ANTHONY BUTLER: Schadenfreude walks fine line next to love of coloniser’s footie
Is it morally acceptable to be an Arsenal fan? This question is widely contemplated even in England, the country in which the club is nominally situated. One typical joke concerns what one should call an Arsenal fan who has done well on an intelligence test. The answer: a cheat.
If Arsenal is not a popular club in London, how can it be legitimate for it to have numerous supporters in one of Britain’s distant, former colonial possessions?
A weekend listener to radio stations in SA might conclude that only soccer played in the English Premier League is real; local football games are a flickering shadow of the original. Little wonder then that the definition of success for a local footballer is to play for a European team, or that Bafana Bafana are so often held in low esteem.
Is this a problem that the disciples of decoloniality* in our universities can solve? After all, almost all South African sport exemplifies the unaddressed legacies of colonialism, racism and black dispossession. As in other colonial societies, settlers ridiculed “indigenous pursuits”, and these were increasingly confined to rural areas.
English-speaking settlers brought with them the major team sports of the colonial middle classes: rugby and cricket. They also introduced a codified version of the beautiful game.
It would be both fascinating and valuable to recover the history of African recreational traditions to understand how they were linked to the organisation and flourishing of precolonial societies. But to resuscitate such traditions, and to ban those that displaced them, is surely as undesirable as it is impossible.
Cricket and Christianity may be aspects of colonial domination, but they may also embody truth and beauty. (Cricket, anyway.) And they can be turned against those who introduced them: soccer’s offside rule may be a western import, but so too is Karl Marx’s theory of history.
To crush the colonial powers at their own game — as Australians, Indians, Brazilians and Afrikaners have all discovered — can be deeply satisfying. If only such rewards had been available across the previous century to the men in Xhosa and coloured societies who also embraced rugby.
Football associations were thriving by the early 20th century. But the black leagues were starved of resources, and the game was remorselessly segregated. Race laws meant SA had to send either all-white or all-black teams to international events, a restriction the Confederation of African Football rejected on principle — perhaps its first — in 1957. By 1976, segregation had resulted in SA’s expulsion from Fifa.
After 1994, institutional and economic barriers remained in place. Soccer in SA is starved of financial and political resources because it lacks both the deep-seated popular enthusiasm that buoys the sport elsewhere, and the real engagement of knowledgeable supporters.
Wealthy Arsenal fans here complain that South African football is just not clean and that this is why they have abandoned it. But many Premier League clubs are the money-laundering investments of Russian oligarchs. Arsenal’s biggest shareholder is Stan Kroenke, a dubious multibillionaire who hails from a land where there is no real football.
We do not have many choices when it comes to identity. Inadvertently, “I am an Arsenal fan” may mean that what happens there matters more to you than what happens here. And, if you can’t tear yourself free from the allegedly mesmerising attractions of the colonial heartland, at least show some respect and judgment: support Crystal Palace instead.
- Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.
*Decoloniality was wrongly changed to decolonisation in the newspaper version.