By Peter Alegi | March 11th, 2014 | No Comments
Joe McGinniss had a love affair with soccer.
The award-winning author and journalist died on March 10, 2014, of prostate cancer at the age of 71 (read an obituary here). I got to know Joe pretty well in the late 1990s while he was writing The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, one of the very first commercially viable books written by an American member of the soccerati class.
I was working on my PhD in African history at Boston University at the time and also teaching a course on “Soccer and Imperialism” at Tufts University. My mother had sent me a Corriere della Sera article about Joe chronicling Castel di Sangro’s 1996-97 serie B season for a David-versus-Goliath book about the team from an Apennine town of 5,000 souls competing just one tier below serie A, then the best league in the world.
As a fútbologist born and raised in Rome, I was naturally intrigued. So I wrote him a concise letter introducing myself and suggesting that given our shared love of calcio it would be nice to meet some time in the near future. Next thing I know Joe got in touch and we met at a Legal Seafoods at Boston’s Logan Airport. He was about to fly back to Italy for what would turn out to be an unexpectedly eventful end to his season in Castel di Sangro.
After the usual pleasantries the talk immediately turned to Italy, football, and especially Roberto Baggio. We reminisced about Baggio’s transcendental play at the 1994 World Cup, which we both witnessed in person at Foxboro stadium and at the Meadowlands. The Divine Ponytail—and an interview with Alexi Lalas then at serie A minnows Padova—inspired the football-naive Joe to embark on the project that became Miracle. “I was enthralled,” he explained in the book. “Now my obsession had a focal point, Baggio brought to the game a degree of elegance, a grace, and an aura of magic that I’d not before seen displayed in any sport” (The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, p. 22).
Joe’s Italian was humorously choppy and football knowledge limited, but it was hard not to like his passion for the game, his curiosity, and affable nature. I was impressed by Joe’s unwavering commitment to tell the improbable story of the football club from Castel di Sangro.
As it happened, I spent the following year on a Fulbright scholarship doing my PhD research in South Africa while Joe completed his book manuscript at home in western Massachusetts. We corresponded regularly via email. After a long day in the archives, I remember looking forward to reading Joe’s electronic cocktail of chapter drafts, praises of Baggio’s stellar performances with Bologna (22 goals in 1997-98), and polemics about Gazzetta dello Sport player ratings. I appreciated how an author whose books had graced the New York Times bestseller lists seemed to value both my feedback on his work and my tales of playing football and researching the social and political history of the game in South Africa.
I translated for Joe portions of the Italian edition of Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow. By the time the English edition came out a couple of years later, the Uruguayan author had already taken his place next to Robi Baggio in Joe’s pantheon of football gods. The epigraph in Miracle reflects this conversion and beautifully captures Joe McGinniss’s deep love for the game: “Years have gone by and I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good football. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’ And when good football happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.”
By Peter Alegi | January 16th, 2014 | No Comments
The Football Scholars Forum 2013-14 season resumes on February 12 with a discussion of Lindsay Krasnoff’s The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958-2010.
The book “traces the Fifth Republic’s quest to create elite athletes, a compelling tale that serves as a prism through which to investigate the larger history of France, the evolution of society, the impacts of the media revolution, and the government’s mission of public health. It provides perspective on how France coped with and adapted to the post-1945 world and underscores just how much things have changed—yet still remained the same.”
An active member of the Football Scholars Forum (FSF), Krasnoff is an historian of France and Modern Europe, with expertise in sports, media, and foreign policy. You can listen here to Lindsay discussing her book on the New Books in Sports podcast.
To participate in the online 90-minute session, which begins at 8pm Eastern Time, please email me (alegi.peter AT gmail.com) your Skype name (if I don’t already have it) so you can be added to the conference call.
FSF has two more public events scheduled in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In March (25/26, time TBD), the fútbol think tank is trying something new. Instead of members reading a common book, each participant will read a different fútbol book (or lengthy article) and give a 5-7 minute report about it to the rest of the group. The idea is to produce a sort of “state of the field” snapshot from various world regions and academic disciplines.
Then in April, I’ll be joining several FSF soccerati in attendance at the “Soccer as the Beautiful Game: Football’s Artistry, Identity & Politics” conference at Hofstra University (Long Island, NY). In addition to scholarly papers and presentations, the conference features a special FSF-sponsored roundtable on “Academics, Journalists, and the Changing Trends in Fútbol Writing.” I’ll be doing a post about the Hofstra roundtable in the coming weeks.
By Peter Alegi | December 19th, 2013 | No Comments
Sport is serious fun. Nelson Mandela, a keen amateur boxer in his youth, appreciated how the antiapartheid sport boycott assisted South Africa’s liberation struggle and, as a democratically elected president, he used the “politics of pleasure” to propel Rainbow Nationalism. Team sports like football reveal much about the experiences and mindsets of neighborhoods, cities, and nations. “The way we play the game, organize it and reward it reflects the kind of community we are,” is how Arthur Hopcraft put it in The Football Man (1968), one of the finest football books ever written.
These issues strike at the heart of a new project I am embarking on with my Latin Americanist colleague Brenda Elsey, author of a splendid book on fútbol and politics in Chile. Brenda and I will be editing a special issue of Radical History Review on “Historicizing the Politics and Pleasure of Sport.” This marks the first time RHR, an academic journal known for “addressing issues of gender, race, sexuality, imperialism, and class, and stretching the boundaries of historical analysis to explore Western and non-Western histories” will turn its attention to sport. The issue is scheduled for publication in 2016.
Here’s the call for papers:
The global reach of football (soccer), basketball, cricket, and Olympic sports in the contemporary world can be traced back to European and U.S. imperial and commercial expansion. The agents of that imperialism—teachers, soldiers, traders, and colonial officials— believed sport to be an important part of their “civilizing mission.” Military interventions in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, often accompanied by “soft power” cultural programs and private business ventures, fueled the popularity of Western sports. Reform movements tied eugenics and racism to their dissemination. But local elites and subalterns were not simply duped; they enjoyed the games on their own terms. As more communities participated, sport came to represent and constitute broader processes of social change. In the stands, sports pages, and clubhouses, fans rendered sport a place to debate racial and gender hierarchies. In the late twentieth century, international sport became part of a new global capitalist network of sport institutions (e.g. FIFA, International Olympic Committee, International Cricket Council), private corporations, mass media, and migrant athletes and coaches. In this process, sport came to symbolize and intensify unequal social and economic relations.
Histories of sport reveal a paradox: sport generates empowerment and disempowerment; inclusion and exclusion; unity and division. Sports have provided spaces for pleasure, freedom, solidarity, and resistance, but they have also reproduced class privilege, patriarchy, and racism. The performance of masculinities, creation of ideal body types, and the ongoing marginalization of women in sport illustrate these tensions. Recent events in Brazil, where controversy over contemporary mega sporting events merged with massive demonstrations for a range of social justice issues, highlight the unusual capacity of sport both to crystallize inequalities and to trigger civic activism. Reports of labor abuses in Qatar and censorship and environmental damage in Russia cast a dark shadow on the human and material costs of hosting “mega” sports events.
The editors invite submissions from scholars working on any period and world region. We are especially interested in studies that build upon the rich historiography about the nature of agency, identity, and embodiment as a way to explore sport’s contradictory past and present.
By Peter Alegi | December 10th, 2013 | No Comments
On December 5, Jonathan Wilson, journalist, author, and founding editor of The Blizzard, and the Football Scholars Forum convened for an online session devoted to independent fútbol writing in a digital age.
Wilson fielded a range of questions from an international audience from five continents. The 90-minute conversation blended English pragmatism and fútbol romantico, and indirectly grappled with Simon Kuper’s critique that “Football just isn’t what it’s cracked up to be,” and “anyone who peeks behind football’s curtain discovers there is no magic there.”
The Forum with Wilson pivoted around the notion that there is a growing English-speaking audience for longer-form writing about the game that goes beyond mixed-zone clichès, diatribes about managers, questionable refereeing decisions, and other narrow, shallow concerns of so much contemporary sport journalism. The challenges and opportunities of publishing in print and digital formats sparked conversation and debate, as did the evolving relationship between the futbology work of reporters and academics.
The audio recording of the session is available here.
For a Storify Twitter timeline click here, with special thanks to Liz Timbs (@tizlimbs).
Learn more about the Football Scholars Forum here.
By Peter Alegi | December 3rd, 2013 | 1 Comment
Jonathan Wilson, journalist, author, and founding editor of The Blizzard, is the featured guest at the Football Scholars Forum on Thursday, December 5. Starting at 4pm Eastern (9pm GMT), the online football think tank will discuss the craft of independent fútbol writing in a digital age.
Born in a pub after a Sunderland 4-0 demolition of Bolton in 2010, The Blizzard is a football quarterly that, Wilson says, is “neither magazine nor book, but somewhere in between.” It combines short- and long-form writing and is available in both analog and digital formats. The experience of independent English-language publications like The Blizzard and the recently defunct U.S.-based XI Quarterly, or Howler for that matter, suggests that journalists and scholars share many similar challenges and opportunities in publishing rigorously entertaining, meaningful football writing aimed at readers worldwide. [Click here to read my 2012 blog post on football at the intersection of academic research and popular journalism.]
Issue Nine of The Blizzard is being served up for Thursday’s session [download it here]. Its tasty menu includes: David Conn on the rise of Manchester, and Manchester City; Simon Kuper’s dissection of Barcelona tactics; Philippe Auclair interview with Michael Garcia, Fifa’s Ethics Committee chairman [sic!]; Gwendolyn Oxenham’s search for a pickup game in Teheran; and Igor Rabiner speaking with Lev Yashin’s widow.
To participate in the 90-minute session that takes place simultaneously at Michigan State University and online via Skype, please contact me asap (alegi.peter AT gmail.com) with your Skype name. Folks can also email or tweet me (@futbolprof) questions before the session.
By Editor | October 8th, 2013 | 8 Comments
Guest Post by *Hikabwa D. Chipande (@HikabwaChipande)
LUSAKA––The Football Association of Zambia and Hervé Renard have parted company after the 2012 African Nations Cup winning coach signed with French Ligue 1 club Sochaux. FAZ communications officer Eric Mwanza made the announcement on Monday (October 7) after much speculation that the Frenchman was on his way out. Rumors had been flying around Lusaka that the Frenchman was interviewing for jobs overseas. He had also hinted a few months ago before the Zambia vs Ghana 2014 World Cup qualifier that if the team were to fail to make it to Brazil then he’d resign.
Although FAZ indicated it consulted with Renard and “agreed not to stand in his way,” many Zambians have received this decision with mixed feelings. Some wondered whether Renard had just managed to sweet-talk and dump the national team as he did in an earlier stint with Chipolopolo (copper bullets).
In 2008, Renard landed the Chipolopolo job after working as an assistant to his fellow Frenchman and mentor Claude Leroy, then head coach of the Ghanaian national team, the Black Stars. Renard led Chipolopolo to the quarterfinal of the 2010 African Cup of Nations, a result last achieved at the 1996 tournament in South Africa. In 2010, he left Chipolopolo for better paying Angola, but was soon fired after going four games without a win. After Angola, Renard moved on to coaching USM Alger.
Following the dismissal of Italian coach Dario Bonetti, the Football Association of Zambia announced on October 22, 2011, that Renard would return as coach of the national team on a one-year contract. Peter Makembo, patron of the Zambia Soccer Fans Association, seemed to speak for many local fans when he questioned the loyalty of the French manager. After hearing that Renard was being interviewed at FC Sochaux a few weeks ago, Makembo told Radio Ichengelo that, “as soccer fans we feel betrayed by Renard’s actions.”
However, Renard silenced all his critics in his second tenure at the helm of Chipolopolo by winning the 2012 African Nations Cup: Zambia’s first-ever continental crown. His charges dispatched favourites Senegal in the group stages and African powerhouses Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire in the semi-final and final respectively.
There is no doubt that Renard will remain one of the most respected and loved coaches in the history of Zambian football because of the African title he brought to the country. But some critics point out that he only came back when it suited him and that he reaped where he did not sow since Bonetti, whom he replaced, had done the groundwork for Chipolopolo’s success.
Other Zambians remarked that Renard came here as an inexperienced player and used Zambia to build his coaching resumè before leaving for greener pastures. This is a common phenomenon not only in African sport, but in donor-funded development projects too. Typically, “Western” volunteers arrive, are mentored by local men and women, and then return to their countries where they often become “experts” paid to supervise the Africans who originally taught them much of what they know.
The question remains: is there anything wrong in a European professional coming to an African country like Zambia to build his profile only to leave for a more prestigious, high-paying job? From my point of view, this is how things are and there is little we can do apart from getting used to it. We also need to be realistic and come to terms with the fact that inexperienced, ambitious coaches like Hervé Renard are what poorer countries like Zambia can attract and afford to pay. Few African nations can hire exaggeratedly expensive coaches like the Brazilian Carlos Alberto Parreira, as South Africa did for the 2010 World Cup. (Interestingly, South Africa became the first host nation in World Cup history to be eliminated in the first round of the competition.)
From 2010 to 2013, Renard proved that he is a good coach by delivering what all previous Zambian skippers failed to do: win the African Nations Cup. Many Zambians argue that he is the best foreign coach Zambia has ever had, sometimes in tandem with Yugoslav Ante Buselic who took Chipolopolo to second place in the 1974 Nations Cup in Egypt. Without question, Renard will remain close to the hearts of millions of Zambian soccer fans for a very long time.
However, the Frenchman’s failure to defend the African title and Chipolopolo’s premature elimination from the 2014 World Cup qualifiers compelled FAZ to part ways with Renard. Luckily for Zambia, Renard’s new employers rejected his proposal of bringing his assistant Patrice Beaumelle, also French, to Sochaux. As a result, Beaumelle was chosen as interim head coach of the national team.
Depending on how the new Frenchman will command the Chipolopolo during the friendly match against Brazil in China in a few days’ time, he is likely to be confirmed as Renard’s permanent replacement. Zambians hope that Beaumelle will perform the same miracle as his predecessor, even if he’s only here to strengthen his coaching pedigree before moving on to the next level of world football.
Hikabwa D. Chipande is a PhD student at Michigan State University. He is currently in Lusaka conducting archival research and oral history interviews for a doctoral dissertation on the social, cultural, and political history of football in colonial and postcolonial Zambia. Follow him on Twitter: @HikabwaChipande
By Peter Alegi | September 20th, 2013 | 4 Comments
Guest Post by *Liz Timbs
In August 2013, I had the privilege of spending three days with the Izichwe Football Club in Pietermaritzburg, capital of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. During my brief stay, I observed training sessions, visited players’ high schools, and interviewed some of the young men and coaches. The quotes below come from these conversations.
Every weekday afternoon at the University of KwaZulu-Natal campus in Pietermaritzburg, two dozen 10th grade-boys come together on a humble football pitch to hone their skills at Izichwe Football Club. Established in 2010 and named after the first military regiment (ibutho) commanded by Shaka Zulu, the club is “not just about kicking a ball,” says Thabo Dladla, founding director of Izichwe and Director of Soccer at UKZN. It is also about developing young men of character and respect who represent their communities and themselves with pride and honor.
Respect (inhlonipho in the Zulu language) and discipline (inkuliso) are core values at Izichwe as they are in Zulu culture more broadly. The coaches refer to the teenagers as amadoda (umarried young men) and even baba (father) to stress the importance of carrying themselves in a mature way on and off the pitch.
These two dozen high school boys at Izichwe embody the values and lessons imparted to them by their coaches, especially Thabo’s emphasis on showing self-respect as much as respect for others. When I spoke with the youngsters, they politely thanked me for coming to Pietermaritzburg to meet them and spoke with poise beyond their years.
“The program is not only about sports or soccer. It’s mostly about life,” Asanda tells me. Izichwe is “about respecting the people you are around, and playing fair, which applies in life. You do it the right way. Don’t cheat. Don’t cheat yourself.” Similarly, Simphiwe stated, without hesitation, that Izichwe had taught him “to work hard in life and to respect your instructors.” Asanda and Simphiwe’s statements were echoed in a team meeting I observed. Technical director Mhlanga Madondo, a police officer, entreated the players to look at their performances in the previous weekend’s tournament, stating that he expected them to “take responsibility for their own growth.”
Hard work is another crucial component of the Izichwe way. When I asked Lindi what the program had given him, he said, simply: “discipline.” Every day, without exception, the boys make their way to the university sports fields to train from 3:30p.m. to 5:30p.m. Many of the boys also play for their school teams at least one day a week (with one boy competing in cross country events in addition to playing school soccer). Saturday is match day in a local amateur league. Sundays are reserved for tournaments. This intense, demanding schedule instills in the boys not only physical endurance and strength, but mental acuity as well. Dladla believes this constant pressure shows the dedication and perseverance of his players. “Boys like Siphesehle (the cross country runner), he’s very, very competitive, you know? He did cross country; he came [to training], and I said, “Hey! You rest!” He said, “No, coach! I came to train!”
Although the players’ development as athletes is central to the program, Thabo, a former teacher and ex-professional footballer, regularly reminds players that “nothing in this life is as important as knowledge.” As a result, the program integrates numerous educational programs into their activities. Every night at the conclusion of practice, around 5:30, a group of the players gathers in a classroom on campus to study under the supervision of volunteer university students.
The coaches closely monitor individuals’ academic performance by reviewing school progress reports. This scrutiny, one parent explained, helps to “notice any hiccups in their progress at school.” In the opinion of Devon, the life sciences teacher at Alexandra High School, which several Izichwe boys attend, such devoted attention to player’s academics is unusual when compared with many other students who lack such careful supervision. “It’s a structured lifestyle which, I think, is lacking in a lot of our schools,” Devon explained. “I think that’s partly why these boys are so successful. They grow and they excel in every area.”
The youngsters openly expressed their gratitude to the adults who put precious time, energy, and resources into the program. “There are many kids out there who want this opportunity and we are very special to get that,” Mpumelelo said. Sandile stated unequivocally that the program has “changed the most part of my life.” Keelyn agreed, and without hesitation added that thanks to Izichwe, “I found myself.” Sandile spoke passionately about his appreciation for Izichwe: “Basically, what this program means to me is that it gives me the opportunity to realize a dream that I never thought . . . it was never something I believed I’d be able to do . . . it just made me realize, if I continue working hard enough, I can be one of the best players in the world.”
The Izichwe coaches are also grateful to be part of this project. Coach Madondo said that working with these young men has inspired him; he’s seen them “not just growing physically, but also [in] how to approach life.” Coach Ronnie “Reese” Chetty, who had a long coaching career including experiences in the United States, told me he is reinvigorated by the hard work and dedication these young men exhibit on a daily basis. The coaches are also driven and guided by the hardships, struggles, and perseverance of some of the players and families.
“It’s people like Sipesehle and Mhlengi’s mothers who sometimes give me lots of motivation when I see how hard they try, you know?” explained Thabo Dladla. “So then, I say: ‘Hey man! I cannot give up. I cannot let them down. So let me try and help them develop real men,’ you know?”
And from what I saw these Izichwe boys are becoming real men of immense diligence, humility, discipline, and respect. And, perhaps even more so, this community of boys, men, and parents demonstrates the great potential for grassroots soccer programs to fuel the development of not only athletic talent with a bright future in sport, but also of productive citizens in a democratic society.
*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; the professionalization of medicine; masculinity studies; and comparative studies between South Africa and the United States. Follow her on Twitter: @tizlimbs