Premier League football is broadcast at the Sebli Cafe in Lalibela, Ethiopia. It is one of three football cafes there. Photograph: Kat Petersen
José Mourinho swept a disgusted arm through the air, spun on his heel and disappeared down the tunnel, furious at Chelsea conceding an equaliser to Liverpool well into the third minute of first-half injury time. The majority of the 90 or so people packed into the courtyard of the Sebli Cafe laughed. Outside, a mule trotted past, followed by a man carrying the hide of a skinned goat on a stick. Smoke drifted across the doorway from the charcoal of the woman warming a coffee pot outside the cafe next door.
It’s easy to become cynical about the Premier League’s claim to be the greatest league in the world. When clubs claim to have hundreds of millions of fans in Africa or Asia, based on some spurious research on Facebook, it’s become customary – and reasonable – to mock. But it’s also easy to be blind to just how much interest there is worldwide in the Premier League.
To those used to watching in a British pub, the atmosphere is strangely sedate. There is a rapt focus on the screen. Barely anyone seems to be drinking – and those who are, are on soft drinks.
Chelsea’s opener provokes a polite ripple of applause; the Liverpool equaliser a response only slightly more raucous. At half-time, everyone piles outside, partly to urinate in the ditch on the other side of the road; partly to chat to those watching in the Sebli’s back room or in the cafe next door. I would guess there were around 200 spectators in the two cafes, all youngish men, with a handful of kids clustering in the doorway so they could get some kind of view without having to pay.
“Most people here are Arsenal or Manchester United fans,” said Kassahul, who supports Liverpool. “Only some of the older ones know what Liverpool means.” I suggested to him I’d seen far more Arsenal shirts on the streets than United ones but that, apparently, is a recent phenomenon triggered by Arsenal signing the Germany youth international Gedion Zelalem (he is on loan at Rangers), who has Ethiopian heritage. “It gets noisier when Arsenal or United play,” he said. “Sometimes there are fights.”
There’s little sign of that in the second half. There’s a clear delight at Liverpool’s goals but it seems rooted more in the love of the soap opera of Mourinho being under pressure than anything specific either for Liverpool or against Chelsea (even if Fusca, an Arsenal fan sitting next to us, insists he “hates” Diego Costa for getting Gabriel Paulista sent off).
After the Chelsea game, the Sebli is showing Crystal Palace against United, so Fusca insists we follow him to another venue for Swansea against Arsenal. He takes us down a narrow alley. It’s dark but underfoot there’s the occasional gleam of a bone from a nearby butcher’s shack. We go into a lean-to, built against the side of a house from wooden staves and plastic sheeting. There are a series of rough wooden benches set into the slope of the hill, forming a natural bank of seats angled at a TV. There’s not even the option of buying a drink here – entry is only five birr. By full time, I would estimate there were more than 200 people packed into the darkness, the only light coming from the TV and the odd phone being checked for live scores.
There’s near silence as Mourinho is interviewed. His grouchiness prompts gales of hilarity; this is part of the entertainment. At half-time, when his general press conference is shown, a boy of about 10 in a Chelsea shirt wanders in, watches Mourinho shrug and gurn his way through a string of questions, then leaves before the second half begins.
Everything Joel Campbell does earns an encouraging round of applause. Only when Olivier Giroud puts Arsenal ahead early in the second half is there a real roar, people leaping to their feet to celebrate. It was Héctor Bellerín sliding into a post to block a shot from (an offside) André Ayew that earned the warmest appreciation, though, his every appearance on the screen after that warmly cheered.
Three things stood out. First of all, the intensity of the interest.
Football in the UK is often the backdrop to a pub conversation; in Lalibela, it wasn’t quite like being in a cinema or concert but the level of concentration wasn’t far off. Then there was the love of narrative. I’d first become aware of that getting a lift back from the Simien Highlands to Gondar. We’d been trekking and had had no phone or internet access for four days; our driver spent the first half-hour of the journey regaling the Ethiopians in the car with what had happened during the previous day’s Premier League fixtures, which was then translated for the English speakers. Judging by the gasps, he clearly hammed up the story of Mourinho being sent from the touchline at Upton Park to the maximum.
The driver then quizzed me on club nicknames and their origins, which led to an esoteric crash course in English history, from Harry Hotspur to the Napoleonic Wars to the industrial revolution.
But most striking of all was the scale. This wasn’t one or two freakish obsessives. Fusca said there were five or six smaller halls like the one we watched the Arsenal game in. Add in the three cafes with TVs and the right satellite card and that means perhaps 1,000 people watching the Premier League every Saturday in a town with a population of 21,000 – or, to put it another way, around 20% of the adult male population.
Whether that’s commercially significant or not is debatable but it’s certainly culturally significant. Gylfi Sigurdsson is probably the most famous Icelander there’s ever been. People all over the world have not merely heard of Norwich, Bournemouth and Swansea but have a vague idea where they are and what they’re like. A weird hierarchy of icons has developed: in Addis Ababa I saw a minibus adorned with wistful images of Jesus Christ and Mesut Özil.
And then there’s the language issue: presenters, commentators and pundits have a huge responsibility as shapers of English. When James Milner scuffed a cross, I heard Kassahul mutter: “Waste of space!”
Generations, presumably, are growing up learning to growl like Andy Gray and picking up Andy Townsend’s catchphrases.
Greatest league in the world? Maybe not but the reach of the Premier League is extraordinary.