The Promised Land of Leeds

By | December 15th, 2017 | No Comments

book_coverThe Football Scholars Forum’s last online session of 2017 took place on December 7.

Author and journalist Anthony Clavane discussed his splendid book, Promised Land: A Northern Love Story, which won the 2011 UK Sports Book of the Year award.

Part memoir, part social history, part fútbology, Promised Land is as much about Leeds (the city) as it is about Leeds United (the club).  In the publisher’s words: “This is a book about football. It’s about unconditional love for a club, even when it doesn’t always seem to love you back. But it is also a book about much more than that.”

The FSF discussion revolved around the themes of belonging, community, and identity. Football cannot be adequately understood, Clavane’s work shows, without thinking deeply about the social, economic, political, and cultural underpinnings of sport. Leeds and United lent themselves quite well to this kind of analysis, as they embodied broader transformations in English football and society.

Listen to an audio recording of the session here. Live tweets from the session are here.

The Football Scholars Forum will resume after the holiday break. Stay tuned for updates!


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

By | July 17th, 2017 | No Comments



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

Força Chapecoense

By | November 30th, 2016 | No Comments

This video honors the Brazilian team Chapecoense and the victims of the tragic air crash that killed at least 71 people in Medellin, Colombia, on November 29, 2016.

May they rest in peace.


For further reading click here and here.

Filed under: Video

Manifesto for a Better Game

By | March 29th, 2015 | No Comments



The Football Action Network describes itself as an “open, unbureaucratic network of football activists [in Britain] that includes supporters’ trusts, independent fan groups, fanzines, campaigners in the women’s game and advocates for grassroots football.” 

David Goldblatt, one of the world’s preeminent fútbologists, writing in The Guardian, laid out the group’s manifesto to improve the game in the land of the English Premier League and beyond. From economic justice and institutional reforms to fan freedom and equality for all, this program aims to reclaim and transform football by putting people before profits. 

This is how FAN proposes to do it:












To read the full article click here

Filed under: Players

Sport Associations vs. Sport for Development NGOs

By | March 27th, 2015 | 6 Comments



This is the third post in Pelle Kvalsund‘s series rethinking Sport Development and Sport For Development. (Click here and here to read the previous posts.)


By Pelle Kvalsund


If you have visited sub-Saharan Africa then you know that Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are everywhere, even in sports.


In 1999, I traveled from Norway to South Africa to work for Sports Coaches’ Outreach (SCORE). This NGO aims to create sporting opportunities for children and youth in disadvantaged urban and rural communities. The agenda was clear and the focus simple: Sport for all!


Since the pioneering days of the 1990s, thousands of new local and international sport for development organizations (S4D) began operating all around the world (partial list here). Most of these organizations feed on a broken local sport system to create, often successfully, high demand for their services. Sometimes their agendas are not clear or straight forward.


Sport NGOs are manna from heaven for Western governments and donors eager to boast about their efforts in developing civil society and reaching grassroots targets in the Global South. By offering sporting activities for boys and girls, S4D NGOs appear to have successfully “taken over” parts of the mandate for youth development usually given to local (including national) sport associations.


Backed by solid support from northern sponsors (public and private), many S4D groups have developed a strong internal organizational capacity that enables them to raise funds, submit grant proposals, market themselves, and run and evaluate activities according to the foreign aid industry’s terms and latest trends. These NGOs succeed by investing in their capacity and development. In the process, they create self-sustainable structures that go beyond their original function as “gap fillers” for outstretched African sport providers.


This process has fostered adversarial, even hostile, relationships between the NGOs and government-mandated sport bodies. Such rivalries stem from perceptions that the success of S4D NGOs stems at least in part from the sports governing bodies’ mismanagement and mistakes. In some cases, this animosity targets northern brokers who are seen to be undermining the local sport custodians’ mandates. The rivalry is rooted in struggles for material benefits, such as access to a new Land Cruiser, as much as by the fact that many NGOs and football academies are producing young footballers for sale in European and Asian markets.


Some governments and sport governing bodies have been developing strong policies and clear strategies that chart a coherent, productive direction for sport development in their countries. Chasing aid money, the NGOs often fail to align themselves with host countries’ strategic plans and begin operating in a parallel universe. This parallel universe does not only function in isolation; at times, it also produces some peculiar activities. As S4D’s agendas change because of funding levels and requirements, the sport activities they deliver also change.


Over the years, I have observed how using sport to address serious issues like AIDS, farming, sanitation, traffic safety (as well as some religious agendas) has backfired. NGOs forget (or choose to ignore) that the kids come first and foremost to play sports. They do not enjoy standing quietly in line passively listening to lengthy explanations about how to wash hands properly or safely cross the street.


Some of the S4D activities are so far removed from sport that they confuse both the boys and girls and sport development practitioners like myself. Such a wrong-headed approach has led to many youths choosing to pursue other activities and dropping out of sport all together.


What would the African and Asian sport associations (discussed in my previous post here) look like and how would they function today if northern brokers, supported by Western governments and companies, had invested the same amount of human and material capital in capacity-building and long-term development? The Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic Committee and Confederation of Sport, an umbrella organization for all national sports federations in Norway, has adopted this strategy. It will be interesting to follow its development over time.

Sport Development—Whose Mandate? National Government or National Sport Associations?

By | March 3rd, 2015 | No Comments

This is the second post in Pelle Kvalsund‘s series rethinking Sport Development and Sport For Development. (Click here to read the first post.) Kvalsund is an international sport development consultant from Norway and a former athlete, coach, and physical education teacher. As a consultant for over 15 years, he has worked in many countries including Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Burundi, Zambia, and Bosnia. Pelle has served a number of international organizations, both within sport and the area of community development, and is currently an advisor for the Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic Committee and Confederation of Sport and their partners in the Global South. He is the author of “Sport as a Response to Emergencies and Disasters” in Sport, Peace and Development, edited by Keith Gilbert and Will Bennett (free download here). 




051_51_Kalingalinga_Lusaka copy

There are two main camps in sport development. The first believes that sport should be governed, administered, and developed exclusively by local, national, and international sport associations. Let’s call this group “the custodians.”


The other camp believes that the custodians have failed to fulfill their mandate and, as a result, sport needs a national boost through centrally driven sport programs for both youth and adults. Let’s call this group “sport for all” (though some countries use other terms like “mass sport” and “fitness programs.”)


Many countries combine the two forms of sport development, in addition to having non-governmental sport for development organizations and private sport academies operating in selected communities and districts.


Most football associations are “custodians.” They claim absolute sovereignty in the management of football affairs even though they receive more financial support from governments than the other national sport associations. Substantial financial assistance  from FIFA and from sponsors, both parastatals (e.g. national breweries) and large private companies, help solidify this position.


Now, let’s look at a typical football association’s ability of to run all aspects of the game in their respective countries. While FAs view themselves as politically sovereign in domestic football matters, they are challenged by meager economic means (despite the aforementioned subsidies) and poor organizational infrastructure. These constraints make it difficult to prioritize, for example, development in rural areas. Furthermore, state and corporate funds are often earmarked for the best male players in elite programs, while the support from FIFA goes to capacity development of, in many cases, randomly selected leaders, coaches and referees. If any funding goes to grassroots development it is usually for youth national teams or FIFA-supported Football for Hope or similar corporate social responsibility initiatives.


Zambia, which won its first African Cup of Nations crown in 2012, is a case in point. The continental title was a great achievement, one that can be attributed to both historical factors (for the ones who know the history!) and a productive mix of talented young players, professional coaching staff, and capable leaders. It can also be attributed to a short systematic youth development approach put in place by Kalusha Bwalya, President of the Football Association of Zambia (FAZ). After pursuing his coaching training in the Netherlands, the former PSV Eindhoven and Zambia striker returned to Zambia in the early 2000s and became national technical director supervising a strong staff of coaches.


In spite of FAZ’s successful grooming of a few individual stars, the national football system in Zambia appears quite bare in terms of organized youth development. With over 46% of the population below age 15 (5th youngest in the world in 2013) and about 2 million youth between the ages of 15-24 (according to NationMaster data [January 17, 2015]), one might assume Zambian coaches would have a rich supply of skilled footballers to tap into enabling them to produce consistent good results for national team. But that has not been the case.


Into this development vacuum stepped both private football academies and local NGOs that organize sport as a tool for development. It is these organizations that train many of the players that end up representing Zambia’s top teams. While this is evidence that some of these academies and NGOs have been doing a satisfactory job creating opportunities for play and fostering talents, it also indicates that control and power to secure quality coaches, and to ensure players’ personal safety and development is out of the hands of the FAZ.


I don’t want to be overly critical of Zambian football because I know after many years of living in Zambia that FAZ and other national sport associations face numerous daunting tasks: from financing and operating capacity-building programs for coaches to managing myriad of leagues and tournaments for all the teams and clubs that train and develop players. It would, however, be interesting and worthwhile for them and other sport associations to assess their mandate and reexamine their approach to youth sport development.


Together with a few international sport federations’ development programs, a contingent of Western governments (unfortunately, a decreasing number) continue to support both sport development and sport for development initiatives in Africa. One of the dilemmas these governments face is: How do you provide assistance? Do you work with dysfunctional sport associations (“custodians”) in organizational capacity development so that they will eventually be able to run efficient youth sport for the masses? Or do you continue supporting government-driven and NGO-run sport-for-all programs that attempt to fill the gaps in the mandate left by the associations?

Filed under: Players

Sport Development or Sport For Development?

By | February 23rd, 2015 | 1 Comment

Photo courstesy of Pelle Kvalsund

National Stadium, Monrovia, 2007. Courtesy of Pelle Kvalsund.


Football is Coming Home is pleased to welcome Pelle Kvalsund for a new series on the field of sport development. How can we develop regular long-term sport opportunities for a youth population that is predicted to double in the next thirty years? How do we ensure that the services produced for these athletes are of quality and value so that we can retain both athletes and coaches? This first post outlines some of the main institutional and economic challenges.



By Pelle Kvalsund


Pelle Kvalsund, international sport development consultant, is a former athlete, coach, and physical education teacher from Norway. As a consultant for over 15 years, he has worked in many countries including Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Burundi, Zambia, and Bosnia. Pelle has served a number of international organizations, both within sport and the area of community development, and is currently an advisor for the Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic Committee and Confederation of Sport and their partners in the global south. He is the author of “Sport as a Response to Emergencies and Disasters” in Sport, Peace and Development, edited by Keith Gilbert and Will Bennett (free download here). 



I’m at the National Stadium in Monrovia, Liberia, in 2007, watching a women’s international football match between the host nation and Nigeria. The stadium is jam-packed with fans and UN peacekeepers. It ends 1-1. A fair result from my perspective as a neutral observer, but not for the home fans. A riot breaks out. The crowd storms the pitch and the UN peacekeepers fire teargas to save the unfortunate referee from the mob.


There is a lot to be said about this rowdy incident, but above all else it illustrates the extraordinary popularity of football and the social importance of sport, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the world where resources are scarce and life is generally challenging and unstable.


And it is precisely sport’s cultural significance that provides those of us working in sport development with a foundation on which to build sport programs that offer positive activities and outlets for many children and youth.


Let me start by doing something that I hate doing, but have become quite good at: identifying a stereotype. I do this to present a general image of the field of sport development in the Global South (though it applies to parts of global north too).


Such a country boasts a Ministry of Sport, which is paired with the Ministry of Youth or the Ministry of Education. The department of sport is of very high personal and political interest within government circles due to the widespread popularity of sports in society (particularly football), but the same interest is not reflected in the budget allocations. Most of the sport budget is used to pay the government employees (directly and by extension) and to maintain their status. Some of the money pays for upkeep of facilities and the participation of national teams in international competitions. Most of the remaining funds find their way to the national football association, while only a symbolic sum goes to athletics, basketball, volleyball, and other sports with athletes capable of winning a medal for the country on the global stage.


Administratively, the country has a national sport council or commission (the extension mentioned above) mandated to roll out government policies, distribute government funds, provide logistical support for major competitions, and govern and support the associations. A national Olympic committee bring selected athletes to the Olympic Games every four years. In addition, it has the financial ability to support elite athlete development and organizational capacity building through a central program called Olympic Solidarity.


Each sport also has a national association that generally consists of an “elected” board and president, and a general secretary. The president makes the important decisions and the general secretary does the work. There is no office. The association’s documentary records are tucked away in a briefcase or (if lucky) in the general secretary’s laptop. The associations run their operations according to a calendar of events.


There is no long-term plan, just day-to-day survival. Money is impossibly scarce and there is neither sufficient equipment nor adequate facilities. Instead of a youth development plan, potential athletes are recruited from a few well-endowed schools that host inter-scholastic sport competitions once or twice a year. In the case of football, private academies and sport and development NGOs of varying size and quality also train young boys. (Girls are rarely included in these programs.)


This stereotype of how sport is organized and run in a country of the Global South should help to better understand the stark challenges before us and how they shape the multiple and diverse attempts and approaches used to develop sport in poorer regions of the world. In the blog posts that follow, I intend to share reflections based on my experiences in Africa and beyond to spark a dialogue with readers about the differences between “Sport Development” and “Sport For Development” and why these matter. I look forward to the conversation.

« Previous Posts