Everton’s Ademola Lookman battles for the ball with Joash Onyango of Gor Mahia during the SportPesa Trophy match in November 2018
Everton’s Ademola Lookman battles for the ball with Joash Onyango of Gor Mahia during the SportPesa Trophy match in November 2018 (Getty Images)

One of the most interesting sociological phenomena to occur at the 2018 FIFA men’s World Cup was the diverse, multi-ethnic and migrant composition of many playing squads. Teams representing former colonizers (e.g., France and Belgium), settler-colonial nations (e.g., Australia), and former colonized territories (e.g., Algeria), all illustrated how histories and legacies of empire continue to shape patterns of citizenship, belonging, and representation in the (post)colonial sporting landscape.

When documenting these soccer trends, media and academic analyses frequently rely on the nation-state as the empirical unit of analysis and interpretive frame. This can obscure social, cultural, and political entanglements that occur on other spatial scales. In contrast, what can we learn about the current configurations of sport and (post)empire – that is, the echoes of colonialism that continue today – if we think about particular sporting localities and institutions as well as nations?

Such questions comprise the focus of my research on the present localized and spatialized associations of soccer, race, migration, and the British Empire. When an opportunity recently arose to examine these issues by way of a noteworthy sporting event, I endeavored to simply “follow the ball”. In other words, I employed what C. Wright Mills termed a “sociological imagination”, using my personal experience to uncover and connect the wider social issues and contexts to which this occasion related.

Following the ball: Everton versus Gor Mahia

In this season’s schedule for the professional men’s soccer team I support – Everton FC of the English Premier League – one fixture was especially intriguing: a friendly match (organized by East African sports betting platform, SportPesa) against Gor Mahia FC, the most successful club in Kenya. Having played each other in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania the previous year, this game was held at Goodison Park, Everton’s home stadium, in Liverpool. The visitors from Nairobi were making history as the first African club to play an EPL team in England. As a spectator at the match, on 6 November 2018, I reflected on how this milestone related, sociologically, to wider soccer and social trajectories – past and present – between Africa, Britain, this city, and my club.

Gor Mahia followed a path already trodden by African players. In 1949, eleven years before gaining independence from the British Empire, a Nigerian “national” team visited Liverpool and other English towns. They held their own against amateur opposition despite most of their team playing in bare feet. Fifty years earlier, at the end of the nineteenth century, a team toured Britain from what is present-day Lesotho; and in the years immediately succeeding the Nigerians’ visit, teams followed from the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and Uganda. It was not until 1991 that Cameroon became the first African nation to play England in a full international at Wembley Stadium.

The contemporary presence of African soccer players in Britain urges consideration of how transnational migration can challenge – but also reinforce – the institutional whiteness of domestic sporting structures and cultures. At Everton (and elsewhere), migrant African stars have arguably been as important as British-born players of color in engendering more positive and inclusive attitudes and practices around race; although, sadly, racial and cultural stereotypes have persisted among some fans. Notably slower than most other teams to routinely pick multi-racial teams – with only a handful of cameo appearances from players of Black and Chinese British backgrounds for most of the twentieth century – Everton recruited its first African player, the Nigerian Daniel Amokachi, in 1994. Since then, the club has made signings from Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, DR Congo, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and South Africa, together with several European-born players of African heritage. Yet, despite the success of myriad brilliant African players in the EPL, the relationship between African soccer and Western European teams more broadly is not without problems. Elite clubs have been criticized for profiteering from African players through exploitative talent identification and recruitment practices – what Colin King describes as the ‘features of slavery [that] have led to the underdevelopment of African [soccer]’.

Beyond the field

Studying sport sociologically requires that we look beyond its own cultures and institutions, and sometimes think outside of the current time period. By doing so, we uncover perhaps the most significant contextual dimension of this match: its staging in Liverpool.

‘The African-centered scholar can learn from the history of Black settlement in Liverpool’, writes Mark Christian, an academic authority on Black Liverpool cultures. This community differs from other long-established Black populations in Britain, as it was comprised initially and primarily by West African rather than Caribbean settlers. During the twentieth century Liverpool-born Blacks endured what Christian describes as a ‘catalogue of horrific racism’, including: anti-Black riots; oppressive state institutions; and pathological representations in media, political and even some academic discourses. The antecedents of these occurrences reside firmly in Britain’s imperial history, during which time Liverpool was, states Jacqueline Nassy Brown, ‘a seaport of incalculable national and global significance’ in the horrifying forced deportation and trade of millions of Africans as chattel slaves. Christian concludes that ‘[Liverpool’s] deep-rooted links with the slave trade make it an obvious candidate for the analysis of globalized and historical racist practices toward peoples of African descent (in all their various hues and characteristics)’.

Exclusion from the city’s principal sporting institutions and spaces has also characterized the historic Black Liverpool experience. The many Kenyan supporters at the Everton versus Gor Mahia match – women and men, drumming, singing, and blowing vuvuzelas – along with some young local residents of color highlighted a degree of progress from a time when the stadium and neighborhood (including the nearby ground of rivals, Liverpool FC) were regarded as dangerous “no go” areas for much of Liverpool’s Black population. But it underscored as well how little ethnic diversity is found across all British soccer stadiums in regular fixtures.

Linking up the play

Dominant political and popular discourses purport that we live in post-racial times and that empire is consigned to the past. In such a context, the role of critical sociology is especially important—to counter such claims, by exposing the racialized nature of contemporary sport and society. Following Ann Laura Stoler, this is not a matter of claiming that every current racial issue in sport has a direct and explicit link to colonial periods and practices; but rather of identifying and illustrating when and where local and global inequalities and trajectories in sport do have discernible connections to historical (and contemporary) racialized power structures.

Everton’s 4-0 defeat of Gor Mahia will probably be soon forgotten in the annals of British soccer history, although its significance for the pioneering visitors may be considerably greater. By their very nature, sporting events are fleeting; nevertheless, that should not obscure their capacity to make us pause, think, contextualize, and, not least, remember. Follow the ball…and see where it rolls.

Daniel Burdsey is a Reader in the Centre for Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics at the University of Brighton, UK; and an Associate Professor (status only) at the University of Toronto, Canada. His research currently addresses connections between (post)empire, racialized identities, decolonial thinking and anti-racist resistance in British soccer. He is a lifelong Everton supporter and a season-ticket holder at Goodison Park.

University of Brighton Sport and Leisure Cultures research group twitter: @sport_research