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

People Before Profits: Izichwe Youth Football

By | December 6th, 2010 | 2 Comments

2010 was the year of Africa’s first World Cup, a historic year for South Africa and for the continent. An hour west of Durban’s huge Moses Mabhida Stadium, in the KwaZulu-Natal hills, every weekday afternoon 46 boys train on a modest football ground at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg. These 13-year olds symbolize the immense potential of grassroots football in South Africa.

In an atmosphere of quiet industriousness and positive support, the boys of the Izichwe Youth Football programme go through fitness routines, refine individual skills, and play small-sided games under the watchful eye of several local coaches.

Named after the regiment commanded by Shaka Zulu two centuries ago, Izichwe is a not-for-profit development program providing access to high-level football training and life skills instruction to black youth from the Pietermaritzburg area. Working on a shoestring budget, it helps to overcome enduring barriers to participation in sport for black youth in a democratic South Africa.

It has been an honor and a privilege for me to be part of Izichwe while a Fulbright Scholar at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I am grateful to Thabo Dladla, Izichwe’s founding director, for warmly welcoming my family into this wonderful sporting community. One of my daughters joined Izichwe–the only girl and the youngest player by three years.

As our involvement with the program intensified, I realized that I had come full circle from my first visit to South Africa in 1993 as a young volunteer sports coach in Khayelitsha, a massive black township on the outskirts of Cape Town. Now I was here with my entire family and I got to rekindle and sharpen my coaching inclinations. I also gave occasional classroom lectures to the youngsters, prepared them for an oral history project, and helped with the year-end function (see video above).

There is something very special about Izichwe. Thabo Dladla, Mhlanga Madondo, “Styles” Mkhize, Patrick “Cutter” Mthembu, Xolani Madlala, Ronnie Chetty and Kristen Konkol provide specialized coaching and caring, constructive leadership. Their positive, non-authoritarian approach aims at unleashing the boys’ potential on and off the football pitch.

Izichwe’s approach is not so much about winning games and tournaments, but about teaching technical, tactical, psychological and physical skills that will serve the teenagers well down the road. This long-term vision of achievement can be tough on the boys. I have seen them lose against teams stacked with over-age players. A few years down the road it will be interesting to compare the achievements of the Izichwe boys with those of the over-age players.

To understand Izichwe is to appreciate how football is closely linked to the physical, intellectual and social growth and development of historically disadvantaged South African youth. Most players come from tough socio-economic circumstances and at Izichwe they learn sport’s values of teamwork, hard work, discipline, and achievement. The daily training routines provide needed structure to these student-athletes’ lives. In many cases, I have seen individuals acquire confidence, strengthen their self-esteem and self-awareness, and even improve their academic performance.

Next year I hope that a girls’ team will be up and running at Izichwe. It is important that the same opportunities offered to boys are also made available to girls. I am confident that a few years from now, many Izichwe veterans—male and female—will be representing their country and competing in top leagues. For those individuals who will opt for a career in something other than football, Izichwe will have empowered them with skills, knowledge and experience to become good citizens and community builders.

As I prepare to leave South Africa in a few days, I want to take this opportunity to thank my fellow coaches and the players at Izichwe. Their warmth, generosity and brotherhood will never be forgotten. This moving experience has reminded me of a German theologian’s response to a question about how to explain happiness to a child: “I wouldn’t explain it,” Dorothee Solle said; “I’d toss him a ball and let him play.”

What’s in a shoe?

By | September 20th, 2010 | 1 Comment

Izichwe thanks Viking Stavanger FC (Photo by Gemma Mcdonald)

From black high-cut steel-toe boots with leather studs to light, laceless pink boots with titanium studs, the history of football shoes is a journey from pain to pleasure.

Outside Europe and North America, however, millions of young players from working poor families cannot experience that special feeling of slipping on a fine pair of ‘real’ football boots. That is why this week’s generous gift of high quality boots from Viking Stavanger FC in Norway brought such joy to the boys of the Izichwe Youth Football program in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal.

Izichwe has also been invited to Norway for a major international tournament in May 2011. The solidarity of Viking (est. 1899) is doing a lot to open up opportunities for this terrific group of young South Africans.

After the World Cup: Football Again!

By | July 18th, 2010 | 5 Comments

The 2010 World Cup in Disney-like FIFAland ended only seven days ago and since then South African columnists and cartoonists, corporate managers and car guards, compulsive fans and casuals alike have been vexed by the same post-World Cup question: what do we do now?

The immediate answer was stunningly simple. Back to the pitch! For me, that means training with the four dozen youngsters and the committed coaches of the Izichwe Youth Football program here in Pietermaritzburg. On Saturday, at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Peter Booysens sports ground, the teenagers played against the Durban (eThekwini) under-15 representative side due to compete in the ‘One Nation’ tournament in Bremen, Germany, in a few months.

Even though the visitors from the big city won, it was a glorious day for pure football. The illuminating pass, the righteous tackle, the crisp give-and-go, and the delicate chip shot over the keeper and into the back of the net. There will be time for improving team tactics and defensive organization. For now, let’s keep playing, learning, and giving Bafana Bafana hope for the future.

Vuvuzela 1 PSL 0

By | April 18th, 2010 | 5 Comments


A family night out with 6,000 friends. Maritzburg United vs Amazulu: KwaZulu-Natal derby in the round of 32 of the Nedbank Cup, South Africa’s FA Cup. At kickoff, deafening kwaito music gives way to a cacophony of vuvuzelas. Not exactly kid friendly, but there it is. The relaxed mood of this Saturday night crowd, a pleasant mix of men, women and children of all backgrounds, makes up for the dreadful football on display.

The home side is slightly more enterprising in the second half, but deep into injury time the visitors’ Brad Ritson scores a counter-attack winner. Cruel. Final.

As we, the deflated masses, leave the friendly confines of Harry Gwala Stadium, I found myself wondering — again — why PSL teams played such awful soccer on a regular basis. Then I thought of the wisdom shared by Thabo Dladla, director of Izichwe Youth Football (where my daughter plays), in his column this week:

‘The idea of playing and keeping the ball longer does not exist . . . [with] less than 100 completed passes in most PSL matches’ Dladla writes, ‘I doubt if Lionel Messi would have played under most South African coaches. [In the apartheid era] football played a huge role in entertaining people. It was important to win in style. Both players and fans had a lot of fun during a game. These days one sees more creativity in the grandstands than on the field’. And as much as I viscerally detest the vuvuzela’s sonic pollution, it is the truth.