was sustaining. We’ve recently seen a successful campaign by the Supporters’ Federation to bring away fares down to twenty pounds. Supporters aren’t stupid. They know when their cash is being exploited.’

With time running out, I just had the opportunity to ask him about the parallels between football and poetry. Okwonga has written a number of poems about the game, or, more specifically, certain players, and I was curious to know the extent to which the two mutually inform each other in his work. Is it a two way street?   

‘Consider the number of people who absolutely love football and the number that absolutely love poetry. The overlap is actually fairly small. With the football fans, you get this stereotypical, ‘yeah, I absolutely love football’ hyped masculinity, whereas poetry is about sensitivity and expressing fundamental truths.

‘The Venn diagram for overlaps between poetry and football is so small, the number of people that love football and write about it, but also who write poetry about it is small, and if you don’t get the vulnerability, it ends up sounding trite, like a Hallmark greetings card.

‘The margin for error when writing poetry about football is smaller than anything else because there’s no shortage of football fans who will tell you ‘that’s a terrible poem’ to your face or online. I wrote a piece about Roy Keane that I was really nervous about, and it’s probably the best poem I’ve written.’

And in that last statement, we find a summation of Okwonga’s nature: whether writing a poem about Roy Keane or a football piece about Sun Tzu, the results defy expectations. In this world of amateur football writers and Twitter opinions, he stands out from the rest, and yet feels perfectly familiar.