Domingos on Cleveland, 'Following the Ball: The Migration of African Soccer Players across the Portuguese Colonial Empire, 1949-1975'

Todd Cleveland. Following the Ball: The Migration of African Soccer Players across the Portuguese Colonial Empire, 1949-1975. Ohio RIS Global Series. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2017. Illustrations. 280 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-89680-313-8; $32.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-89680-314-5.

Reviewed by Nuno Domingos (Instituto de Ciências Sociais, Universidade de Lisboa)
Published on H-Luso-Africa (April, 2019)
Commissioned by Philip J. Havik (Instituto de Higiene e Medicina Tropical (IHMT))

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In this study on the labor trajectories of Mozambican soccer players, Todd Cleveland pursues his research on the question of labor in the Portuguese colonial context, following his earlier work on diamond prospecting in the north of Angola (Diamonds in the Rough: Corporate Paternalism and African Professionalism on the Mines of Colonial Angola, 1917-1975 [2015]).

Following the Ball: The Migration of African Soccer Players across the Portuguese Colonial Empire, 1949-1975 is composed of five chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion. In the first chapter (“Foundations: The Introduction and Consumption of Soccer in Lusophone Africa”), Cleveland examines the expansion of sports practices and consumption in the Portuguese African colonies, especially in urban areas. The research on sport in the Portuguese colonial empire has had important developments in the last two decades.[1] From being an almost completely unknown topic, it has become fairly grounded in a specific bibliography that Cleveland uses in this book.

Cleveland characterizes the social contexts from which the main African players emerged, namely, in Angola and especially in Mozambique, and highlights the role the African populations had in the game’s dissemination, as well as the importance of the media throughout this process. The choice of a career as a soccer player was considered in view of other job opportunities and the desire of some families to have their children get a proper school education. Early on, young Africans had access to information on international and metropolitan soccer competitions, which they received through the media. It was after touring the colonies that the metropolitan clubs acknowledged the quality of African players. Studying the desires, expectations, and preferences of these individuals leads Cleveland to criticize theories that address these labor migrations only from the exploitative domain of the employer, while marginalizing the role played by the players themselves.

In the second chapter (“Engaging with the Game: African Practitioners in the Colonies”), Cleveland approaches his object of study, the African soccer players who have appropriated this modern game. In the urban peripheries, soccer had become not only a fundamental element of practice but also an organized spectacle, after the creation of clubs and competitions. In many Portuguese colonial contexts, the deeply segmented social structure had given rise to racially separate competitions. Some players, however, were able to start a mobility course and joined clubs formerly composed only of European players, the essential step before traveling to the metropole. In this chapter, Cleveland seeks to analyze the players’ itineraries, from the early informal games played in the neighborhoods’ empty spaces, where local styles of soccer were born, to their integration into clubs and organized competitions.

In the third chapter (“Following the Ball, Realizing a Goal: From the Colonies to the Metropole”), the author assesses the conditions in which these soccer players sought to fulfill their desire to pursue a professional career in the main metropolitan clubs. As not all African players could start this journey, the strategies that were the most successful were underlined and the starting conditions elucidated. While some African players came from poorer backgrounds, even those could be differentiated from others as having some kind of statutory capital, as in most cases they were mestiços and assimilados with some level of school education. Reasons for the journey were varied: economic need, a desire for a professional career, interest in playing the game, and for some the possibility of continuing their studies. Cleveland also looks at the professional relationships established between these players and the clubs that coveted and hired them during the transition period from Africa to Europe. Not all of these workers had the same migratory experience: some did not leave, others feared the adventure but eventually left, while others still struggled with the adaptation, facing the challenges linked to the new professional environment, but also to life in the metropole. In this chapter the author furthermore interprets how the political context of the post-Second World War, which forced the Portuguese regime to introduce a set of adaptations to its colonial policy under the banner of Luso-tropicalism, favored this migratory transit.

In chapter 4 (“Successes, Setbacks, and Strategies: Football and Life in the Metropole”), the reader is taken to the metropole, while following the adaptation of these soccer players to the professional life in the clubs, but also to the cities in which they settled. This dynamic includes the analysis of the more personal dimensions of life: how they found a home, how they built a family, and how they created networks of friendship and leisure. With regard to the professional context, African players had to deal with the Portuguese soccer labor structure, which clearly favored the clubs’ leadership to the detriment of workers, an exploitative situation that some of these individuals referred to in interviews with the author. Soccer clubs had a decisive power over players’ lives (expressed through the famous and infamous “cartas de desobrigação,” the documents that allowed club transfers). In Portugal, professionalism in soccer was only officially accepted in 1960 and even after that, the labor autonomy of players was scarce. In metropolitan clubs, African players faced a greater demand: training was harder and they had to prove they had strict control over their daily lives. Longing for their homelands was transversal to their metropolitan experience.

One of the central themes of this chapter is the racism felt by these players in the metropole. The subject is quite sensitive, especially since most former players denied the existence of racism or considered only the persistence of subtle ways of discrimination. Cleveland seeks to understand the complexities of this relationship in the metropole, about which little is yet known for this period, leaving more questions than answers. To what extent can the richness of these labor itineraries provide a general picture of race relations in these Portuguese contexts, including the metropole? Cleveland wisely avoids any kind of generalization. The singularity inherent to a labor market that has the ability to produce popular heroes differentiates these men from other colonial workers and has an evident effect over discourses and memories. The soccer market was different from other labor markets where most of the Africans struggled in the colonial societies ruled by the Portuguese. In most of the colonial labor markets, which were filtered by racial and social processes of selection, and where education and training became increasingly important, Africans almost never reached the highest labor ranks and migration to the metropole was not an option. This was rather obvious both in the public administration and in the private sector. Sport and other occupations usually related with new forms of urban popular culture were in many ways exceptions.

Finally, the fifth and final chapter (“Calculated Conciliation: Apoliticism in a Politically Charged Context”) deals with the relationship between the professional paths of these workers, as professionals of a very popular activity and the political regime of the Estado Novo. Cleveland tries to interpret a variety of routes and positions, from the most aligned with Portuguese power to those that fought the Portuguese colonial power, as was the case of Daniel Chipenda, the well-known commander of the Liberation Front of Mozambique (Frelimo). “Apoliticism” was the most common strategy pursued by these players to deal with the political situation, despite attempts at co-optation on both sides of the conflict. This does not mean that many did not have an opinion about what was happening in Africa. They commonly discussed the political situation with their companions in metropolitan urban environments, which became important spaces of political awareness. In this book, soccer players are conveniently portrayed as workers who are faced with a labor market conditioned by numerous obstacles. The representation of these men as workers avoids the narrow strategy of taking them as “political actors,” more or less organized, supposedly more worried with the direct political struggle than with their material survival.

While following the labor trajectories of Mozambican soccer players, Cleveland narrates the transition between two different contexts within the frontiers of a colonial empire: the Portuguese African colonies and the imperial metropole. Not only do readers follow the journeys of these men, but through the analysis of this movement, they also become aware of the historical conditions that characterized the places of departure and arrival. Approaching the history of Portuguese colonial Africa in the twentieth century through the professional lives, mobility, and itineraries of a group of soccer players generates a productive laboratory and allows the author to interpret how African workers in colonial territories related with the evolving societies by creating their own professional labor strategies. This research also gives us details to question the current interpretation of race relations within the African Portuguese Empire during the twentieth century.

The inclusion of the debate on the role of African intermediaries in colonial contexts is one of the strategies that allows Cleveland to escape the usual dualism that reduces the origin of African agency either to a formal or informal political resistance or a collaborationist stance toward the colonial regimes. In addition, Cleveland clearly shows how the colonial field was a space of modern socialization for these soccer workers that helped them adapt to metropolitan societies. Finally, while centering his discussion on the strategies and experiences of a group of soccer players, the author avoids the common pitfalls of academic works that are so concerned with the structures of domination that they end up eliminating from their account all the human faculties inherent to the ways in which individuals deal with the obstacles created by those same structures.

The work of Cleveland leaves an open set of research paths to be followed. In the first chapters, where Cleveland tries to unveil the players’ starting conditions, little is said about other colonial settings than Angola and Mozambique, and even in the biggest colonies the author mostly focuses on the big cities. This selection is obviously related to the fact that the secondary bibliography on the development of sport in those settings is insufficient, despite the effort made by different researchers to cover the situation of sports in the Portuguese colonial world.

Another relevant subject that still deserves further research is how the Portuguese state used these players’ successful careers for political propaganda. Throughout the text it is correctly demonstrated that the Portuguese state conditioned the professional lives of these players. From the outset, the actual structure of the colonial system created significant barriers to these players. Only in 1949 did the state allow transfers to metropolitan Portugal. Nonetheless, the Portuguese state continued to exert direct power over these men’s careers. The case of Eusébio is just the better-known situation where the labor mobility from Lisbon to an important foreign club was supposedly blocked not only by the state infrastructure but also by the personal will of António de Oliveira Salazar, the Portuguese fascist dictator, who considered Eusébio a national asset. Various players talked about this kind of political interference that stopped them from pursuing better lives in major European soccer leagues. Journalists and scholars have repeatedly disseminated this version of events.

However, aside from the voices of some players, we still lack any kind of source that confirms this interference, mainly the existence of a direct intervention from Salazar. Without rejecting the initial thesis, I would say that a lot of people benefit from this version and most of all the actual soccer clubs, which were able to maintain their best players. Salazar was a good scapegoat to an array of agents who benefited from the presence of the best soccer players in Portugal, from the club boards, to soccer agents, from journalists to advertisers. We still know little about the links between soccer clubs, both in the colonies and the metropole, and the Estado Novo, despite some recent relevant contributions.[2] We still lack a strong collection of sources that could unequivocally describe the relationship between the clubs, the state, the players, and other agents in the field.


[1]. Augusto Nascimento, Desporto em vez de política no São Tomé e Príncipe colonial (Rio de Janeiro: 7 Letras, 2013); Augusto Nascimento, Marcelo Bittencourt, Nuno Domingos, and Victor Andrade de Melo, eds., Esporte e lazer na África: Novos Olhares (Rio de Janeiro: 7 Letras, 2013); Augusto Nascimento, Marcelo Bittencourt, and Victor Andrade de Melo, eds., Mais do um Jogo: O esporte e o continente africano (Rio de Janeiro: Apicuri, 2010); James Mills, “Colonialism, Christians and Sport: The Catholic Church and Football in Goa, 1883-1951,” Football Studies 5, no. 2 (2002): 11-26; James Mills, “Football in Goa: Sport, Politics and the Portuguese in India,” Soccer and Society 2, no. 2 (2001): 75-88;  Marcos Cardão, “Um significante instrumental: Eusébio e a banalização lusotropicalismo na década de 1960,” in Esporte, Cultura, Nação, Estado: Brasil e Portugal, ed. Victor Andrade Melo, Fabio de Farias Peres, and Maurício Drumond (Rio de Janeiro: 7 Letras, 2014), 172-88; Nuno Domingos, Football and Colonialism: Body and Popular Culture in Urban Lourenço Marques (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2017); Victor Andrade Melo, Jogos de identidade: O desporte em Cabo Verde (Rio de Janeiro: Apicuri, 2011); and Victor Andrade Melo, A Nação em Jogo: Esporte e Guerra Colonial na Guiné Portuguesa 1961-1974 (Rio de Janeiro: PPGHC/UFRJ, 2015).

[2]. See, for example, Rahul Kumar, A pureza perdida do desporto: Futebol no Estado Novo (Lisbon: Paquiderme, 2017).

Citation: Nuno Domingos. Review of Cleveland, Todd, Following the Ball: The Migration of African Soccer Players across the Portuguese Colonial Empire, 1949-1975. H-Luso-Africa, H-Net Reviews. April, 2019.

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