African Soccerscapes: History, Ideas, and the 2010 World Cup

Making an academic career out of studying soccer might sound (kind of like) fun, but it turns out to be hard work—mostly because you tend to get dissed from all sides.  Here’s how Peter Alegi and Chris Bolsmann explain it in their introduction to South Africa and the Global Game, a forthcoming edited collection of scholarly essays addressing issues around the coming World Cup:

“Many conservative and progressive scholars find football (and sports) research superficial and banal; the former dismiss it as the embodiment of ‘low culture’, while the latter denigrate it as an ‘opium of the masses’, a distraction from engaging with truly pressing concerns such as poverty and class struggle, environmental degradation, gender inequality, unemployment, homelessness, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, crime, corruption and so on.”

Perhaps as a consequence, Alegi and Bolsmann also note “the output of academic studies of football in South Africa has been inversely proportional to the game’s relevance in South African society.”  The same could probably be said more generally about the study of sports in Africa, though many academics around the world are working to correct that imbalance.  And Peter Alegi is certainly doing his part.

A historian at Michigan State University who is spending this propitious year as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, Alegi has been a busy man.  Having published “the first academic monograph on football” in South Africa in 2004 (Laduma! Soccer, Politics and Society in South Africa), in 2010 Alegi is publishing two books that should be of interest to thinking fans: both the aforementioned South Africa and the Global Game and African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World’s Game—a short but comprehensive book published by Ohio University Press as part of their Africa in World History series, which is intended to offer scholarly but accessible perspectives on “the particular and valuable ways in which Africans have experienced, and expressed, universal human experiences.”

Alegi has also been a go-to guy for media looking for intelligent perspectives on soccer in South Africa, and if you are paying attention to the social and political side to this ‘Year of African Football’ you will likely run across his voice (as one example, he makes an appearance in the interesting recent BBC radio documentary series on African football).  But amidst it all Alegi was kind enough to respond to some questions I had after reading African Soccerscapes (our ‘interview’ is included below after a brief review), and to help me consider his book in relation to broad questions about what is at stake this year in the world of ideas: Beyond soccer, what does South Africa 2010 mean?

Alegi is a regular contributor to

The Books

Both South Africa and the Global Game and African Soccerscapes are worth reading for intelligent perspectives on African soccer, though South Africa and the Global Game is an edited collection oriented more towards specialists.  I was able to preview the contents of that collection since they have also been published as part of a special issue of the academic journal Soccer & Society, and for a set of academic essays it looks to be a good read (it is particularly nice to get perspectives from an impressive group of South African scholars—a group too often missing from the media coverage I’ve seen). But for present purposes I’m focusing primarily on African Soccerscapes which, while certainly more academic than journalistic in tone, is likely to be of greater interest to a general reader.

African Soccerscapes presents an overview of the history of the game on the continent through essentially chronological themes—starting with the introduction of the game around the turn of the 20th century (through colonialists, missionaries, and merchants), and progressing through the ‘privatization’ of  football from the 1980s to the present.  There is also an interesting epilogue specifically about the 2010 World Cup—arguing that “South Africa’s hosting of the World Cup represents the latest and most ambitious attempt by an African country to use football to showcase its political achievements, accelerate economic growth, and assert the continent’s global citizenship.”

Many of the chapters are necessarily eclectic in the countries and regions they cover.  Documentation on the history of African football is tough to come by, and you take what you can get.  Nevertheless, I particularly enjoyed some of the more extended narratives such as those in ‘Chapter Three: Making Nations in Late Colonial Africa, 1940s-1964,’ which uses case studies from Nigeria, Algeria, and South Africa to demonstrate the ways independence politics often became linked with the game.  Local clubs provided politicians such as Nnamdi Azikiwe (also known as ‘Zik’—the first president of an independent Nigeria) chances for community organizing, while ‘national’ teams such as that organized by the Algerian National Liberation Front offered chances for colonized societies to negotiate new identities.

Such examples represent the basic theme of African Soccerscapes: Africa both shapes and has been shaped by the game in ways that too often go unrecognized.  Seeing those patterns in the broad scope of modern history is most helpful to understanding soccer and Africa—as is evident in the final chapter’s discussion of contemporary issues around the game.  In regard to controversies around the migration of African players to Europe (often at the expense of local leagues) and the explosion of youth academies (often at the expense of children’s rights), for example, Alegi makes a convincing case that we have the World Bank (at least partially) to blame.

The imposition of ‘Structural Adjustment’ requiring drastic cuts in African governments’ social spending essentially destroyed any hopes that local leagues or youth development programs might flourish as part of the greater good.  Instead, the global ‘free’ market has been allowed to run amuck, meaning that the already rich leagues and agents hold disproportionate power.  And while that mostly privileges Europe in the soccer world, Alegi also importantly notes that within the continent South Africa itself often serves as the hegemon—due to its relative economic strength, South African companies, media outlets, and personalities have huge influence across the whole of Africa (something Alegi describes as “South Africa’s increasingly subimperial role on the continent”).

Interestingly, however, African Soccerscapes also points out some ways in which the ‘privatization of football’ has had positive effects.  With the women’s game, for example, local versions of the ‘old boys’ network have long been reluctant to promote soccer for both genders—historically soccer has been closely identified with masculinity in much of Africa, and when girls and women have been allowed to play sports it is often netball, basketball, or athletics.  But with the proliferation of NGO’s using sports as part of development and with funding from multi-nationals such as FIFA requiring at least some attention to the women’s side, things are looking a bit better for the women’s game.

Overall, by putting the game in Africa in social, political, and historical context African Soccerscapes serves as a valuable reminder to be skeptical of simple narratives about South Africa 2010.  It is not, as Sepp Blatter might like us to believe, just a happy story of the game uniting the continent for celebrations benevolently sponsored by FIFA and its corporate partners.  But nor is it, as some critics might like us to believe, just about South Africa being used as the dupe of a frivolous game.  It is all much more complicated, and much more interesting, than that.

The Interview

While the history described in African Soccerscapes offers much to think about on its own, after reading the book I was also interested to follow-up with Alegi on his work and on how it all applies.  Since he is in South Africa for the year and I’m stuck in Portland for now, the below is a very slightly edited version of our interview by email:

Guest: If it is possible to describe in short form, what do you see as the major intellectual/academic issues at stake with the major African soccer events this year?  And do you see those issues overlapping with more general issues in African Studies as a field?

Peter Alegi

Alegi: The 2010 World Cup presents Africanist academics with a tremendous opportunity to speak to a massive audience and to spread more widely our still largely neglected work.  With African Soccerscapes I hope to educate general readers about how Africa fits into broader patterns of the world’s recent history, including globalization itself. For the journalists, academics, media producers, business people seeking to better understand Africans’ intense passion for and participation in soccer, I offer insight into the sometimes conflicting priorities of private investment and public support, of play and profit, of club and nation, of tradition and modernity. The book aims to “mainstream” specialized knowledge and, hopefully, will lead to new collaborative projects with scholars in Africa and beyond, including the creation of a center for soccer research on African soil.

Guest: It was interesting to read in introduction to South Africa and the Global Game that historical documentation on football is particularly hard to find—partially because it often got wrapped up in politics.  What was your process like for getting together all the material for African Soccerscapes?

Alegi: Lack of evidence is a massive problem for scholars of the African game.  There is an almost complete lack of archival records for clubs, associations, and leagues, especially before 1990. Government documents, where they exist, say little, if anything, about the game and the same applies to missionaries’ documents. So for African Soccerscapes I relied mainly on a growing body of academic literature in English and French. With the help of two research assistants and Peter Limb, Africana Bibliographer at Michigan State. I spent a year digging for dissertations, journal articles, book chapters, and monographs on African soccer. At the same time, I mined African newspapers and magazines collected by the Cooperative Africana Microfilm Project (CAMP) in Chicago, and also used some oral history interviews. I then applied and won a grant that gave me time to make sense of this mountain of evidence and to prepare the manuscript for publication before the World Cup kickoff in June.

Guest: One theme that seems to underlie the history you write about in the book is the tension between soccer elaborating on the diversity of both Africa as a whole and within African nations, and soccer as a unifying force for countries and the continent.  I wonder about that with things like Puma’s marketing an “African Unity Kit.”  On balance, do you see soccer as more unifying or divisive for Africa—or how do you think about that tension?

Alegi: As is the case everywhere in SoccerWorld, the game unites while it divides.  This paradox is at the heart of the global game’s history, culture, and popularity. It’s hard to generalize about Africa and even harder to reliably say whether soccer has been more unifying or divisive across 12 million square miles of land, with nearly a billion people speaking 2000 languages in more than 50 countries. As a historian my aim is to provide context, explore where, when, and why unity or division occurs and to connect what happens in soccer with what is happening in society.

Guest: In the book you also show how there is a long history of soccer being promoted as doing one thing (eg, ‘civilizing’ or ‘nation building’) from a top-down perspective but actually working as a form of resistance from the bottom-up. So I enjoyed the examples in your work of “Africanization” and how the game takes on “indigenous characteristics.”  Do you see that happening now around the World Cup?  Are there ways that despite the rhetoric of FIFA and the organizers, South Africans themselves are/can adapt it all towards their own ends?

Alegi: Africans are not passive, faceless, powerless victims. Soccer was originally a colonial game but it is now synonymous with Africa. The power of Africans is visible in soccer’s continuing cultural Africanization.  Just the other day, an official of AmaZulu FC, a Premier Soccer League side in Durban, was quoted in our local newspaper stating proudly that magicians and traditional medicine (umuthi in isiZulu) are still an important part of the team’s match preparations. Fan culture is another example of soccer “going local.” In southern Africa, for example, the makarapa—a hard hat decorated with the club’s colors and symbols—is a better example than the vuvuzela of how local people infuse the game with indigenous characteristics.  When I started going to games in South Africa in the early 1990s there were no vuvuzelas (thankfully) but I saw fans wearing beautifully adorned makarapas. These hard hats are a symbol of black working class men’s long experience working underground in the mines, in factories and constructions sites in South Africa. The emergence of the makarapa has to do not only with modernity and the urban industrial experience, but also with African traditional culture. The adornment of the head was a very important feature of precolonial societies. One’s headgear expressed status, power and prestige. So as black men migrated from the countryside to the city, soccer became a cultural weapon for self-definition and empowerment in a racially oppressive context.

But Africanizing the 2010 World Cup is going to be extremely difficult.  The tournament is a FIFA corporate event.  The passion, warmth, and generosity of South Africans will impress the world, but it is a pity that few ordinary Africans will make it into the stadiums. Most people in South Africa (and Africa) cannot afford match tickets even at reduced prices. Moreover, the local vendors and microentrepreneurs that contribute much to the festive atmosphere at domestic matches will be excluded from “restricted zones” around the World Cup stadiums, which are the preserve of FIFA corporate sponsors. Black South Africans may be reduced to providing “African” flavor in the Fan Parks and in the streets.

Guest: So is the commodification of African football you describe in African Soccerscapes part of an inevitable march? Are there signs of hope you see for football becoming more of a people’s game in Africa, or is the power dynamic too far gone?

Alegi: As the old saying goes, “The only things that are inevitable are death and taxes,” but the process of turning professional soccer into another entertainment “product” is unlikely to go away any time soon, in Africa or anywhere else. I do see hope for people to take charge and win some small victories. For example, Africa is the only continent in which TV rights to World Cup matches were awarded to free-to-air public broadcasting networks to allow as many people as possible to watch.  Even in South Africa, the only African country where a private satellite provider had initially secured the rights to 2010, pressure was brought to bear by FIFA and the South African government to ensure that SABC—the national broadcaster—would also show all 64 matches live.  Signs of hope also come from the growth, despite gargantuan obstacles, of women’s soccer and NGOs using soccer for social development goals.  By struggling to broaden access to the game, whether on TV or at the local ground, people and communities are building alternatives to corporate soccer.

Guest: In general it strikes me that much of the academic literature around South Africa hosting the World Cup is pretty critical of the way it is being done.  That is a valuable role, but I’m curious if overall it means you wish SA had never been awarded the Cup.  Or how do you balance the criticism with the potential of it all?

Alegi: Only African countries could bid for the 2010 World Cup as a result of the 2002 FIFA decision to rotate the finals on a continental basis. As much as I respect North African soccer, I had to support South Africa! I was in Soweto on May 15, 2004, when FIFA made the hosting decision. It was a beautiful, joyful day that I’ll never forget.  It was as if South Africa had won the Cup and not just the right to host the finals. This year I am fortunate to be a Fulbright Scholar at the University of KwaZulu-Natal where I am learning from South Africans and giving something back as well. Getting back to the potential benefits of the 2010 World Cup for South Africa, there are likely to be two main positive effects. First, elite South African football will benefit from engagement with soccer’s international networks of knowledge, which Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski identify in Soccernomics as one of the keys to closing the gap between soccer’s First World and Third World. Second, emotional benefits are possible, such fun and once-in-a-lifetime memories for a soccer-obsessed people; short-term feelings of pride and unity; an improved global image for South Africa and Africa as a whole; and greater confidence among some foreign investors.

Guest: Is there other stuff on African football (writing, film, etc..) that you’d particularly recommend to the thinking fan who is not necessarily an academic?

Alegi: I would recommend these films: Le Ballon d’Or based on Salif Keita’s story (winner of the first African Golden Ball in 1970); Zanzibari Soccer Queens on a team of women determined to better their lives and define new identities through playing the game in East Africa; and the South African documentary Pitch Revolution about soccer’s influential role in the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1970s. Among non-academic books, I would recommend Filippo Ricci’s Elephants, Lions, and Eagles and Peter Auf der Heyde’s Has Anybody Got a Whistle?, which describe the contemporary worlds of African soccer from the perspectives of sport reporters, an Italian and a South African respectively.

[note: For anyone interested in other academic reading, in their introduction to South Africa and the Global Game Alegi and Bolsmann also note the following as “important books on African football”: Africa, Football and FIFA by Paul Darby; the collection Football in Africa edited by Gary Armstrong and Richard Giulianotti; the FIFA produced Le Football en Afrique by Paul Dietschy and David-Claude Kemo-Keimbou; and the “three-chapter long treatment of Africa” in The Ball is Round by David Goldblatt.]

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