Highly original, meticulously researched, profoundly empathetic

Peter Alegi
Michigan State University

Carl-Gustaf Scott African Footballers in Sweden: Race, Immigration, and Integration in the Age of Globalization 292 pages, h/c. Basingstoke, Hamps.: Palgrave Macmillan 2015 ISBN 978-1-137-54207-6
Carl-Gustaf Scott
African Footballers in Sweden: Race, Immigration, and Integration in the Age of Globalization
292 pages, hardcover.
Basingstoke, Hamps.: Palgrave Macmillan 2015
ISBN 978-1-137-54207-6

It is difficult to think of issues more pressing in contemporary Europe than race, immigration, and citizenship.  So the publication of a scholarly book on these multifaceted phenomena in a Scandinavian sporting context is both timely and important. Based on an extensive set of primary and secondary sources, historian Carl-Gustaf Scott’s African Footballers in Sweden: Race, Immigration, and Integration in the Age of Globalization unearths substantial empirical evidence from Swedish print and electronic news media, government documents, and several oral interviews. An impressive number of published academic studies in multiple languages complements the source base.

The book is mainly concerned with evaluating the relationship between increasing diversity in the Allsvenskan professional league since 2000 and broader social integration. It looks at the experiences of 109 African footballers and analyzes local perceptions of these sporting immigrants. Divided into nine chapters, the book provocatively argues that the recent influx of African players from 27 nations has not eliminated racial prejudice and racialized discourses in Swedish football and society.

Chapter 1 introduces the themes of racism and integration and contextualizes African footballers’ migration at a time in Swedish history marked by the mainstreaming of right-wing ideologies and organizations as seen in the rise of political parties like the Swedish Democrats (among others) and anti-immigrant public discourse. Sweden’s multicultural transformation, it is pointed out, has “occurred at breakneck speed, unfolding essentially in just one generation” and “race and ethnicity have seemingly replaced class as the main fault line in Sweden today” (pp. 2-3).

Chapter 2 begins by situating the flow of African players to Sweden within Europe’s demand for cheaper athletes from the global south and then goes on to map the African football diaspora in the Allsvenskan. In 2010 players of African origin represented about 6 percent of the league’s total number of players. Most of the African footballers come from Anglophone West African countries—Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Ghana top the list. They are mainly young men aiming to use Sweden as a springboard for future careers in higher-paying European leagues and veteran journeymen (p. 23).

Chapters 3 and 4 address racism and anti-racism in Swedish football and society. “In the first decade of the twenty-first century, Allsvenskan’s black footballers have repeatedly been racially abused” (p. 43). Regrettably, fan racism plagues Sweden as it does many other European countries. It sometimes takes overt forms, from monkey chants and bananas thrown onto the pitch to offensive songs and taunts and occasional physical attacks. Top-down campaigns initiated by UEFA and the Swedish Football Federation have helped to reduce incidents of public racism, but this has been “replaced by less obvious and more insidious forms of prejudice” (p. 66). Non-Nordic players, the book asserts, continue to be denied equal opportunities due to white normativity and racial stereotyping by fans, coaches, players, and media that brands Africans as overly individualistic and lacking in discipline, assigns them exoticizing nicknames, and espouses genetic myths about so-called “natural abilities” of African athletes.

Chapter 5 returns to the themes of African identities, socioeconomic factors, and the performance of immigrant footballers. The opening section on “Who is ‘African’ in Swedish football is among the most illuminating in the book. It explains how and why the social construction of race in Sweden means Africans trained professionally in their home countries are targets of discrimination to a greater extent than biracial Swedes and black athletes who arrived as children and have been acculturated to Nordic ways. The chapter then describes economic and other motivations for immigration and notes how Africans tend to view the Allsvenskan as a stepping stone to greatness elsewhere in Europe. It was interesting to learn that many Africans have performed reasonably well in Sweden but very few players have fulfilled their ambition to sign for a club in England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, Germany’s Bundesliga, or France’s Ligue 1.

…additional ethnographic research among Swedish fans might have yielded valuable evidence missing from some of the observations about the extent and nature of racism among football supporters

Chapters 6 and 8 delve deeply into Swedish clubs, fans, and press perceptions of African footballers. Generally, utilitarian and essentialized views of African players are common among clubs. Africans tend to be perceived as short-term investments and as players who can inject “creativity” into conservative Swedish playing styles, but there is “never a sense that Swedish football really has anything to learn from its African counterpart” (p. 94). Chapter 8 shows how sports coverage in major daily newspapers across the political spectrum (Dagens Nyheter, Aftonbladet, Svenska Dagbladet) contributes to the racialization of African footballers by exoticizing them, stereotyping them as lazy, ill-disciplined, selfish athletes, and disproportionately emphasizing sensational stories that undermine the reputation of black players while simultaneously “providing a public platform for aggressive jingoism” (p. 127). The chapter also reveals how overt racism in the Internet era has migrated from stadium terraces to online spaces. Here, we are reminded of a popular YouTube video depicting Djurgården supporters singing: “Don’t think you’re Swedish, just because you received asylum.”

Sandwiched between chapter 6 and 8 is a nice chapter relating many Africans’ accounts of their experiences in Sweden. Social isolation and culture shock rank high among the obstacles faced by African footballers, particularly younger ones. Interestingly, many players called attention to positive aspects of playing in Sweden, such as the efficient organization, decent wages, comfortable lifestyle, and relatively friendly atmosphere at the clubs. Despite the Allsvenskan’s semi-peripheral status in Europe, and despite racism and xenophobia, it seems that Sweden “represents a reasonably decent situation for many of these football migrants” (p 114).

The final chapter functions as both a conclusion and a concise analysis about race and national identity through the Swedish national team’s biracial and non-Nordic players (e.g. Henrik Larsson and Martin Dahlin in the 1990s and Zlatan Ibrahimovic since 2001). The latter’s case points to the limits of seeing the national team as a symbol of a progressive multicultural nation, since even this non-conformist superstar, born in Sweden to Balkan parents, “has been evaluated through a thoroughly racialized lens, in which his behavior has been explained primarily in cultural terms and ascribed to his foreign origins” (p. 145). Moreover, the under-representation of black Swedes on the pitch, on the sidelines, and in the boardroom provides current evidence of “systemic and institutionalized discrimination” in the game despite football’s “self-ascribed mission to promote integration” (p. 147). Africans, in the end, are compelled to adapt to the country’s agenda of assimilation since Swedish society’s wishful thinking (or denial) continues to see examples of racism as the result of individual prejudice rather than systemic discrimination and exclusion.

The author and publisher should be commended for including two terrific appendices in the book: one documenting African nationals in the Allsvenskan (1977-2010) and another the league’s African-born Swedish nationals (1991-2010). The endnotes and bibliography are exquisitely detailed. They demonstrate the meticulous research that shaped this project and should be of great use to future researchers in Sweden and beyond. Unfortunately, there is no index.

The book has a few shortcomings.  Its intellectual architecture seems slightly disjointed. Specifically, the chapters move repeatedly back and forth, chronologically and thematically. Fewer and longer chapters would have benefited the book by limiting the amount of repetition and sharpening its analysis. Methodologically, additional ethnographic research among Swedish fans might have yielded valuable evidence missing from some of the observations about the extent and nature of racism among football supporters. Analytically, Nordic machismo, athletic masculinities, and the racially homogenous composition of the Swedish women’s national team suggested a need for greater engagement with women and gender, both as subjects and as categories of analysis.

These critical comments aside, African Footballers in Sweden is a highly original, exceedingly well-researched, and profoundly empathetic book. It should be required reading for scholars, students, journalists, and thoughtful fans concerned about racism, the causes and effects of immigration, and the role of sport in an increasingly global Europe.

Copyright © Peter Alegi 2016


Table of Content

Introduction, pp. 1-17

The African Diaspora in the Global Football Market, pp. 19-32

Racism in Swedish Football and Society, pp. 33-49

Antiracism and Its Limitations in Swedish Football, pp. 51-67

African Footballers in Sweden, pp. 69-84

African Football Imports in the Eyes of Swedish Clubs, pp. 85-100

The African Football Experience in Sweden, pp. 101-114

Racism, Racialization, and Xenophobia, pp. 115-134

Conclusion, pp. 135–151

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