In Soccer and Society, Black Lives Matter

By | August 22nd, 2017 | 6 Comments

Nearly empty Orlando Stadium, February 15, 2017.

A desolate Orlando Stadium for a PSL fixture, February 15, 2017. Photo by Njabulo Ngidi.

 

The welfare of South African football used to matter beyond its borders.

 

In 1974, for example, the Brazilian João Havelange won the FIFA presidency in a fiercely contested election against the conservative English incumbent, Sir Stanley Rous. He canvassed for votes in Africa, Asia and the Americas, sometimes with Pelé in tow. The businessman and former Olympic swimmer promised marginalized FIFA constituencies additional berths in the World Cup finals and greater funding for soccer development programs. Havelange also sided with African activists and the global Anti-Apartheid Movement to keep South Africa out of FIFA. Africa’s delegates reciprocated with their votes and the Brazilian supremo went on to transform FIFA into a massive global business, which he ruled with an iron fist for the next quarter century.

 

Since readmission to FIFA in 1992, South Africa has won two continental titles at club level and one at senior national team level. Its Premier Soccer League, according to World Soccer magazine, ranks 25th in the world (alongside Scotland). The women’s game has also grown, though significant challenges remain. The country’s successful hosting of the 2010 World Cup symbolized the great advances in South African football, particularly its organizational sophistication and financial resources.

 

Despite such undeniable progress, local football hardly resonates internationally anymore. In fact, many South African fans and pundits are disillusioned about the state of the domestic game.

 

Like almost everyone else in the early 1990s, my peers and I were fascinated by the exciting new times ushered in by the demise of apartheid. We were scrawny young boys who, like kids anywhere, lived for the game. We believed readmission into world football ignited the possibility of a future professional playing career. Things worked out differently for us.

 

On a recent visit to the Lebanon neighborhood of Mabopane, the township of my teenage years, it was disheartening to see how the game was no longer a central part of social life in the community in which I grew up. The dusty fields where we contested many epic duels are covered with shrubs. Those pitches that are still in playable condition are occupied by charismatic churches, which are flourishing in many poor African communities by selling salvation to people in hardship.

 

Grassroots football, at its best, can serve as a bulwark for a wide range of social ills that thrive where recreational resources, human and material, are scant. Any community with “redundant youth” who have lots of free time is a recipe for disaster. No wonder Mabopane and other townships on the outskirts of Pretoria are at the epicentre of the nyaope street drug epidemic  ravaging South Africa today.

 

The grassroots game has more players and coaches than the formal game administered by the South African Football Association. Even though informal football is neither expensive to play nor to administer, it receives minimal financial investment and is wracked by insecurity and instability. This is why residents of Mabopane, like thousands of fútbol-loving South Africans, take it upon themselves to ensure the vitality of the grassroots game.

 

Blaming the administrators and corporate sponsors entrusted with the game’s welfare is understandable, but communities can ill-afford to delegate responsibility for social health to people and structures who do not genuinely have their interests at heart. The July 29 tragedy at FNB Stadium, which killed two fans and injured more than a dozen people in a gate crush at the Kaizer Chiefs-Orlando Pirates derby, is a case in point.

 

The tragedy showed how South African soccer’s leadership struggles with ensuring spectator safety at big matches while continuing to do very little for the development of the sport at the bottom of the the pyramid. Until these fundamental issues are resolved, black families will continue to worry every time their loved ones go to a football match, whether at the neighborhood sandlot or at a World Cup stadium.

Filed under: Fútbology

Pan-African Sports Studies

By | July 27th, 2017 | No Comments

Group photo of participants at the 11th Sports Africa conference, University of the Free State, April 2017

The University of Zambia will host the 12th Sports Africa conference on March 26-28, 2018. The theme of the conference is: “Pan-African Sports Studies: Beyond Physical Education.”

The conference in Lusaka will bring together sports scholars and practitioners from African, North American, and European Universities working on a diversity of topics in a wide range of disciplines.

The event builds on the April 2017 conference hosted by The Institute of Reconciliation and Social Justice at the University of the Free State in South Africa.  I joined scholars from around the continent and the world for three days of presentations, workshops, and discussions in Bloemfontein around the theme of “Sporting Subalternities and Social Justice” (see photo above). In my keynote address, “Black Sport Matters: A History of Sporting Subalterns’ Quest for Social Justice in Africa,” I told stories about African athletes, administrators, and fans who used their visibility and influence to make powerful claims for equal rights and to advance a variety of social justice causes. Ranging from the colonial era to the contemporary period, I looked at the factors that motivated African sports activism, strategies and tactics, successes and failures, and connected this history with struggles against racism, sexism, and homophobia waged by black athletes today.

At next year’s conference I may present a co-authored paper with Liz Timbs, which examines aspects of youth sports development in South Africa through a history of the Izichwe Youth Football Academy in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal. More on this project as things develop, of course.

For more information about the 2018 Lusaka conference visit: http://sportinafrica.org/conference2018/

Filed under: Fútbology

The Aging of “The Soccer Tribe”: A Tale of Socio-biology

By | July 17th, 2017 | No Comments

Guest_tumblr_SoccerTribe

 

This post was originally published on Andrew Guest’s Sports and Ideas Tumbler page. It is cross-posted here with permission of the author.

 


 

I recently stumbled across a new (2016) edition of The Soccer Tribe by Desmond Morris, the peculiar tome originally published in 1981 with a mix of text and illustrations making a case for what amounts to an evolutionary  socio-biology of soccer. Morris, most famous for The Naked Ape, explains that he was motivated by anthropological curiosity: “Hardly anyone seems to query the importance attached to the game. For those who do the kicking and those who watch it so avidly, the whole matter is taken for granted. Football is football, and of course it is fascinating, so what is there to question? For those who ignore it, it is plainly a stupid waste of time, so why bother with it? It is not worth discussing. Both sides overlook the fact that, viewed objectively, it is one of the strangest patterns of human behaviour to be seen in the whole of modern society.”

In seven sections and 44 chapters full of pictures, illustrations, and quirky charts, Morris then lays out an analysis of soccer in its ‘tribal’ dimensions: roots, rituals, heroes, trappings, elders, followers, and tongue. The whole thing is amazingly odd; in its scope, it compares to nothing else I’ve seen or read about soccer. In analyzing uniforms as tribal costumes, referees as tribal judges, or fan songs as tribal chants the book exhibits an imagination and ambition that I love (and have cited before here).

But since initially stumbling upon the first 1981 edition a decade ago something has always felt just a bit off about the book. It took this new edition, which seems to have been updated mostly in its illustrations (along with a few minor segments of text), to make me dig into that feeling.

The couple hundred words José Mourinho ‘wrote’ as a foreword to the new edition sets the tone: ““Total football has led to global football—on and off the field. And whoever fails to realize it doesn’t understand anything. Those who only know football know nothing about football.”

This blustering certainty is familiar from Mourinho, but it is also fundamental to the underlying premise of The Soccer Tribe – that all the patterns and rituals of modern soccer, and modern society, are a direct inheritance from humanity’s hunter-gatherer past. If Mourinho would have gone the academic route, I realized, he would have been a socio-biologist.

To be fair, Mourinho goes onto say something more interesting: “Those who only see twenty-two men chasing after a ball fail to understand its geometry, its ballet, its psychological depth, its true nature. It is the most faithful representation of human nature and its may faces. It is a tribe where the rationale of tactics, emotion, and the fun of the game all prevail.”

Though still a bit grandiose (and not overly convincing as to the question of whether Mourinho actually read the book), the basic idea of their being more to the see than ‘chasing after a ball’ is the real value of The Soccer Tribe.

The problem, however, was well articulated back in a 1983 review of the original book by Ian Taylor in the journal Theory, Culture, & Society.

What is it that is objectionable and in need of challenge in this account of association football? It is not, as we might at first think, an empirical matter (much of what is said about the origins, the present form of the game and its surrounding rituals is quite accurate and consistent with other well-respected accounts). But there are empirical silences. In the familiar fashion of most sociobiology, there is a great emphasis on football as a (naturally-evolving) form of male-bonding and, indeed, of male “warriors” (who proceed, we are told, to create homes for the “warrior mates” that are peaceful retreats from the violence and stress of the field of play”) (p 181). The account is therefore silent on the considerable growth of women’s participation in the playing of soccer In recent years, especially in North America. Again, the celebratory discussion of soccer’s present status as a world sport is couched as if some other universal and natural logic is at work. This reads very oddly in 1982, not only for the British, German and other soccer lovers worried for the future of the sport in the light of the massive reductions in attendances, but also for students of sport who have noticed the spectacular growth of a genuine plurality of spectator and participant sports in most developed countries.

The Soccer Tribe and socio-biology, in other words, present a totalizing account of human behavior that ignores the dynamism of culture. Women’s soccer is a key counter-example. If soccer is a male warrior ritual to satisfy our hunting and fighting brain modules, what to make of women’s soccer and women fans? Taylor phrases it nicely (if academically): “The empirical display of soccer as a natural form, spanning all cultures and time, masks the specificity of the game’s significance in particular social formations.”

The game itself, in the phrasing I tend to prefer, is mostly just an empty cultural form.

And, speaking of empty, the other substantive review of the original 1981 Soccer Tribe book that I could find was by the novelist Martin Amis for the London Review of Books. Amis, after a strange and extended prattling on about the English national team’s performance in qualifiers for the 1986 World Cup, dismisses Morris in two withering paragraphs, starting by noting that a soccer manager left alone with the book might “die of inanition”:

“In The Soccer Tribe Morris maps out the connection between ‘ancient blood sports’ and ‘the modern ball game’. Nowadays, the goalmouth is ‘the prey’, the ball ‘the weapon’, and the attempt to score ‘a ritual aim at a pseudo-prey’. Is this true? Or, more important, is this interesting? Morris goes on to say that ‘in England, there are four “divisions”, presenting a parody of the social class system.’ He then traces the analogies between football and religion: ‘Star players are “worshipped” by their adoring fans and looked upon as “young gods”.’ Later on, he develops a far more compelling thesis, arguing that . . .

Ah, but the sands of space are running out. That’s enough football for today. I only have time to add that Morris’s book is handsomely packaged, that the pictures are great, magic, brill etc, and that the text is an austere, an unfaltering distillation of the obvious and the obviously false.”

Amis’s point, beyond being arrogant and dismissive, seems to be that it is hard to be an intellectual interested in football—and Morris fails unreservedly.

But I think that is too harsh. The Soccer Tribe is like much socio-biology (and contemporary evolutionary psychology): simultaneously problematically reductionist and thought-provoking in a challenging way. I find it interesting, for example, that The Soccer Tribe shows up as ‘cited by’ 250 academic works in Google Scholar – though a crude marker, it is clear from browsing those citing works that the book inspired some academics to new ways to think about the game.

But it doesn’t yet seem to have inspired another similar effort–I’ve yet to see another book that takes on the totality of soccer culture in an intentional way. The 2016 ‘new edition’ ofThe Soccer Tribe thus doesn’t need much updating beyond the pictures both because the analysis freezes culture as permanently set by evolution, and because not enough of significance has come out since 1981 to offer a more dynamic theory of the game as a whole. That may no longer be the way of academic work on soccer – which has indeed done much to chip away at understanding pieces of the game – but it sure would be fun to see.

 

Filed under: Fans, Fútbology

Why Nigerians Love Arsenal . . . and the EPL

By | May 23rd, 2017 | No Comments

The author at home with Spurs fans in Lagos

The English Premier League is an obsession for millions of African fans. Author and fútbologist David Goldblatt recently traveled to Lagos, Nigeria, to find out what this cultural phenomenon looks like and why there is such deep reverence for Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Spurs, and . . . Bournemouth.

In a newly released piece for Bleacher Report, Goldblatt hears from Emeka Onyenufuro, founder of Arsenal Nigeria, who tells him that “Monday to Friday lunchtime, I’m working in my job [as a manager in the power industry], but from Friday afternoon to Monday morning, it is all Arsenal.”

The quality of EPL play and the excitement of watching some of the world’s best players, including N’Golo Kanté, Victor Moses, Yaya Touré, and many other African superstars, partly explains the intensity of local passion for and dedication to the EPL. But another explanation is that the middle-class Nigerian men at the heart of this piece have willingly capitulated to the EPL’s “attention merchants” (Tim Wu docet): “It’s the branding. . . it’s just so professional,” a fan explains.

The author takes us into various public viewing spaces where the South African-owned satellite provider DSTV beams in live games, highlights, and talk shows that collectively stoke the obsessive compulsions of the Nigerian EPL fan. When not watching matches (and praying that frequent power cuts don’t ruin crucial moments in the broadcast), the lads follow their favorite clubs on social media for several hours a day.

The piece also features a fascinating description of the Socialiga, a football and basketball league and “social space to network with their peers, flirt and raise some money for charity.” It left me wanting to know even more about this astonishing kind of grassroots social entrepreneurship.

The Nigerian photographer Andrew Esiebo’s images complement the prose quite beautifully. And Esiebo’s camera does not lie: David Godlblatt seemed most at home in Lagos among his Spurs Nation mates (see photo above).

Read the full article here.

Racial Bias in U.S. Soccer Culture?

By | January 26th, 2017 | 2 Comments

sbnation_alegi
Is there an implicit racial bias in Major League Soccer and other U.S. leagues?

A piercing SB Nation story this week grappled with the implications of a recent study‘s disturbing findings “that black players are 14 percent more likely to be called for cautions than their non-black counterparts.” The study by Paste magazine also found that “black players are [. . .] more than twice as likely to receive red card ejections.”

In the article, I share my thoughts on this important issue with the SB Nation reporter, Tyler Tynes. I point out that “while finding empirical data is difficult, there’s plenty of soft and hard discrimination to believe that bias can take hold in refereeing. American soccer is not excused.” In fact, officiating bias can be understood as part of a broader pattern of racism in soccer, in the U.S. and internationally, one characterized by the practice of “stacking,” the presence of very few black coaches on the sidelines, and multiple forms of racist fan behavior.

“It can’t be denied,” I say in the piece. “Racism in soccer, in Europe certainly, is very real. And, regrettably, despite all the progress that’s been made in terms of messaging and tolerance in local football culture, it’s still there. And everybody knows it.”

But don’t take my word for it, click here to read the full story.

Football and Politics in Africa: A Not-To-Be-Missed BBC Radio Documentary

By | January 11th, 2017 | No Comments

realrepublikans

“Beyond the Pitch” is a riveting BBC World Service radio documentary that explores the close links between the “beautiful game” of football and the “dirty game” of politics in multiple African countries.

Produced by Farayi Mungazi and Penny Dale, the 50-minute feature aired on the eve of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Gabon, which marks the 60th anniversary of the continent’s most prestigious sporting event.

The documentary opens with Nigeria’s boycott of AFCON 1996 in South Africa. The last-minute withdrawal of the Super Eagles came in retaliation for President Nelson Mandela’s scathing criticism of Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha’s regime, which in November 1995 had executed author Ken Saro Wiwa and eight more Ogoni environmental activists in a sham trial.

The next segment is captivating and among the most historically significant. It tells the story of how football helped Algeria’s struggle for independence from France through mesmerizing interviews with Mohamed and Khadidja Maouche. He was a young professional footballer in France in the late 1950s, but the newlyweds were also members of the National Liberation Front (FLN), the main Algerian liberation movement. The couple reveals how they secretly worked together to facilitate an exodus of Algerian-born footballers from their French clubs to play for the FLN “national” team. “No-one knew I was married to Maouche,” Khadidja says. “They would just be told a FLN activist wanted to speak to them. I would talk to them individually to say: ‘It’s an order, that’s it,’ and they all agreed.” In 1960 Mohamed Maouche eventually joined the FLN team, which played matches in front of large crowds in North Africa, the Middle East, East Asia, and Eastern Europe. “We were the first ambassadors of the revolution and the Algerian people,” he recalls with profound emotion half a century later.

Burundi’s current President Pierre Nkurunziza, a qualified football coach and owner of Hallelujah FC, is mentioned as a bridge to a terrific interview with Dr. Hikabwa Chipande, an historian and Michigan State University alumnus (PhD, 2015). Now a lecturer in African history at the University of Zambia, Chipande brings the BBC reporter through the archives in Lusaka where he conducted doctoral research on the history of Zambian football. As they look at sources documenting former president Kenneth Kaunda’s passion for and involvement in the game, Chipande points to a 1974 photograph of Kaunda serving food to the national team—quite an endearing, populist image. Mungazi then travels to Luanshya, on the Copperbelt, to talk football and politics with Dickson Makwaza, one of the players served by Kaunda in 1974, and with 91-year-old Tom Mtine, a legendary football administrator.

In the second half of the documentary we leap ahead to AFCON 2010 in Angola. The Togo national team bus was targeted by armed separatists from the enclave of Cabinda at the border with the Republic of Congo: “probably the most dramatic moment ‘off the pitch’ in the history of the Africa Cup of Nations,” Mungazi says. The armed attack killed two men and wounded several others: “one of the worst experiences I’ve had in my life,” said Togolese striker and English Premier League veteran, Emmanuel Adebayor.

The last time Uganda qualified for AFCON was in 1978 when the infamous Idi Amin was still in power. A local academic and former national team players explain how Amin, a keen boxer himself, bankrolled sports during his dictatorship (1971-79) to boost nationalism and also as a weapon of mass distraction. But we also hear of the traumatic experiences of John Ntensibe and Mama Baker. The former was imprisoned and forced to load bodies onto trucks after scoring the winning goal for Express FC against the army team, Simba, while Baker, a devoted Express supporter, was arrested twice for little more than being Uganda’s biggest soccer fan.

Fast forward again to the 21st century: we hear about George Weah, Africa’s only World Player of the Year (1995), who launched a career in politics in Liberia after retiring from the game. Weah lost a presidential election in 2004 (to future Nobel Peace laureate Ellen Sirleaf Johnson), but recently won a Senate seat and may run again for his country’s highest office.

The final chapter in the story of the links between politics and football focuses on Ghana. There, top clubs Accra Hearts of Oak and Kumasi Asante Kotoko have long been entangled in party politics and presidential contests. Veteran Ghanaian reporter Kwabena Yeboah also describes the emergence of Real Republikans, a super club of the 1960s closely connected to President Kwame Nkrumah. Subsequent regimes in Ghana, it is noted, used the men’s national team, the Black Stars, to strengthen their popularity and “perpetuate their reign.”

As a scholar who has been writing about African football history, culture, and politics for a long time, I found Farayi Mungazi and Penny Dale’s “Beyond the Pitch” documentary to be finely researched and evocatively presented through African voices. The producers did well to carefully bring out the game’s contradictory capacity to be a force for empowerment and disempowerment. What a great way to get ready for the upcoming 2017 AFCON in Gabon. And what a wonderful resource for teaching and research.

Click here to listen and download the podcast version of the documentary.

The AmaXhosa Maradona

By | October 17th, 2016 | 1 Comment

Two captains shake hands before game in Kayamandi

Photo: http://www.stellenboschfootball.co.za

 

The story of Abongile Elton Qobisa, also known as the “Xhosa Maradona,” has not been covered by ESPN, SKY, SABC, or FIFA media. But Tarminder Kaur, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of the Free State in South Africa, is determined not to allow us to forget him.

 

On October 27, the moving tale about Qobisa will be the subject of the Football Scholars Forum’s 37th session. Kaur’s paper is based on ethnographic fieldwork in the Western Cape region. It engages critically with “sport-for-development” discourses and its limits, a topic Pelle Kvalsund and Hikabwa Chipande, among others, have written extensively about on this blog.

 

“In contemporary South Africa,” Kaur writes, “soccer is discursively portrayed as a tool for ‘development’ and socialization of ‘black’ youth living in structurally constrained conditions. Indeed, it is the stories of ‘rags to riches’ through sport talent and success that continue to spark imagination for possibilities through soccer for the marginalized and those in need of ‘development.'”

 

The paper deftly critiques these discourses by presenting an intriguingly diverse cast of male characters. Readers are introduced to passionate township players, devoted coaches, hardcore fans, and well-meaning patrons of the game. Through numerous oral interviews and personal observations, the study reveals the multiple ways in which young black men from humble circumstances “create and find meaning in practices of soccer.” In a context of economic insecurity and social instability, the author highlights how “talent and opportunities in soccer were both a gift and a curse for the amaXhosa Maradona.”

 

To participate in the online forum, please visit the FSF website.

 

Click here for the Sport in Africa web dossier compiled by the African Studies Library at Leiden University.

Filed under: Fútbology

« Previous Posts  

counter