Monday, October 15, 2007

Goal -posts of the Serengeti

The photo at left was taken in Serengeti National Park, just outside one of the park's research stations. Yes, there is a pitch there. How the hell they actually manage to play amongst all the tsetse flies is another question, but the pitch exists.

I was going to use this image as an emblem of the universal nature of football, but the more I thought about it, the less sure I became that football hasn't really just become a new form of imperialism.

The game's spread, of course, was the product of Empire, and it was imperialists and colonists who founded many of the clubs that are still great today. For example, Tanzanian giants Simba were at one point known by the name of "Dar Sunderland" because of the presence of some eager Wearsiders in Dar Es Salaam. This fact, plus the fact that the game has almost completely wiped out indigenous games and sports in the continent, is one reason some people level the charge of the imperialism, at the game, but that's not the point I want to make

Others level a more 1970s "dependency theory" version of the imperialism charge at the game - citing "leg drain" from the periphery to the centre as the reason why football is the new imperialism (see this earlier post for details). I'm definitely not making this argument because it is fundamentally an argument used to restrict the free movement of labour, which I am not in the least in favour of.

There is a real imperialism, here, but it lies in the export of eyes, not legs. People watching foreign games on satellite TV.

As I noted in my previous post, Tanzanians are obsessed by the Premiership, absolutely obsessed. And yet, they actually have their own functioning league which has been existence for over 40 years. Attendances have been declining for the past few years, a development which many people associate with the arrival via satellite television (which comes, incidentally, from South Africa - one of the most amazing things about the end of apartheid is extent to which primarily white South Africans now have a grip on the continent's mass culture and real estate markets). To use a term from Eric Hobsbawm's recent thesis on football , they have been caught up in the imperialism of a few capitalist enterprises such as Manchester and Arsenal.

Note: hat-tip to Tom for pointing out the Hobsbawm article

Now, there's nothing wrong with watching foreign football. And in watching the Premiership and La Liga, the entire world gets to watch much better quality football as a result of satellite TV and Hobsbawm's imperialist clubs. That's a good thing. Moreover, I would argue that the passions and rivalries of these few imperialist clubs actually constitute one of the few genuinely global conversations in the world today. The fact that I can have knowledgeable conversations about Arsenal and its youth policies with people in the middle of the Serengeti is phenomenal. People around the world choose clubs based on their playing styles and then follow tem year-round. It's even better than the World Cup, because unlike the WC, there are none of those disturbing animal tribalisms being aroused.

That's the up-side. The down-side is that in some countries, domestic leagues seem to be faltering because people prefer to stay home and watch the Premiership than watch the local teams which are simply of inferior quality. And let's be clear - they aren't inferior because of "leg drain" (to my knowledge there are no Tanzanian players playing anywhere in Europe) they're just inferior, period.

As I said, there's nothing inherently wrong with watching foreign football teams. Lord knows in Canada, we've all had to do it for years since we never had teams worth watching. But letting established domestic football fail because the population is hooked on watching global super-teams based in former colonial metropoles?

That, friends, is bringing us back very close to imperialism. It's not without its benefits, of course but it can make one feel a little queasy.

4 Comments:

Anonymous ursus arctos said...

Typically interesting post and proof that you have returned in good form.

A few observations:

I'm not convinced that the game spread because of Empire; there are too many counter-examples of genuine Imperial outposts in which it was very late taking root. You live in one; India is another; and the Antipodes are a third. Indeed, while there is a clear relationship between Empire and the spread of cricket and rugby, I would argue that football's spread was much more mercantile than imperial; the most successful "football evangilists" weren't colonial functionaries; they were sailors, railway workers, mercantile clerks and and the like, who loved the game for what it was, not what it was alleged to represent in terms of "muscular Christianity" or character building. Similarly, the game's success lay in it being rapidly adopted (and adapted) by the locals, largely for the very simple reason that it is breathtakingly simple in concept (yet capable of infinite variation), cheap, and (most of all) fun.

Now to the phenomenon you describe. Is it that different from what has happened to film in much of the world, with Hollywood (and Hollywood-like) productions dominating screens? And is there an aspirational element of wanting to be associated with a winner, not only the local level, but on the global one? An element not unlike one of the principal underlying causes of the phenomenon that sees more than 2/3rds of Italians identify themselves as supporters of one of only three teams?

I don't know (and am not sure I could design an experiment to find out), but my sense is that both of those phenomenon are somehow related to what you saw in the Serengeti.

But I'm not even close to putting all of the pieces together (as you can tell from the rambling nature of this comment).

12:22 PM  
Blogger Antonio G said...

Urs, I'd say that globally, your point on mercantile vs, empire is correct. In sub-saharan Africa, though, I think the way I formulated it is still right (partly because empire and trade were much more closely linked there). I should have been more specific.

The Hollywood analogy is interesting. I'd have to think about that some more. My gut is that it is not quite the same because Hollywood was moving in on virgin territory in Africa, which the Premiership, via satellite, wasn't.

And yes, you're right, it's an aspirational thing. But whereas twenty years ago many in Tanzania would have gone aspirational by supporting either Simba or Yanga in addition to a local team (in much the way that all Greeks support either Olympiakos or Pana), now they also support a Premiership team, too. Often at the expense of much interest in local football, which is a shame because it weakens local sporting culture, which desperately needs money and support to survive.

3:50 PM  
Anonymous ursus arctos said...

I would posit that "Hollywood" films displaced other indigenous forms of entertainment, even if those were not cinematic. And in much of Europe, they have had a very serious impact on domestic film industries that were quite vigorous into (at least) the 60s.

Another aspect of this that occurred to me early this afternoon (after noting that the pre-game show for the Merseyside derby began before noon) is that it is increasingly difficult for "lesser" leagues to avoid the likes of the Premiership, even if they tried.

The closest C1 club to Milan has long been Pro Sesto of Sesto San Giovanni, the industrial suburb (mostly metal-bashing, especially steel, the vast majority of which has now been abandoned) just north of the city limits that has long been one of the true strongholds of the Italian Communist Party. Given that one of Inter or Milan are always at home, Pro Sesto is alone is C1 in playing its home matches on Saturday afternoon or Friday night (instead of Sunday at 15h00 like the rest of the league), and gets decent crowds as a result. Even though we are season ticket holders at Inter, we will always go to at least one Pro Sesto match a year.

If the Premiership was still playing all of its matches on Saturday afternoons, it would be possible for the likes of the Tanzanian league to take a similar approach, but a (surely inadvertent) effect of Sky's desire to spread the "match day" over a 72 hour period is that it is increasingly difficult to find any reasonable time slot when televised football will not be in competition with the real thing.

Globalisation can be a bitch, can't it?

9:12 AM  
Blogger Cesar said...

The Empire was a necessary condition for the spreading of football throughout the world, but not a sufficient condition. The sufficient condition is: everybody loves it (except, maybe, north-americans) - from Europe to the Serengeti, from Brazil to Macao, from Israel to the indigenous peoples of Amazonia. There are some qualities inherent to the game that makes it spread.
Best regards.

3:16 PM  

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