How Black Soccer Players Turned a Global Sport into a Site of Political Struggle

How Black Soccer Players Turned a Global Sport into a Site of Political Struggle

Editorial credit: A.RICARDO /

Black athletes have not only changed how the game of soccer is played; around the world, they’ve also harnessed their positions to fight for justice and political change through the sport of soccer itself. In the latest “Ask a Sports Scholar” segment, Edge of Sports host Dave Zirin speaks with Dr. Jermaine Scott about his forthcoming book Black Soccer: Football and Politics in the African Diaspora, and about the reality of teaching about race, culture, and politics at a public university in Ron DeSantis’s Florida.

Dr. Jermaine Scott teaches courses on African American and African Diaspora History and Sports History at Florida Atlantic University. He is currently working on a forthcoming book called Black Soccer: Football and Politics in the African Diaspora.

Studio Production: David Hebden
Post-Production: Taylor Hebden
Audio Post-Production: David Hebden
Opening Sequence: Cameron Granadino
Music by: Eze Jackson & Carlos Guillen


Dave Zirin:  Welcome to Edge of Sports, only on The Real News Network. I’m Dave Zirin.

It’s time to Ask a Sports Scholar, one of the most popular things we do on Edge of Sports. Today we are going to talk to Jermaine Scott, who teaches African-American and sports history at Florida Atlantic University. He’s currently working on a book called Black Soccer: Football and Politics in the African Diaspora. Let’s bring him on.

Professor Scott, thank you so much for joining us here on Edge of Sports.

Jermaine Scott:  Hey, thank you so much for the invitation. I’m really excited to be here.

Dave Zirin:  I love the background. I feel like I’m in a David Lynch movie with all that red, it’s awesome.

Jermaine Scott:  Yeah, we try to keep the colors a little fresh throughout the house, so.

Dave Zirin:  It’s very cool. Very cool.

I want to ask you so much about Black soccer, what it is, what it means, how you got into that as an area of study. But I can’t talk to somebody from Florida Atlantic University without first asking them about teaching at the university level, particularly at a public university in Florida at this day and time in 2023. What is that experience like for you?

Jermaine Scott:  That’s a fascinating question, Dave, and it’s a question that I think about often these days, obviously. It’s a lot of anxiety if I’m being completely honest. You walk into the classroom and you don’t know what a student might say. You don’t know how a student might interpret what you’re saying. So there’s a lot of anxiety about how you’re teaching and how you’re expected to relay historical facts.

And I teach African-American history, I teach African diaspora history, and sports history. And all three of those courses — I teach other courses, but the core of my courses has to do with issues of race, with inequality, with histories of colonialism and slavery. And so these are all topics that are heavily contested right now in the state of Florida.

So yeah, there’s a lot of anxiety but there’s also a lot of support within my department, other colleagues throughout the department, but also throughout the university, and throughout the university system in Florida. There seems to be a strong cohort of professors that are there for each other, and are essentially trying to build community.

Dave Zirin:  But as somebody who’s been teaching in Florida for a few years, you can tell our audience the vibe is different now than perhaps it was a few years ago.

Jermaine Scott:  Absolutely. I first got to FAU in the middle of COVID, 2020. So my first year was all virtual. The second year was okay. We started hearing things in the background. And then in the middle of my second year, third year, things started to come in really quickly.

And yeah, again, my first and second year felt pretty free. I felt able to express myself the way I wanted to in class. And I still do, but I have this haunting sensation in the back of my head. If I start to get riled up a little bit, I have to reel it back in and make sure I don’t go off the rails too much. But yeah, so I think there’s ways of navigating it, and I think I’m doing okay doing that, but you just never know. Each semester is a new group of students, and you just never know in this political climate how they’re going to receive what you’re saying.

Dave Zirin:  Absolutely. So let’s get to the fun stuff here. Black soccer, what does that mean, Black soccer? How do you define it? And I’m sure you define it more than “Black people playing soccer.”

Jermaine Scott:  And that’s exactly how I wanted to start it. When we think of ideas like Black music or the Black church — And this is how I walk through it with my class, it’s like, are we just talking about Black people playing music? Are we just talking about Black people going to church? And that’s part of it, but there’s also something more substantial about it.

And so what I’m trying to do is conceptualize this idea called Black soccer, and it’s to look at the ways in which Black footballers, Black soccer players, have used the game as a site of political articulation, have turned the game into a space to articulate their politics.

And at the root of all of these chapters, which at the time seemed very all over the place, they’re in DC, they’re in São Paulo, they’re in Amsterdam, at the root of all the chapters is an effort for these Black footballers to reimagine or renegotiate their relationship to the nation as international footballers, as footballers that are in highly nationalized politicized spaces, national narratives shape a lot of their careers or shape the political context of the game in these different spaces.

In São Paulo, for example, in the 1980s, Brazil is still under a military dictatorship, and that shapes the way in which clubs operate. While in Corinthians, in São Paulo, a club called Corinthians, about the midfielder Socrates, they had what they called a Corinthians democracy, which is where they democratize the entire club, where every player of the club, every staff member of the club, every coach had an equal vote on all the decisions of the club. This is in the context of a national narrative of the military dictatorship.

Or in the Netherlands during the 1990s, the national narrative is multiculturalism. We have all these different races, and we can all live together.

You have Black players on the Dutch national team who are of Surinamese descent. And they are asking questions about their treatment on the team, about how they are being portrayed in the media, and it starts to add wrinkles to these smooth, progressive, national narratives of cohesion.

And so in each chapter, I’m looking at how Black footballers are using the game to kind of critique — Or how I like to put it, play within and against the nation.

Dave Zirin:  Interesting to speak about it relative to the nation. We interviewed another sports scholar, Theresa Runstedtler, who wrote a book called Black Ball, and it was about the way Black people affected the very style of the game in the 1970s in a way that goes often quite uncredited.

Jermaine Scott:  Yes.

Dave Zirin:  Can we talk about that? Does that exist? Because soccer is a game of so much more structure than, say, basketball. Do you see a difference historically in how the style of the sport changed by the infusion of the Black athlete?

Jermaine Scott:  Absolutely. And we can find this most noticeably in places in Latin America, in places like Brazil, places like Colombia, even in places like Argentina — Not necessarily the integration of Black players, but the integration of the working class, the working poor in Argentina. They all had a massive effect on the style of the game.

So when the game is originated, it’s coming out of Europe, it’s coming out of England. The institutionalization of the sport happens at the end of the 19th century, and it’s a very rigid game. You have your defense, you have your midfielder, and you have your attack. And in the European game, it was a lot of running. You kick the ball and you chase the ball. It was very physical, man-to-man, pushing people out the way.

In Latin America, when it was adopted by Black players, when it was adopted by the working classes, it became a much more free sport. So here we have the focus on the individual, where the players are not necessarily interested in these long passes, but they’re interested in expressing themselves individually with the ball. That might look like what we call in Brazil, the [inaudible]. The movement of Capoeira, of the capoeiristas. We see the same movement within Brazilian football.

Peter Alegi talks about the Africanization of football, of course, in the continent of Africa, and how working class Black players, particularly in places like South Africa, adopted the game and made it their own. Not only their style of play, but also their participation, let’s say, in the stands. So how the supporters are also participating in the match is different in the ways in which the Eurocentric, European ways in which the game was created.

Dave Zirin:  Wow, this is fascinating stuff. What attracted you to this area of study?

Jermaine Scott:  So I was born in Florida, born in West Palm Beach, Florida, and I was born to Jamaican parents. And so football in Jamaica is the number one sport, probably next to cricket. But probably football is the number one sport. So I always grew up playing soccer, I always grew up playing football. I played it through high school. I didn’t play in college, but soccer was always central in the household.

And it was also the first space that I began to ask questions about race. A lot of my team, I was one of two, maybe one of three Black players on the team, and I always wondered why that was. Why aren’t there more Black players on these teams? But then I would watch the World Cup and I would see the Colombian National team, and it was all Black players. The first World Cup I remember is the 1998 World Cup, and I remember watching the Dutch National team, and it just had a number of Black players. And in my young mind, I wasn’t associating Blackness with the Netherlands. I wasn’t associating Blackness with Colombia or Venezuela or even Brazil.

And so seeing that, I had this tension. Why am I the only Black player on my team in the States but then when I look throughout the world, I see Black people playing the game all over? And so it became a space where I started to ask these questions about race, about identity. And I had the opportunity to study it as a critical practice, as a critical exercise to think about the political implications of the game. Obviously, joining this long tradition of scholarship that looks at how, of course, sports is deeply, deeply politicized.

Dave Zirin:  Interesting. So it captured you intellectually through playing and through asking questions about playing.

Jermaine Scott:  Absolutely, yeah.

Dave Zirin:  And did you know going in as an undergrad that this was something you wanted to explore? Or was it that you started to look at sports and society and then thought, hey, when I was in high school, I used to think about this stuff a lot?

Jermaine Scott:  Yeah, more the latter. I went into undergrad just doing African-American history. That was my focus. And then I actually went to grad school. Actually my first year in grad school, I was looking at a completely different topic. I was actually looking at Black labor movements in New York during the interwar period. But for some reason, sports and politics was just always at the forefront of my mind.

And I remember my cousin, actually, who’s from Trinidad, gave me Beyond a Boundary by C.L.R. James. And this is when I was in middle school. I didn’t know who C.L.R. James was. I didn’t know what Beyond a Boundary was. But I read it and it intrigued me. But again, in middle school, I didn’t really understand the significance of what I was reading. And then of course, in grad school, Beyond a Boundary is the seminal text when thinking about this relationship between sports and politics and culture and society.

Dave Zirin:  I don’t know. Not a lot of middle schoolers are given gifts that are books by Black Trotskyists. It’s very…

Jermaine Scott:  It’s fascinating. And I had no idea at the time. I’m like, okay, C.L.R James, whatever.

Dave Zirin:  That’s a special gift at that age. Much credit and love.

Jermaine Scott:  Yeah, shout out to my cousin Robbie.

Dave Zirin:  Yeah, shout out indeed. Okay.

So other than Pelé, who is completely obvious, who are the Black soccer players in your mind who truly change the game? Who should people be aware of?

Jermaine Scott:  Wow. I definitely think people that have changed the game, we definitely have to think about, of course, Pelé. There’s also a Portuguese player by the name of Eusébio who really showed his true quality in the 1966 World Cup in England. That’s a player that’s of incredible import.

But also players from the African continent. Players like Didier Drogba, who played for Chelsea, from the Ivory Coast, who changed the way we watch attacking players. Not only his strength, but his grace. He’s one of those players that finds a really special balance between power but also grace, graceful movements on the pitch. So Didier Drogba is one. Wow, there’s so many. There’s a number from Brazil: Ronaldo, Ronaldinho. And I’m saying all these players, and they all have controversial political backgrounds, but I guess that’s the nature of the work. So there’s a number of players. Wow.

Some of the players that I look at in my own work from the Netherlands, we can think of players like Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids. These are players from the 1990s that added a new dimension to the Dutch style of game. At times, they were criticized for it. At times they were criticized for playing too hard, which is kind of nuts to think about it at the time. You criticizing me for playing too hard? So there’s all these different ways. But in the Netherlands, there are a number of different players that had instrumental impacts on the game and how they shaped this instrumental style of Dutch football, which is called Total Football. And so I try to argue in the book that these players added a specific wrinkle to the game, to the style of the game.

Dave Zirin:  I’m just going to name a player and you tell me their importance. Or maybe you think, yeah, that’s not somebody I’m looking at. Does this player matter, and why do they matter? I just have two on my head, two that you just named a lot of the people that I wanted to ask you about. But let me ask you: Mario Balotelli.

Jermaine Scott:  Yeah, I love Mario Balotelli.

Dave Zirin:  He matters, though. I know you love him as a player, but he matters to your area of study? He’s part of that continuum?

Jermaine Scott:  Well, yes. I don’t talk about him specifically within the chapters but he’s definitely a part of that tradition. When thinking about critiquing particularly the media and their portrayal of him. The classic visual I have of Mario Balotelli is when he’s playing for Manchester City, he scores the goal and he lifts up his shirt and it says, why always me? Why is he always the center of these attacks? When the team is doing bad, why is it always Mario Balotelli’s fault? And so Mario Balotelli has a fascinating career. He’s also one of a few, few Black players on the Italian national team. We rarely see Black players on the Italian national team. And that added to his contentious relationship with the nation.

Dave Zirin:  Okay. Mbappé.

Jermaine Scott:  The Wonderkid, the Wonderkid.

Dave Zirin:  Does he matter to this continuum?

Jermaine Scott:  He does. He does. A lot of people praise Mbappé, of course, for his quality on the pitch, his goal scoring ability. But he also has a political side. I believe it was the 2018 World Cup where feminist protesters invaded the pitch. And he’s like, cool. He’s like, let’s take pictures. And he’s expressed his independence as a player. And as Black athletes, when you articulate your independence as a player, the media is going to lash out at you. And so he has the courage to do that as a Black footballer in Europe. And of course, his quality allows him to do the things that he’s able to do. I think his quality also protects him in a lot of ways as well.

Dave Zirin:  And last one: Marcus Rashford.

Jermaine Scott:  Marcus Rashford, just brilliant player on the pitch. His community work in England is unmatched. Again, just a top-notch player. There’s certain players that I sometimes grapple with. I think we can do this with all athletes. Sometimes there’s a desire to want more radical politics. That’s not to say he doesn’t have a radical politics. I’m not necessarily sure how radical his politics are. But from the work that he’s done within the community, it shows that he obviously sees his importance outside of the pitch. And that’s critical for Black players.

Dave Zirin:  Yeah, and his work on child hunger during COVID.

Jermaine Scott:  Absolutely.

Dave Zirin:  It’s one of the most impactful moments an athlete can have.

Jermaine Scott:  Absolutely.

Dave Zirin:  I don’t even think he realized the impact he was going to have. Forcing Boris Johnson to do a massive, massive change in terms of feeding kids during the desperate time. Incredible.

Jermaine Scott:  Absolutely, yeah. And it’s just a testament to how footballers are able to use the game or use their platform to make these kinds of national changes.

Dave Zirin:  Well, you’ve been so generous with your time, Professor Scott. Is there anything we’re missing about your area of study and work that you’d like to share with our audience?

Jermaine Scott:  No, I think we covered it. I think the main argument that I’m really trying to drive home is that soccer allows players, allows Black footballers, allows Black soccer supporters, allows Black people to renegotiate their relationship to the nation.

I’m writing in this tradition of a political theorist named Richard [inaudible] who critiques the nation state as an anti-Black formation. And so what does that mean for Black citizenship? What does that mean for Black nationality? And he tries to wrestle with that. He tries to say, well, what if it’s okay to question nationality? What if it’s okay to not have a nationality or to live in this in-between space? And I think soccer provides a good vehicle to do that.

Dave Zirin:  Definitely. Definitely. The book is called Black Soccer: Football and Politics in the African Diaspora. I cannot wait to read it. I’m sure our audience feels the same way. Professor Scott, thank you so much for joining us here on Edge of Sports.

Jermaine Scott:  Dave, thank you so much for having me. Appreciate it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.