Author Peter Alegi with a youth team in Khayelitsha, South Africa.
Photo courtesy of Peter Alegi

Q&A: Peter Alegi, America’s expert on African soccer

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Peter Alegi, a professor of African history at Michigan State University, opens speaking engagements by giving voice to what everyone in the room is thinking:

“Who is this white guy from the States talking about South African soccer?”

It’s a good question. And Alegi has an answer. In fact, he has more than one. He has a whole book that answers the question. His recently published book, African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World’s Game, dissects soccer on the African continent, its impact on the sport globally and the sport’s impact on Africa. He is also a regular contributor to the blog’s Anders Kelto spoke with Alegi in South Africa. You’re a self-described “bi-cultural animal.” Where did you grow up?

Alegi: I was born and grew up in Rome, Italy. My dad is American and my mom is Italian. When did you come to the US?

Alegi: I moved to New Haven, Conn., when I was 15. I was only supposed to stay for a year, but when I walked onto the school’s lush, green, grassy soccer pitch, I was in heaven. It’s not until you get to the upper echelons of Italian soccer that you get to play regularly on grass, so being able to play on grass was part of the reason I stayed. How did you get interested in South African soccer?

Alegi: In New Haven in the 1980s, Yale students were very interested in the divestment campaign in South Africa. They had built shacks on the Yale campus [to raise awareness of the living conditions of black South Africans under apartheid], and I lived nearby, so I got a political education from many of these students. The anti-apartheid struggle was something I supported, very superficially at first. Then when I went to college at Trinity in Hartford, I took my political interest and began to study African history, culture and politics. And all that time I was still playing soccer. When did you first go to South Africa?

Alegi: January 1993. I came as a volunteer with Sports Coaches Outreach (SCORE), working during the day as a physical education instructor at a primary school, and then in the afternoon I ran an afternoon sports program, where soccer was by far the most popular sport. I coached an under-12 soccer team in an area with no amenities whatsoever—no cinemas, no paved roads, no proper soccer fields, no libraries, nothing. Your first book, Laduma!, is a history of South African soccer. What inspired you to write it?

Alegi: The seed was planted one afternoon in Khayelitsha [a township on the outskirts of Cape Town] while I was coaching. It suddenly occurred to me that all these people were watching this seemingly meaningless youth soccer match, and they were completely enthralled. This was their entertainment for the day.

So I went to the local library to do some preliminary research on the history of soccer in South Africa, and discovered that there was no scholarly history of the game whatsoever. To me, this was both a cultural crime, and a call to do something about it. Seven years later, I finished my graduate dissertation at Boston University, and that work eventually became Laduma!. African Soccerscapes talks about how Africa changed—and was changed bythe game. What were your goals with this book?

Alegi: By 2007, a number of scholarly papers had been written about the history of the game in other African countries: Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. So I was able to compare those histories with what I had learned about South Africa, without having to do all the personal investigation myself.

When South Africa was given the World Cup in 2004, Ohio University Press invited me to write a book that told the history of South African soccer, in the larger context of soccer on the African continent. That book became African Soccerscapes. What are your impressions of the 2010 World Cup so far?

Alegi: The patriotic spirit and enthusiasm of ordinary people here in South Africa is amazing. I’m talking people from all walks of life: black and white, rich and poor, men, women and children—the spirit is tangible. You can see it in the flags flying from windows and cars, in the fan parks, and just by talking to people.

South Africa is still a divided society, but football is proving once again that there are things we can point to that express commonalities between people. And that’s an important thing to remember, particularly in South Africa, where the country faces a future with many, many challenges.

The cost of the tournament is very much on people’s minds, but for the most part, I think people are very excited about this carnival of football, and they’re enjoying every minute of it. How are you connected to soccer in the US now?

Alegi: Through my daughters, who play in youth leagues in Michigan, through an intramural team at Michigan State, and through my over-30 men’s league team. We have a Palestinian sweeper, a Polish defender, a German defender, a Spanish forward, a Sudanese forward and a few American and Mexican players as well. We’re like the UN on the field! And they still have room for an Italian striker?

Alegi: Actually, they force me to play midfield, so I’ve had to learn how to defend. The last couple of years, I think I’ve won a couple of tackles over the course of 50 or 60 games. Last question: Italy meets the US in the World Cup finals. Who do you cheer for?

Alegi [laughing]: I cheer for Italy. It’s like that old saying: You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. I was born and raised in Italy, so I feel most connected to the Italians.

But I’m also quite proud of what American soccer has achieved over the last 20 years, and when the US was playing England, I was backing the US 110 percent.