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Essays charting the geographic balance of power within African football
30 Dec 2009
Christopher Merrett

Feet of the Chameleon
Ian Hawkey
Wild Dog Press

LET’S deal with the criticism first. This isn’t “the story of African football” as the subtitle claims, but a ­series of extended, largely country-based, essays. Much of their focus is on international competition. A chapter on South Africa, misleadingly ­titled “Burial of the Springbok”, shows a dismal understanding of its football history that confuses terminology, events and eras with gay abandon. Meanwhile, the main town of QwaQwa, Phuthaditjhaba (predictably misspelt), apparently suffers from the “fierce rain of the lowveld [and] its beating sun”.

Such irritations aside, this is a readable and intriguing book that charts the changing geographic balance of power within African football. Commendably, it does not avoid blunt analysis of contentious topics. African football remains essentially colonial, its best practitioners exported to foreign leagues and its national teams run mainly by expatriates, some of dubious origin. At grass-roots level the game is generally poorly run; while the financial management of national structures is often worse. Sorcery ­remains endemic in spite of the efforts of African and international authorities to reduce the influence of “special advisers”.

Hawkey, a journalist, has unearthed some fascinating material. His account of the use made of football by the Front de Libération National (FLN), the Algerian independence movement, reads like a thriller as players secretly abandoned their French clubs. Over 30 years later, the causes and aftermath of the loss of the Zambian team in an air disaster are skilfully handled. The final chapter on the self-perceived continental ­pre-eminence of Egyptian football provides a useful slant on recent riots that followed its exit from next year’s World Cup finals.

This book is a useful introduction to the political, social and economic context of African football. And the strange title? It’s a translation from a Zulu phrase used by football commentator Zama Masondo to explain a slow-motion replay.

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