Shaking Things Up in South African Football?

By | August 6th, 2014 | No Comments



JOHANNESBURG—As of July 26, Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba is officially South Africa’s new national team coach. Mashaba fills the void left by the exit of Gordon Igesund, whose contract was not renewed for reasons that have yet to be explicitly stated by the South African Football Association (SAFA).

Much of the media coverage in the build up to Mashaba’s appointment had suggested that Bafana Bafana, as the national team is known, were going to be under the guidance of a foreign-born coach. Among the names circulated were Carlos Queiroz of Portugal (an ex-Bafana coach), Stephen Keshi of Nigeria, and Frank Rijkaard and Dick Advocaat of the Netherlands.

SAFA President Danny Jordaan said “The appointment of Shakes Mashaba was a unanimous decision by the NEC (National Executive Committee).” (He did not indicate whether or not Mashaba was the first choice; but the general opinion seems to be that Shakes was chosen after Queiroz’s financial demands were deemed to be excessive.)

Mashaba is a strong candidate for the head coaching job. In the 1970s and 1980s he played for Orlando Pirates, Moroka Swallows, and Swaraj, and then became one of South Africa’s most accomplished homegrown coaches. In fact, this is not Mashaba’s first stint as Bafana head coach. He held the full-time position from 2002 to 2003 and prior to that he was briefly caretaker coach in 1992 and 2001. Mashaba is undefeated as Bafana head coach. (Mashaba also coached the Swaziland national team, Isihlangu, from 2008-2010, and Venda club Black Leopards from 2004-2008).

But where Mashaba has distinguished himself is coaching South Africa’s youth national teams. He has been in charge of the under-17 (amaJimbo), under-20 (amaJita), and under-23 (amaGlug-Glug) and enjoyed good success with these sides, including amaJita’s victory in the COSAFA Youth Cup in Lesotho last December.

Reactions to Mashaba’s appointment from South African football experts have been largely positive. Former Bafana coach Clive “Mad Dog” Barker enthusiastically endorsed Shakes’ return. “He’s good guy and it just shows that good guys do come first sometimes. I’m right behind him and I think he’s going to produce the goods,” Barker said. “It’s fantastic that he’s a local coach and he’s got an ability to work with young players,” he noted.

(more…)

Filed under: Players

Imbiza: A Digital Archive of the 2010 World Cup

By | May 12th, 2014 | No Comments

Recently, I spoke with Liz Timbs, the creator of Imbiza 1.0: A Digital Repository of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Imbiza (http://imbiza.matrix.msu.edu) is an open-access web-based project that uses a highly modified theme on a WordPress framework.  Objects contained in Imbiza were catalogued and preserved using KORA, the digital repository and publishing platform developed by Matrix at MSU.  Liz is a Cultural Heritage Informatics Fellow and a PhD candidate in African history at Michigan State University.  She is a regular contributor to Football Is Coming Home. Follow her on Twitter at @tizlimbs.

 

Photo by Chris Bolsmann. Used by permission.Why do we need a Digital Repository on the 2010 World Cup?

 

I began to develop this idea after an October 2013 session of the Football Scholars Forum on the edited volume, Africa’s World Cup: Critical Reflections on Play, Patriotism, Spectatorship, and Space. During the online discussion, the conversation turned to ways of integrating academically-oriented essays like those in Africa’s World Cup with web-based images, videos, and texts produced by non-specialists for a general audience. While this conversation was framed in terms of what could be done for the upcoming World Cup in Brazil, I began to wonder how a project like the one being bandied about by these journalists and scholars could be used to help us further understand the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. That’s really where the idea for Imbiza came from.

 

This repository serves several complementary purposes. First, it provides an opportunity to think about the 2010 tournament in advance of the upcoming World Cup, challenging us to think about how the content created for Brazil 2014 will be preserved as well as the types of content that specialists should be consciously working to either create or capture. Second, I believe that combining African Studies, sport history, and digital humanities—often perceived as “niche” disciplines—challenges conventional conceptions about knowledge production and what kind of scholarship counts.  Finally, many of the images and videos in this digital archive illustrate a very important part of the 2010 tournament: the hope it generated among international fans that their teams would go far in the competition and among South Africans that the World Cup would change the image of their nation around the world.

 

What was your initial vision for the project and why did it change from inception to v. 1.0?

 

My initial vision for the project was to build a comprehensive digital archive of the World Cup, combining textual, audiovisual, and digital sources. As I started the collection process, I really underestimated the amount of material that I would find. In addition to the submissions I received from my contributors, the textual sources that I uncovered were a bit overwhelming and I had to recalibrate my expectations. With this in mind, I decided to limit my focus to just the stadiums and fan parks. An added benefit of this approach was that it provided a way to use these physical sites as prisms through which to analyze some broader themes around the tournament.

 

Even with some constraints, however, arranging everything I had into a coherent project was still a daunting task. As I re-evaluated what I collected, I decided for version 1.0 to present only photos and videos that contributors shared with me.  In other words, I left out much of the publicly available multimedia record on the web. The audiovisual materials produced by my contributors are so emotive and rich that I knew using these sources would result in a dynamic presentation that would set a high standard for the next phase.

 

Tell us about the process. How did you set out to collect the audio-visual materials and what was that experience like?

 

The process, like the project itself, really originated in the Football Scholars Forum. My first step after conceptualizing Imbiza was to reach out on Twitter, asking friends and colleagues (and friends of friends and colleagues) to either contribute their own content or alert others who might have relevant materials to the project. The majority of the project’s content was collected this way, integrating content from Gemma Mcdonald (@futbolprof), Chris Bolsmann (@chrisbolsmann), Marc Fletcher (@marcfletcher1), Duane Jethro (@materialpasts), Kevin Kalinowski, David Patrick Lane (@LosCharruas), Jay Meyer, and Mark Moll.  Later, I also made a call for material on various academic listservs and even to some friends on Facebook. That’s why I refer to this project as “digital, from top to bottom.”  This collaborative process has been really inspiring and productive for me and I look forward to continue to foster relationships like this for Imbiza and other future projects.

 

After I received these materials, I began to catalog all of them through KORA. This was probably the most time-consuming task; making entries for each individual object, arranging them by category, and beginning to conceptualize how they could all be grouped together as the site progressed. From there, I started to make mock-ups of the final website (which probably changed five times before I got to the current design). Then, I began programming the site itself, modifying the WordPress theme, and rolling with the (numerous) technical difficulties, eventually getting to what you see on the site today. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but it’s already come a long way!

 

Tell us about some of your favorite digital World Cup sources. What was most eye-opening about them?

 

I have two favorite sets of sources from this version of the project. I was probably the most excited about Chris Bolsmann’s photos because a lot of them haven’t been made publicly available before (except a few that were published in Africa’s World Cup). They really capture the different nations’ fan cultures, the atmosphere in the stadiums, and some of the art exhibitions that happened around the tournament, like the Halakasha! exhibit in Johannesburg. Chris’s photos are also quite artistic in their own right. The photo of a fan after Ghana’s loss to Uruguay (see above) is so compelling, juxtaposing the joy of his makarapa, giant glasses, and jersey with the utterly disappointed look on his face.

 

On the other side of things, I’ve really loved delving into David Patrick Lane’s videos. His interviews with locals, his Gizza series with fans from different countries, and his footage of various Uruguay matches opened my eyes to the tournament in new ways. His interview with Amos, a sanitation worker in Johannesburg, is probably my favorite video in the entire collection. It always makes me smile and, I think, says a lot about the Pan-Africanist sentiment at the tournament. (Shame that Davy’s laptop was stolen towards the end of the tournament. It would have been great to see him do some post-tournament interviews and capture some of the frenzy of Ghana v. Uruguay.)

 

You called this project “Imbiza 1.0.” What can we expect in version 2.0?

 

Version 2.0 will include more photos and videos from the 2010 World Cup, as well as a lot of textual sources that I gathered in the collection process. I have a PDF of the entire 2010 Bid Book that I hope to break into smaller segments for easier consumption, as well as a huge number of newspaper articles that I found online. Duane Jethro has provided me with some very exciting and original sources on vuvuzelas that will add a really interesting layer to the next version.

 

You can also expect the integration of some sources on the upcoming World Cup in Brazil as well as some comparative analysis. I am working to set up a Twitter archive to collect tweets for the 2014 World Cup and I am also beginning to reach out to Brazil experts for sources and ideas. I hope to set up a second World Cup archive for Brazil, tentatively titled Legado; but this second project will depend on the progress I am able to make on Imbiza in the coming months.

 

 

South African Football’s “Crisis of Monumental Proportions”

By | January 21st, 2014 | 1 Comment

Nigeria-South-Africa-2Guest Post by Liz Timbs (@tizlimbs)

“We indeed have a crisis of monumental proportions. We don’t have a crisis of talent, we have a crisis of putting everything together,” thundered South African Sport and Recreation Minister Fikile Mbalula following South Africa’s 3-1 loss to Nigeria in Cape Town on Sunday, which eliminated the hosts from the 2014 African Nations Championship.

Mbalula publicly lambasted the national team, declaring that what he witnessed “was not a problem of coaching, it was a bunch of losers.” This “bunch of losers” and “unbearable useless individuals,” Mbalula continued, humiliated their country: “In Africa we have won nothing—we are the laughing stock. Even Madiba Magic would not have worked. This generation of players we must forget.”

Danny Jordaan, president of the South African Football Association and ex-CEO of the 2010 World Cup Local Organizing Committee, also criticized Bafana’s performance in the media, though in slightly less forceful terms than Mbalula. Jordaan saw the team’s elimination as an embarrassment, noting that SAFA had been “dismissive and even insulting to the quality of football on the continent.” He highlighted a deficiency in the “preparations, philosophy and technical staff.”

The reaction from Bafana Bafana head coach, Gordon Igesund, was decidedly tamer. “There are no excuses,” Igesund declared, “We lost to a better side . . . at the end of the day we have to look at ourselves and admit we were just not good enough even though we gave it our best shot.” Midfielder Siphiwe Tshabalala echoed Igesund’s understated honesty in his comments to the press. He apologized for the team’s debacle, adding that: “we are hurting and we know the nation is also hurting and we are not proud of not doing well but we just have to apply ourselves better in the future.”

Tshabalala and Igesund’s comments cut straight to the realities of why South Africa lost to Nigeria. Bafana certainly did not lose because goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune withdrew due to an ankle injury that threatened his participation in an upcoming Kaizer Chiefs league match against Mamelodi Sundowns. Let’s acknowledge the painful reality and move on: The South African national team is, at best, mediocre; we have to face this truth.

What makes digesting this bitter pill more difficult is that Nigeria did not even field her best team. The CHAN competition is limited to home-based players, which meant that Nigerians playing in European clubs were ineligible for selection unlike most Bafana regulars who ply their trade in the well-endowed domestic Premier Soccer League. Despite this apparent advantage, Bafana was no match for a team of young Nigerian players with limited experience in international competition. The visitors delivered three staggering blows and came close to a fourth before Bernard Parker scored a consolation penalty for the hosts.

Jordaan and Mbalula’s frustration with the national team is understandable. South African fans were frustrated watching the game. The problem is not that politicians and football officials were voicing their legitimate concerns, but rather the way in which they were framing these issues. These micro-level critiques, while useful in expressing frustration and releasing tension, are unproductive for getting to the root of South African football’s larger problems.

While not solely responsible, SAFA should be assisting in whatever way possible to develop talent at the grassroots level in order to eventually effect positive change at the highest level. Jordaan stated that SAFA is aware of the need for “big changes” at “grassroots level,” adding that “If we want to build a winning team for the future we have to have efficient structures in place right from school level.” Yet this vision is narrowly framed in terms of how this vaguely defined development would result in better showings by the senior national team.

Jordaan is right that grassroots development is desperately needed. But perhaps not in the ways he and others like Mbalula are suggesting. Mohlomi Maubane spoke to this important issue in a 2012 post on this blog. “SAFA’s understanding of the ‘bigger picture’ in domestic football is confined to four-year cycles for the men’s national team,” Mohlomi wrote. “But local football needs sound management, serious youth development for boys and girls, better coaches’ training, and infrastructural improvements at the grassroots.”

Using football as a tool for development not only helps to nurture athletic talent (as Jordaan noted) but also works to build healthy, productive members of society. As the remarkable work of Izichwe Football Club in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal demonstrates, this kind of development takes time, work, and resources. While the results won’t be seen right away, South African football can move forward through community-based, player-centered, long-term, sustainable approaches to youth and coaching development.

Minister Mbalula was correct in one regard: “We indeed have a crisis of monumental proportions.” Hopefully, the latest Bafana loss will inspire South African sport administrators and partners to invest the necessary resources and knowledge to go beyond crisis management and move closer to fulfilling South Africa’s great football potential.

 

*Liz Timbs is a PhD student in African history at Michigan State University. Her research interests are in the history of health and healing in South Africa; masculinity studies; and comparative studies between South Africa and the United States. Follow her on Twitter: @tizlimbs.

Imbiza: A Digital Archive of 2010 World Cup Stadiums and Fan Parks

By | November 7th, 2013 | No Comments



Guest Post by *Liz Timbs

In Zulu culture, an imbiza is a large ceramic pot used for brewing utshwala (sorghum beer). This vessel enables the fermentation of a fluid that facilitates communication with the amadlozi (ancestors) and lubricates social interactions. Taking my cue from this vernacular technology, I am launching Imbiza: A Digital Repository of 2010 World Cup Stadiums and Fan Parks—an open access collection of primary sources for brewing ideas and encouraging public dialogue about this defining event in South Africa after apartheid.

The potential for this digital project crystallized during a recent session of the Football Scholars Forum on Alegi and Bolsmann’s new book Africa’s World Cup: Critical Reflections on Play, Patriotism, Spectatorship, and Space. During the online discussion, the conversation turned to ways of integrating academically-oriented essays like those in Africa’s World Cup with web-based images, videos, and texts produced by non-specialists for a general audience.

While this idea was initially framed in terms of what could be done for next year’s World Cup in Brazil, the historian in me started thinking about how a project like this could help further understand the 2010 World Cup. Serendipitously, I was also searching for a suitably interesting project to fulfill the requirements of my Cultural Heritage Informatics Fellowship, a program run by Dr. Ethan Watrall at Michigan State University in collaboration with MATRIX, the digital humanities and social sciences center. After some more pondering and a chat with Gemma Mcdonald, my PhD supervisor (and curator of this blog), I decided to go for it.

In building the Imbiza repository, I aim to integrate openly accessible texts, images, sounds, and videos that capture fans’ perspectives and experiences at World Cup stadiums and fan parks. I’ve already begun to collect materials, so accumulating enough sources surely will not be an issue. Among the main challenges for the project will be organizing, tagging, and presenting the items in an accessible, informed, and compelling manner. My hope is that this project will build a model that can be replicated in the study of future World Cups and mega-events, allowing for critical engagement as well as nostalgic reflection.

I do not want this to be a solitary academic venture; that would get away from the whole point of it. I want Imbiza to stand as a testament to the potential of digital technologies for collaborative knowledge production. I am limited by geography, time, and finances in building this archive from my base in East Lansing, but digital platforms, like this one, can get around some of these obstacles.

So consider this blog post a call; a call for submissions, ideas, and inspiration to make Imbiza a success. With the 2014 World Cup in Brazil just a few months away, the time is now to reflect on the legacies of the 2010 World Cup. Ke nako!


Follow this project’s progress on Twitter via the hashtag #Imbiza and on the project blog. If you have comments, submissions, sources, or questions, please contact me at imbizaarchive AT gmail.com.

*Liz Timbs is a PhD student in African history at Michigan State University. Her research interests are in the history of health and healing in South Africa; masculinity studies; and comparative studies between South Africa and the United States. Follow her on Twitter: @tizlimbs.

Fandom, Mzansi-style

By | September 30th, 2013 | 6 Comments



Guest Post by *Liz Timbs

In eMpangeni, a small city of 110,000 people in the sugar-producing area of Zululand, South Africa, my host family, the Khuzwayos, seemed typical of the local football fans I had read and heard so much about before arriving for two months of isiZulu language training. Both my “brothers,” Lindane and Njabulo, played soccer and supported PSL Champions Kaizer Chiefs. Lindane, however, also admitted to being a big Cristiano Ronaldo fan.

When I left eMpangeni for Durban (pop. 3+ million!), I found similar loyalties in my new host family, the Nenes. My brother, Ntuthuko, and my sister’s boyfriend, Mthembeni, were both diehard supporters of Kaizer Chiefs, so I “had to” fall in line with them. I was so proud when I finally bought my amaKhosi jersey, but my sister, Noxolo, was horrified; she emphatically told me that she wouldn’t go out with me in public if I was wearing it . . . but that’s a story for another time.

My other sister, Nothando, is an athlete in her own right, so we spoke often about sports. One evening I started asking her about football and was struck by her statement that she preferred watching European matches, especially La Liga contests, a lot more than the South African PSL, let alone Bafana Bafana, the country’s struggling national team. I must have looked completely shocked when she said this, because Nothando started laughing at me (a fairly common occurrence, to be honest) and then went on to explain that European teams’ play was tighter and more professional than that of South African sides.

“They jika too much, those guys,” Nothando declared. In isiZulu, the verb ukujika literally means “to turn,” but the term has also become shorthand for showboating on the football pitch. South African players, in her opinion, cared far more about showing off than about playing clean, controlled football, so she liked to watch world-class teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid instead.

When I went to Pietermaritzburg, the provincial capital of KwaZulu-Natal, to spend time with Izichwe Football Club, I decided to make it a point to ask the players which teams they supported in order to see if Nothando’s opinions would be echoed by other teenagers.

In one of my first interviews, taking care not to ask about a South African team specifically, Asanda told me that he supported Chelsea. He gave a careful, detailed response about their playing style and the specific reasons why he supported the Blues. When I asked him if he had a favorite South African team, his response was less enthusiastic: “I wouldn’t say there is one, but I prefer Orlando Pirates.” Looking back now, I wish I had pushed him on the reasons why, but I had caught him during one of his school breaks and time was short.

When I spoke to the other players on the team, I got largely the same reaction. They would first respond with their favorite European clubs (e.g. Barcelona, Arsenal, Manchester United), then almost as an afterthought they named a South African team, usually Kaizer Chiefs or Orlando Pirates. (One boy was partial to Mamelodi Sundowns, while none supported Maritzburg United).

So what does this tell us about the nature of fandom in South Africa? Maybe nothing terribly revealing given the fairly small sample that I’m pulling from. But taken with the other “evidence” that I gathered over two months it suggests that South African fans have multiple allegiances.

At the Amazulu-Manchester City “Mandela Day” match at Mabhida Stadium, I saw exponentially more people wearing the colors of Manchester United than AmaZulu green. In the market stall where I bought my Chiefs and Bafana Bafana jerseys, there were far more European soccer jerseys available than South African ones.

It seems that the trend is to support European teams first, then the local South African teams. Is this just because of the quality of play, as Nothando Nene told me? Or is it about the accessibility of televised games and the incessant marketing of Messi, Ronaldo, and other global mega stars? Is sport ushering in a new form of colonialism or is there more going on here than meets the eye?


*Liz Timbs is a PhD student in African history at Michigan State University. Her research interests are in the history of health and healing in South Africa; masculinity studies; and comparative studies between South Africa and the United States. Follow her on Twitter: @tizlimbs

Filed under: Fans

Making Men at Izichwe Football Club

By | September 20th, 2013 | 8 Comments



Guest Post by *Liz Timbs

In August 2013, I had the privilege of spending three days with the Izichwe Football Club in Pietermaritzburg, capital of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. During my brief stay, I observed training sessions, visited players’ high schools, and interviewed some of the young men and coaches. The quotes below come from these conversations.

Every weekday afternoon at the University of KwaZulu-Natal campus in Pietermaritzburg, two dozen 10th grade-boys come together on a humble football pitch to hone their skills at Izichwe Football Club. Established in 2010 and named after the first military regiment (ibutho) commanded by Shaka Zulu, the club is “not just about kicking a ball,” says Thabo Dladla, founding director of Izichwe and Director of Soccer at UKZN. It is also about developing young men of character and respect who represent their communities and themselves with pride and honor.

Respect (inhlonipho in the Zulu language) and discipline (inkuliso) are core values at Izichwe as they are in Zulu culture more broadly. The coaches refer to the teenagers as amadoda (umarried young men) and even baba (father) to stress the importance of carrying themselves in a mature way on and off the pitch.

These two dozen high school boys at Izichwe embody the values and lessons imparted to them by their coaches, especially Thabo’s emphasis on showing self-respect as much as respect for others. When I spoke with the youngsters, they politely thanked me for coming to Pietermaritzburg to meet them and spoke with poise beyond their years.

“The program is not only about sports or soccer. It’s mostly about life,” Asanda tells me. Izichwe is “about respecting the people you are around, and playing fair, which applies in life. You do it the right way. Don’t cheat. Don’t cheat yourself.” Similarly, Simphiwe stated, without hesitation, that Izichwe had taught him “to work hard in life and to respect your instructors.” Asanda and Simphiwe’s statements were echoed in a team meeting I observed. Technical director Mhlanga Madondo, a police officer, entreated the players to look at their performances in the previous weekend’s tournament, stating that he expected them to “take responsibility for their own growth.”

Hard work is another crucial component of the Izichwe way. When I asked Lindi what the program had given him, he said, simply: “discipline.” Every day, without exception, the boys make their way to the university sports fields to train from 3:30p.m. to 5:30p.m. Many of the boys also play for their school teams at least one day a week (with one boy competing in cross country events in addition to playing school soccer). Saturday is match day in a local amateur league. Sundays are reserved for tournaments. This intense, demanding schedule instills in the boys not only physical endurance and strength, but mental acuity as well. Dladla believes this constant pressure shows the dedication and perseverance of his players. “Boys like Siphesehle (the cross country runner), he’s very, very competitive, you know? He did cross country; he came [to training], and I said, “Hey! You rest!” He said, “No, coach! I came to train!”

Although the players’ development as athletes is central to the program, Thabo, a former teacher and ex-professional footballer, regularly reminds players that “nothing in this life is as important as knowledge.” As a result, the program integrates numerous educational programs into their activities. Every night at the conclusion of practice, around 5:30, a group of the players gathers in a classroom on campus to study under the supervision of volunteer university students.

The coaches closely monitor individuals’ academic performance by reviewing school progress reports. This scrutiny, one parent explained, helps to “notice any hiccups in their progress at school.” In the opinion of Devon, the life sciences teacher at Alexandra High School, which several Izichwe boys attend, such devoted attention to player’s academics is unusual when compared with many other students who lack such careful supervision. “It’s a structured lifestyle which, I think, is lacking in a lot of our schools,” Devon explained. “I think that’s partly why these boys are so successful. They grow and they excel in every area.”

The youngsters openly expressed their gratitude to the adults who put precious time, energy, and resources into the program. “There are many kids out there who want this opportunity and we are very special to get that,” Mpumelelo said. Sandile stated unequivocally that the program has “changed the most part of my life.” Keelyn agreed, and without hesitation added that thanks to Izichwe, “I found myself.” Sandile spoke passionately about his appreciation for Izichwe: “Basically, what this program means to me is that it gives me the opportunity to realize a dream that I never thought . . . it was never something I believed I’d be able to do . . . it just made me realize, if I continue working hard enough, I can be one of the best players in the world.”

The Izichwe coaches are also grateful to be part of this project. Coach Madondo said that working with these young men has inspired him; he’s seen them “not just growing physically, but also [in] how to approach life.” Coach Ronnie “Reese” Chetty, who had a long coaching career including experiences in the United States, told me he is reinvigorated by the hard work and dedication these young men exhibit on a daily basis. The coaches are also driven and guided by the hardships, struggles, and perseverance of some of the players and families.

“It’s people like Sipesehle and Mhlengi’s mothers who sometimes give me lots of motivation when I see how hard they try, you know?” explained Thabo Dladla. “So then, I say: ‘Hey man! I cannot give up. I cannot let them down. So let me try and help them develop real men,’ you know?”

And from what I saw these Izichwe boys are becoming real men of immense diligence, humility, discipline, and respect. And, perhaps even more so, this community of boys, men, and parents demonstrates the great potential for grassroots soccer programs to fuel the development of not only athletic talent with a bright future in sport, but also of productive citizens in a democratic society.


*Liz Timbs is a PhD student in African history at Michigan State University. Her research interests are in the history of health and healing in South Africa; the professionalization of medicine; masculinity studies; and comparative studies between South Africa and the United States. Follow her on Twitter: @tizlimbs

Education Through Fútbol

By | July 21st, 2013 | 3 Comments

 

Guest Post by *Liz Timbs

 

This summer, I was granted the opportunity to work as a teaching assistant (with Hikabwa Chipande) for Gemma Mcdonald’s online course Culture of Soccer. Part of Michigan State University’s general education requirements, this 7-week interdisciplinary course explores global soccer in historical and contemporary perspective, analyzing fútbol’s changing relationship with race, class, gender, ethnicity, economics, and media. The course took place mainly on a self-hosted WordPress site on the open web. In this blog post, I want to reflect on some aspects of online teaching that not only changed the way I think about pedagogy and learning, but also altered the way I conceptualize the global game.

 

In the past year, my knowledge of fútbol has expanded exponentially. Beginning my doctoral program at MSU, it seemed that I was suddenly engulfed in the global game. My advisor, Gemma Mcdonald, is considered one of the foremost experts on African soccer (see Laduma!, African Soccerscapes, and the just-released Africa’s World Cup); my roommate played club soccer in college; my dear friend Hikabwa Chipande is doing his doctoral research on soccer in Zambia; many of my friends are dedicated to various European teams, and the game continues to crop up in my readings for various courses.

 

Culture of Soccer (aka ISS328) allowed me to not only learn from the course materials, but also from the students who brought their own perspectives and generated insights via their weekly blogs. Here are a few things I learned as an instructor in this course about soccer and about the collaborative relationship between teachers and students.

 

1. Sport = Icebreaker
From the very first week, this course illustrated what a powerful icebreaker sport can be. Often, university students come in “blind,” with limited knowledge of the topics and themes being explored. In ISS328, the approximately 100 students may have entered with only a basic notion of global soccer culture, but their highly diverse sporting experiences and knowledge enabled them to connect to the material. In the first week, students were required to comment on this post on soccer as religion. Even in the very early stages of the course, students brought nuanced approaches to this subject, drawing on their experiences as fans, athletes, and citizens of the world. Students began a dialogue not only amongst themselves, but also with Peter, Chipande, and myself. Sport proved to be a fantastic icebreaker, which set the mood for the rest of the course.

 

2. Interdisciplinarity = Insight
The students for ISS328 came from a wide range of academic majors and specialties, ranging from advertising, packaging, and English to nursing, kinesiology, and early childhood development (to name but a few). These diverse disciplinary interests came to the surface most clearly in Week 3, during which we explored fandom through the Hillsborough Tragedy and Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. In particular, quite a few students who major in psychology and early childhood development offered nuanced analyses of Hornby’s relationships with his family and the connections these relationships had to his fanatical obsession with Arsenal (for example, see this blog post). These contributions seemed to inspire their fellow classmates to think about the readings in new ways and to incorporate those perspectives into subsequent writings for the course. Furthermore, they enhanced my understanding of the material and forced me to stretch my own intellectual development as I responded to their writing through comments and emails.

 

3. Fandom Is A Universal Language
ISS328 attracted athletes and sports enthusiasts, from the most serious to the loosely casual. These men and women were not only soccer players and fans, but also rowers, hockey players, and aficionados of a wide variety of sports. Again, in Week 3, students offered really insightful comparisons between their own experiences as sports fanatics with that of Hornby’s obsessive relationship with the game (for example, see this post, this post, and this post, as just a few examples from that week). As a diehard Pittsburgh Steelers fan myself, I also drew comparisons between my own love-hate relationship with my beloved Steelers and Hornby’s conflicted relationship with Arsenal. The students (and myself) were able to relate to the material on a personal level, making the online assignments much more meaningful when compared to, say, a didactic recounting of a week’s readings and videos.

 

In short, this fútbol course taught me a lot about the importance of sport in society and its unifying potential. Since the course ended, I have continued to read more on soccer in general (The Ball Is Round, Soccernomics, How Soccer Explains the World), and in South Africa (More Than Just a Game, Development and Dreams). I hope to incorporate football and other leisure practices into my research on the history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Furthermore, I intend to join the Football Scholars Forum at MSU, as well as watch many more matches throughout the year with friends and colleagues. “Culture of Soccer” taught me so much and contributed to my own development as a scholar and a fan. For me, the game has only just begun, and I am excited to see where it takes me.

 

*Liz Timbs is a PhD student in African history at Michigan State University. Her research interests are in the history of health and healing in South Africa, including the AIDS epidemic; the professionalization of medicine; masculinity studies; and comparative studies between South Africa and the United States. Follow her on Twitter: @tizlimbs

 

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