Book Review: African Soccerscapes
By Peter Alegi
Published by Hurst Books 2010
£12.99, ISBN: 9781849040389
This slim volume, from a scholar fast developing a reputation as a leading expert on the history of African soccer, has hallmarks of a high level research monograph but transcends the genre with its impeccably researched trawl through the development of the game on the continent.
Football is important for Africa. Its profile is the total sum of many Europeans’ understanding of the land mass and it’s certainly a field in which Africans have excelled. Alegi, an Associate Professor of History at Michigan State University with another book in the offing, argues that African football has had an indelible impact on the international scene and expertly works his way through the history of the sport, culminating in a short final chapter on the upcoming World Cup. Although racialist notions of African inferiority and colonial abuses are never glossed over, the enthusiasm of the indigenous people for football is always evident – it should be remembered that soccer was often at the vanguard of anti-imperialist struggle: CAF was formed six years before the Organization of African Unity and Egypt’s decorated Al Ahly club were set up in direct opposition to colonialism. Most striking of all, the formation of an FLN sponsored Algerian side in exile saw the defection to their homeland of key members of France’s 1958 World Cup squad.
The book charts football’s trajectory in Africa from the 1860s, taking in the bringing of the sport into the interior with the coming of the railways, after its early success in the great port cities; the impact of European touring sides like the Motherwell of 1931 and 1934; the importance of transcendent flag bearers such as Salif Keita, the construction of sumptuous stadia as equally impressive for the time as the recent spate of Chinese built arenas in Angola; and the continued flood of players to Europe. For every Jimmy Kébé or Youssuf Mulumbu, there are a host of eighteen years olds on the scrapheap, plying their trade in non-league football across the old continent.
The early Nations Cup success of teams such as Sudan and the 1960 winners Ethiopia, and the decline of once great club sides such as three times Nations Cup winners Hafia Conakry are probably due to the change in the playing field brought about by what Alegi terms as the privatization of football from the 1980s onwards and it’s a convincing thesis, although the continued underperformance of East African sides is still something of a puzzle.
On the forthcoming jamboree, Alegi feel that it will be a successful World Cup and although he acknowledges that this is unlikely to be the case in pure financial terms, the likely positive outcomes will be emotional ones: this faith in intangible and immeasurable gains is a refreshing antidote to the mindless instrumentalism of much social science. In all, the author has produced an important book, academic and authoritative in tone, and one that leaves the reader in no doubt of football’s importance in forging African identity and greatly enriching the global sport as a whole.