- African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World’s Game
African Soccerscapes introduces readers to the history of soccer throughout Africa—a timely exercise given South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 World Cup finals. Historian Peter Alegi demonstrates that the African game has played an important role in the broader history of football (it is “soccer” only in the title). Football in Africa, Alegi argues, has been both a tool of imperialism and a mechanism for resisting it.
Although the title teasingly suggests a geographical emphasis, the book is chronologically structured. Alegi breaks the 150-year history of African football into multi-decade periods. Within each chapter—six in all, plus an epilogue that anticipates the 2010 World Cup finals—he bounces from location to location. In the telling, he examines and revisits a series of themes, including African struggles for independence from European imperialism and control over sport, the development of national identities through football, and the influence of transnational capitalism on the game. His account is almost wholly grounded in secondary sources published in English and French. Some useful maps, tables, and illustrations are sprinkled throughout (nine in total). The prose is highly readable, appropriate for undergraduates and general audiences.
Alegi begins by charting the arrival and spread of football in Africa from the first games in the 1860s—played by British soldiers and civil servants in South Africa—through the first two decades of the twentieth century. By then, football had become central to African education as an instrument of colonization—a moral and healthy outlet to temper [End Page 135] the supposed savagery of Africans. The game spread throughout the continent from port cities along railway lines, via colonial military forces and Western-style schools run by missionaries.
The author argues that Africans then adopted the game and refashioned it on their own terms. As football’s popularity expanded during the interwar period, Africans introduced magicians and healers, stylistic innovations that expressed improvisational individualism, and new rituals of spectatorship—typically marked by music and dancing—to football cultures. By the 1940s and 1950s, anti-colonial nationalist movements linked clubs and fans; stadiums became spaces where Africans expressed commitment to self-determination and racial equality. As Africans won their independence, the Confédération Africaine de Football (CAF), created in 1957, cultivated a pan-African solidarity, fought against apartheid, and campaigned to expand the number of African teams in the World Cup finals. African governments built modern stadiums that became centers for the construction and performance of national identities and articulations of governmental power and stability. Membership in FIFA expressed new countries’ participations in an international community.
As African national teams experienced increasing success on the world stage, players migrated overseas to ply their trade. The reader is introduced to many past African stars, including Salif Keita, Eusebio, Roger Milla, Abedi Ayew Pelé, George Weah, and Nwankwo Kanu. These players paved the way for an explosion of African footballing migrants to Europe in the late 1990s—players increasingly young of age and vulnerable to exploitation by agents and coaches.
The more recent commercialization and globalization of African football at its elite levels have rendered uneven results at home. The best African players now spend most of their careers in European leagues, not African ones. Privately funded football academies have filled the void created by cutbacks in public funding of youth programs; these have successfully produced world-class players for foreign leagues but often exploit young players, preparing them little for a life outside of football. Women’s football, long neglected by the male-dominated sporting establishment, has finally been officially recognized and supported by the CAF, under pressure from FIFA and corporate sponsors. Alegi argues that the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa illustrate the continued significance of race, racism, nationhood, and capitalism in African soccer. Through it, South Africa and the continent as a whole would use football to demonstrate political achievement, stimulate economic growth (a...