Breaking Boundaries: Football and Colonialism in the British Empire

By Patrick M. Hutchison
2009, Vol. 1 No. 11 | pg. 1/2 |

In less than one year, South Africa will be the proud host of the 2010 World Cup. To many, this privilege is a mere formality of the Cup. Indeed, hosting the World Cup is an honor, but for South Africa it symbolizes a far more complex idea. A history of apartheid and colonial struggle make South Africa's right to host the Cup a representation of a new period of the country's history. It marks a further departure from the oppressive history that is so often attributed to South Africa.

Yet, the World Cup is no coincidental representation of a more independent nation. For many former British colonies sport has a history of serving the colonized people in resisting British rule. Often it was used by the colonizers to foster a sense of discipline and hard work, but mostly it was meant to help control. However, this control was often flipped on its head and used against the colonizer.

Sport in the British Empire served as a unifying force, often imbibing nationalist rhetoric, with matches serving as focused representations of the climate of social and political struggle. Football was the most popular sport in the empire and it often unified the colonized across economic and social classes. Once adopted, football matches would be opportunities for indigenous people to resist.

South Africa Fans Celebration at Soccer City

South Africa fans celebrate at Soccer City during the 2010 World Cup. Photo: Celso FLORES CC-2

In Zanzibar the constant bias of foreign referees found native teams boycotting matches. Indian teams in Calcutta resisted by combining football with indigenous culture, playing barefoot, which gave their victories all the more impressive and all the more punishing to the colonizing counterparts. South African football allowed native teams to directly reject British attempts to control matches and leagues.

Finally, in post colonial Egypt, football was a way to shed the stereotypes associated with being a colonized nation, giving them credit as a modern nation. These examples show how sport and specifically football in the British Empire served as a vehicle through which colonized people could resist in a number of ways.

Laura Fair's article “Kickin' It: Leisure, Politics and Football in Colonial Zanzibar, 1900s-1950s” highlights the progression of control struggles between Zanzibar footballers and their British colonizers. Fair establishes that the British had difficulty in maintaining control over the neighborhood teams and leagues, and more importantly, difficulty in controlling what football meant to those who participated.

“Although the British wrote and administered the rules of play, they exercised very little influence over how teams were organised in the neighbourhoods or the meanings which men attributed to the game within their own lives.”1

She also establishes the role of dance in providing a foundation for sport to take hold in dissolving social distinctions: “Dance groups also provided individuals from poor and socially marginal backgrounds with avenues for achieving status, titles and positions of authority as well as ritualised atmosphere in which they could challenge superiors.”2

Alegi continues to describe how British attempts to control were constantly met with increasing senses of unity. “By strengthening the unity of people within their neighbourhoods, the clubs also served to enhance the foundation from which African nationalist challenges were mounted in the coming decade.”3 These nationalist challenges came through in football through boycotting matches based on biased referees. “Teams also voiced their opposition to particular referees by boycotting matches to which offending referees had been assigned.”4

Ultimately it was the matches themselves, between colonizer and colonized which Fair associates with struggles for independence. “The matches which were fought between key contenders for political power seemed to provide temporary relief from growing ethnic tensions and a more immediate resolution of the long-term struggle for national independence.”5

Peter Alegi makes similar conclusions about football's ability to provide relief from social and political struggles yet he provides more detail on which struggles the colonized, specifically South Africans faced. Alegi continues with illustrating how football united those Africans that were targeted by discriminatory laws and allowed them vehicles to defy not only elite ruling class Africans but their white colonizers illustrating “The game's powerful ability to shape common social bonds in a society deeply divided along racial, class, linguistic, gender, and regional lines.”6

Unification across class lines is the central part of Boria Majumdar's article on football in India. Majumdar focuses on the beginnings of the sport in which Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikary becomes a national figure as the 'father of Indian soccer' and ultimately promoting a system which allowed movement between castes in a society that was sharply divided along social lines.

Taking a different point of view, Kausik Bandyopadhyay centers on the 1911 IFA Shield match in India as a case study of how football came to function as a form of resistance against colonial control. His article, “1911 in Retrospect: A Revisionist Perspective on a Famous Indian Sporting Victory” argues that Mohun Bagan's victory united Indians across the country when it defeated a European team in the championship. “Football began to be identified with something very akin to fighting the colonial masters.”7

Finally, an article by Shaun Lopez, a stunningly handsome professor at the University of Washington, shows how resistance through football manifests itself in postcolonial Egypt. “Football as National Allegory: Al-Ahram and the Olympics in 1920s Egypt” is strikingly different from the other articles which are full of evidence of how football unified communities and became a way to instill indigenous culture into a new form of resistance. Lopez seems to suggest that football in Egypt, particularly in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, was an effort to break out of the colonized mold and become a modern nation by citing the writing of a major newspapers sports page.

This argument shows an interesting contrast to the other articles. Instead of using football to beat the colonizer to create their own identity Egypt seems to want to win in an effort to prove its similarity, to become the colonizer. “For Egyptian nationalists, Egypt's intrinsic worthiness for modern nationhood was often cast in relation to both the West and also to other colonized locales, and football competitions thus provided an internationally recognized cultural arena for the performance and evaluation of postcolonial modernity.”8

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