Football and empire

AIAC Talk this week: the historical entanglement of South African football with English football, and what that tells us about politics and sport. Watch it on our YouTube channel.

The English footballer, Stanley Matthews, photographed in Rotterdam in 1962. He visited and played in South Africa regularly since the 1950s through the 1970s, long after South Africa was banned from FIFA (Wiki Commons).

For most football enthusiasts, the last year of matches and competition bore the stamp of something most people think should be kept out of the sport: politics. After the #BlackLivesMatter protests around the world sparked heightened consciousness of racial injustice, footballing leagues (most significantly, the English Premier League) embarked on initiatives to spread awareness and communicate messages of zero tolerance. Displays of solidarity, like taking the knee, became ritualized, and from these efforts all manner of debate arose around whether this was just toothless PR, a sincere campaign against racism, or an assault on the integrity of sports as something separate from politics.

But as former England football manager Sven-Göran Eriksson once said, “There is more politics in football than in politics.” Rather than separate from society, sports are often a mirror of it—a testament to the prevailing attitudes, to the evolving social and economic relations. If our society has become more globalized, commercialized and unequal, then the nature of sport will develop this way too. As Kenan Malik writes in The Guardian, “Football is not just about watching 22 people kick the ball around for an hour and a half. What gives football its heart, its soul and its drama, is that every game, every fan, is part of a wider story. Part of a collective memory, an identity, an imagined community.”

The segregated stands of a sports arena in Bloemfontein, South Africa in May 1969 (UN Photo/H Vassal).

It is in the interests of the footballing world to project an image of itself as both separate from politics, while simultaneously also being ahead of it. For example, sports boycotts are widely lauded as an effective tool against oppressive regimes, and something which sports players, organizations and their investors are historically inclined to do. In the final analysis, sports emerge in divided societies as a “great unifier.” Describing how this narrative plays out in South Africa, the historian Peter Alegi writes:

In the opening act, the consolidation of apartheid in the 1950s inspires sport activists to build an antiracist network seeking to racially integrate national teams, thereby casting sport in the political spotlight. The second act is set in the 1960s and 1970s as the sport boycott ostracizes white South Africa from the Olympic movement, world football, and nearly every other major sport—important symbolic victories in the larger quest for freedom. The third and final act unfolds against the backdrop of apartheid giving way to democracy in the early 1990s. Segregated sport federations merge into unified, nonracial institutions and South Africa’s re-entry into global sport is celebrated with home victories in the 1995 Rugby World Cup and 1996 African Cup of Nations, unleashing a wave of rainbow nationalist euphoria throughout the sports-mad nation.

But what would be the more complicated story? What if, rather than simply being made by politics, football itself was something that made politics too. Writing about the history of white football in South Africa, Chris Bolsmann observes that during apartheid, “white football players, organizations, and administrators maintained close links with Britain, the Commonwealth and the notion of Empire and were at the forefront of globalizing football.” So, joining us on AIAC Talk this week to discuss the forgotten entanglement of South African football with English football at the nexus of empire, is Chris Bolsmann.

Chris has just published a journal article on the great English footballer, Stanley Matthews’ long association with South African football. Previously, he had published articles about white professional football in South Africa and about an 1899 tour by a team of 15 black footballers to Europe

He is based at California State University Northridge, specializing in the social history of sport. Together with Peter Alegi, Chris co-edited South Africa and the Global Game: Football, Apartheid and Beyond (2010) as well as Africa’s World Cup: Critical Reflections on Play, Patriotism, Spectatorship, and Space and South Africa (2013).

Stream the show the show on Tuesday at 18:00 in Harare, 17:00 in London, and 12:00 in New York on YouTube.

On our last episode, we considered “What’s left of the South African left?” a debate over whether the moment was right for South Africa’s left to form a new party (and if there was even a left to do it), we were joined by Niall Reddy, Tasneem Essop and Mazibuko Khanyiso Jara. That episode is also available on our YouTube channel. Subscribe to our Patreon for all the episodes from our archive.

Further Reading

Mobilizing in disorder

Post the looting and failed insurrection, what would it mean for the South African left to undertake a populist political strategy? And should it look to South America for inspiration? A long read.