Guest Post by *Marc Fletcher
Gloomy skies and wet weather greeted the Research Forum on South African Football held at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) last month. The bleak conditions made for an intimate crowd, but the academics, journalists and sports practitioners in attendance were rewarded with three strikingly different presentations on varying aspects of the “beautiful game” in South Africa. The aim of the forum was to advance the specialized study of soccer in the country and beyond.
First up was Chris Bolsmann, a South African sociologist based at Aston University, Birmingham. His paper entitled “Professional Football in Apartheid South Africa: Leisure, Consumption and Identity in the National Football League, 1959-1977″ provided a rich history of the whites-only National Football League (NFL) during apartheid. The common misconception of South African football is that it has historically been, and continues to be, an exclusively black, working-class game. Yet, Chris’s work challenges such a perception and begins to reconstruct a past that is often forgotten or even ignored. Matches in this white league were staged in front of segregated crowds. A successful corporate affair, the NFL attracted a host of world-renowned players, including George Best and Bobby Charlton. In concluding that the NFL became the leisure and sporting entertainment of choice for significant numbers of white and black (particularly Indian and Coloured) South Africans, this history emphasized how football in South Africa has had a more diverse support base than is often acknowledged.
My paper on “Divisions, Difference and Encounters in Johannesburg Soccer Fandom,” explored contemporary cultures of fandom beset by race and class divisions, where domestic football is regularly constructed as an Africanized space without white supporters. However, through an ethnography of Kaizer Chiefs, Bidvest Wits, and Manchester United supporters’ clubs in Johannesburg, I began to explore the deeper complexities, where supporters on the margins of these groups began to engage with the other. In doing so, some fans challenged these social barriers in football and thus reinterpreted their understanding of soccer fandom and their wider experiences of everyday life in the city.
Chris Fortuin, based in the Department of Sport and Movement Studies at UJ, gave the third paper–an eye-opening account of the grim state of youth development in South African football. It was alarming to hear the inadequate ratio of qualified youth coaches to players in South Africa compared to some of the giants of international soccer, especially Spain. The shortage of such coaches, along with the absence of a coherent development plan at the national level, is harming the game at all levels and has contributed to the malaise of the men’s national team, Bafana Bafana.
The presentations encouraged members of the audience to think more seriously about football as an academic field of inquiry. During the second half of the forum panelists responded to numerous questions from the floor. One question stuck out, one that is often asked; why are black South Africans not writing about this subject? It is true that much of what is written on the subject is by foreigners like me. But a main goal of football scholars, regardless of origin, is to empower South African students in the humanities and social sciences (and other fields) with tools and desire to critically engage with football studies.
With questions on the presentations filling up the second half, the question of where does the academic study of South African football go from here was left unresolved. Events such as the UJ forum can play a vital role in motivating South African scholars to research and write about their game. Clearly, football is a legitimate and fascinating area of research. But many more events like the forum are needed to further develop the field and chart future directions.
To this end, readers of this blog who are in the Johannesburg area, are welcome to attend the UJ Wednesday Seminar Series on Wednesday, May 8, at 3:30pm, where I will be presenting a paper entitled “Reinforcing Divisions and Blurring Boundaries: Race, Identity and the Contradictions of Johannesburg Soccer Fandom.” For details about the event click here.
The journey continues.
*Marc Fletcher, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Johannesburg, blogs at One Man and His Football: Tales of the Global Game. Follow him on Twitter: @MarcFletcher1
My online course “Culture of Soccer” launched today at Michigan State University. With 120 students enrolled, it recognizes and nurtures younger Americans’ growing appetite for fútbol. It may even be read as a “‘rejection’ of U.S. isolationist/exceptionalist attitudes,” as @OhioGooner put it to me on Twitter. But it’s also important to note that the course satisfies a social science component of MSU’s general education requirements.
As an exercise in pragmatism and poetry, this seven-week course explores fútbol and social change in a global context. It combines general analysis with specific case studies to make connections across time and space. By examining the intersections of the historical and the contemporary, the individual and the social, the local and the international, it explores how and why race, ethnicity, class, gender, media, and business made, and continue to make, the world of soccer we see today.
The course takes place almost entirely on the class WordPress site. Hosted and designed by the good people at Matrix–the digital humanities center at MSU–the class blog is where students write and comment on the assigned readings and the password-protected lecture videos. MSU’s new course management system (Desire2Learn) complements the WordPress site as a simple way to submit final papers and to release grades.
Why online teaching? First, it provides our department with much-needed funds for faculty research and the graduate program at a time of vicious budgetary cuts. Second, it strengthens our department’s partnership with Matrix. Third, online teaching funds two of my PhD students, Hikabwa Chipande and Liz Timbs, whose labor as teaching assistants greatly eases the burden of grading and class management. Last and certainly not least, the digital domain gives me another way to enjoy doing the work I love, and produce and share knowledge beyond the boundary of the brick-and-mortar classroom. Let the games begin.
Police in riot gear battle protestors in the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Aggressive slum clearance threatens favelas. Gentrification at Maracanã Stadium. FIFA exclusion zones around World Cup venues. Sound familiar?
As readers of this blog know, South Africa staged a successful World Cup in 2010, marketing the country globally to tourists and foreign investors, and uniting, albeit temporarily, a nation divided along racial and economic fault lines. South Africa’s experience was part of a larger trend, that of BRICS countries enthusiastically embracing the global mega sporting events business: from Beijing (2008 Summer Olympics) and Delhi (2010 Commonwealth Games) to Brazil (2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics) and Russia (2014 Winter Games [Sochi] and 2018 World Cup).
Recent media coverage of Brazil’s preparations reveals growing FIFA unease with delays in infrastructure construction projects and other hosting problems. Speaking at a FIFA academic symposium last week, FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke expressed frustration with Brazil’s government, saying that “less democracy is sometimes better for organizing a World Cup,” according to a Reuters wire story. Valcke’s extraordinary remark confirmed some experts’ suspicions about FIFA’s underlying rationale for choosing autocratic Russia and Qatar (2022) as World Cup hosts.
Another story about 2014 World Cup stadiums was published in the New York Times Goal blog. James Young’s “White Elephant Hunting in Brazil” highlighted the importance of staging matches across the country. It concluded that while there were some troubling questions about the preparations, “Nevertheless, amid talk of delays and spiraling costs, the 2014 World Cup will at least be an event for all Brazil. In a country where the north-south cultural and economic divide is so deeply engrained, that at least is something to celebrate.”
Young’s article elicited a sharp response from Chris Gaffney (@geostadia), Visiting Professor at the Graduate School of Architecture and Urbanism at Rio’s Federal University, on his blog “Hunting White Elephants.”
“The projects associated with the World Cup were poorly planned, hastily executed (if at all) and may not serve the long-term needs of the cities or the country,” Gaffney writes. “There is no redress (as the [NYT] author suggests) of historically-situated cultural or economic divides in World Cup investment, especially when we take into consideration the astronomical sums being invested in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics.” Gaffney concludes emphatically by pointing out that Young’s piece “does not attempt to kill White Elephants, but to make them into bichos de estimação (pets).”
On Saturday, April 27, ABC radio in Australia picked up on Gaffney’s critical blogging. Listen to Geraldine Doogue’s interview with him here.
Soccernomics has been called “the Barcelona of football books” and the “Moneyball of soccer.” On Tuesday, April 16, the Football Scholars Forum discussed this influential book with the authors Stefan Szymanski (in East Lansing, Michigan) and Simon Kuper (via Skype). One of the most important questions asked was: How does the introduction of big data and “soccer analytics” change our understanding of fútbol clubs, fans, and nations? The forum also featured intriguing comparisons between Western Europe and the United States.
Joining the authors were: Andrew Guest, Brian Bunk, Christoph Wagner, Corry Cropper, David Kilpatrick, James Dorsey, Mark Siegel, Hikabwa Chipande, Christian Orlic, Benjamin Dettmar, Peter Demopoulos, Steven Apostolov, Tom McCabe, Alex Galarza, and me.
For Twitter timeline click here.
Listen to the audio from the session here (mp3).
Next month the University of Johannesburg is hosting an exciting “Research Forum on South African Football.” Organized by the UJ Department of Sport and Movement Studies, the gathering will consider three papers that address socio-historical, sociological, and developmental aspects of football in South Africa, as well as broader issues related to the local game.
In his paper “Professional Football in Apartheid South Africa: Leisure, Consumption and Identity in the National Football League, 1959-1977,” sociologist Chris Bolsmann (Aston University) will present a preliminary analysis of the NFL, a “whites-only” league established in 1959 by a group of (white) Johannesburg businessmen. Playing in segregated stadiums, the NFL introduced professional football to South Africa. At the height of its popularity, it had two divisions, attracted significant corporate sponsorship, and recruited prominent foreign players, such as George Best and Bobby Charlton. The NFL became the leisure and sporting entertainment of choice for significant numbers of black and white South Africans and was unparalleled in popularity during this period.
Ethnographer Marc Fletcher (Department of Sociology, University of Johannesburg) will explore contemporary dynamics in a paper titled “Divisions, Difference and Encounters in Johannesburg Soccer Fandom.” This ethnography of Kaizer Chiefs, Bidvest Wits, and Manchester United supporters’ clubs in the city shows how supporters on the margins of these groups began to engage with the other, crossed racial and class divisions, and thus reinterpreted their understanding of soccer fandom and their wider experiences of everyday life in the city.
Last but not least, Chris Fortuin (Department of Sport and Movement Studies, University of Johannesburg) will discuss “Youth Football Development in South Africa.” The paper notes how in South Africa there is a severe lack of focus on youth football development to sustain national junior and senior teams. I also highlights that youth football development is not coordinated, there is limited success in nurturing young players for the international market, and coach development with a specific focus on youth football is strongly lacking.
This forum takes place on April 19, 2013, 10:00-12:00 at the University of Johannesburg’s Protea Auditorium, School of Hospitality and Tourism, Bunting Road Campus, Auckland Park. For more details please contact Dr. Chris Bolsmann (chris [dot] bolsmann [AT] aston [dot] ac [dot] uk or @ChrisBolsmann on Twitter).
The Football Scholars Forum, an online fútbol think tank, met on February 26, 2013, for a lively session on the history of American soccer. Steven Apostolov shared a paper on Massachusetts; Gabe Logan on Chicago; and Tom McCabe on northern New Jersey. David Kilpatrick, official historian of the New York Cosmos, moderated the 90-minute conversation.
Listen to the audio from the session here.
Twitter timeline here.
Photo courtesy of Chris Bolsmann
The Big Boss Man of Nigeria’s Super Eagles, Stephen Keshi, transformed perennial underachievers of the African game into continental champions in the recent African Nations Cup in South Africa.
Keshi weeded out huge egos. He selected players based on ability, merit, and, most important, attitude. He imposed strict curfews on a team brimming with young players of limited experience drawn from Nigerian clubs rather than European ones. Thanks to his steady leadership, the Super Eagles defied the prognostications of pundits and fans alike in claiming their third African title.
Keshi knows how to win. He wore the captain’s armband in Nigeria’s previous Nations Cup triumph in 1994 against Zambia. The captain of the opposing side in that final in Tunis was Kalusha Bwalya, who played an important role in masterminding Chipolopolo’s 2012 championship run. “King Kalu,” currently Zambian Football Association president, saw to it that the nucleus of that winning Chipolopolo side stuck together for more than five years. Big Boss Keshi, on the other hand, overcame a perennial African problem by selecting a team based on what they can do, and what they are willing to do for the collective, instead of which European team they play for. In orchestrating their respective countries’ African triumphs, Bwalya and Keshi merely implemented a philosophy rarely found in most parts of African football: common sense.
The enduring lesson from Nigeria’s 2013 Nations Cup victory is that having so-called big names in your team is less than important than unity and a desire to win. As I have argued before, it is this generation of African football luminaries that must ensure that our football realizes its potential. When Keshi quit his job immediately after winning the title he cast light on the mediocrity of Nigerian football administration. (His resignation has since been withdrawn. Click here and here for more details.) The sight of South African Football Association president Kirsten Nemantandani looking bamboozled, insipid, and nervous when tasked with ceremoniously passing the CAF flag to Issa Hayatou is another reminder of why African football management should be the prerogative of competent, visionary people; not motley crews of myopic sorts whose organizations find themselves in the midst of FIFA match-fixing investigations.
Witnessing Slim Jedidi’s farcical refereeing in the Ghana-Burkina Faso semifinal, a fellow brother of mine noted: “Success in Africa is never rewarded because merit is hated. Why? Because the Big Men are there by fraud and manipulation.” Thank you to runners-up Burkina Faso and to Stephen Keshi for demonstrating how African football can soar above the deeds of those who always try to bring us backwards. May it continue in that trajectory.