Football in progress in Lagos, Nigeria, from the book African Arenas © Thomas Hoeffgen.
Thomas Hoeffgen’s project on African football stadiums didn’t start well. Commissioned by Playboy magazine to shoot Nigerian football star Jonathan Akpoborie in his hometown, Lagos, the trip took an unexpected twist when the VfB Stuttgart forward cancelled. The Brooklyn-based photographer was sent off to join Akpoborie’s favourite driver instead, and was given a tour of some of the pitches he’d played on in his youth.
At one of them, Hoeffgen, who hadn’t had time to get a journalist’s visa, noticed a water tower and climbed up it to get a better shot. Fifteen minutes later two military jeeps screeched to a halt, he was promptly arrested and his film was confiscated. With no proper papers to produce he was taken to the local police station and detained for hours until the driver, who’d loyally come along to help, realised he was distantly related to one of the officers. “Within five minutes the officer declared himself a huge football fan and I was released – with my film,” writes Hoeffgen in his new book, African Arenas.
As the book title suggests, Hoeffgen wasn’t put off by this abrupt introduction to Nigerian officialdom – far from it. Inspired by Africans’ devotion to the beautiful game, he returned to the continent over and over again over the next 10 years, revisiting Nigeria, and travelling on to Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi and South Africa. Five years ago, when FIFA announced that the 2010 World Cup would take place in South Africa, the project took on new impetus, with Hoeffgen determined to finish and publish the book in time for the main event.
Initially focusing on the football grounds, he soon broadened his concept to cover the players, spectators and neighbourhoods in which football is played, making seven different trips in total and shooting thousands of images. It took him nearly three months to edit them down to the 85 shots included in the book, and he worked on the images in post-production to create a unified look and feel. Some of the images show head-on portraits, while others are aerial shots, but in most it seems the photographer was an unseen eye, despite shooting with a digital back on a medium format camera in some of the most impoverished areas of the world.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time I was invisible,” he says. “They’re only interested in the soccer.”
African Arenas is published by Hatje Cantz (ISBN: 978-3-7757-2668-9), priced €30.
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