Despite a growing awareness and interest in ‘sports-for-development’ initiatives, and the continuing spread of televised football matches (the English Premier League in particular), amateur football remains under-researched. Dr William Tantam, a postdoctoral fellow in Caribbean Studies, spent more than a year in Jamaica studying how amateur football or ‘pick-up ball’ frames the relationship between younger and older men in one of the country’s rural communities.

I was interested in looking at what kind data might emerge if I took a particular amateur game ‘seriously.’ For 14 months I played football every weekday with the same group of players, socialised with them away from the field, and conducted in-depth interviews in order to discover what role football played in their lives.

Most of the men had participated in ‘schoolboy football,’ an annual island-wide, inter-school tournament. Those from poorer backgrounds were encouraged to ‘skip class’ and concentrate on playing football and performing well for their school in the televised matches.

The result was these men gained few ‘subjects’ (qualifications) while at school and after leaving education had to rely on precarious employment such as gofer work. By contrast, those from wealthier backgrounds had either been discouraged from participating in schoolboy football or had been pushed by their teachers to maintain a high grade average. All of these men had successfully migrated overseas or to Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, to complete further qualifications. On their return they secured positions in well-respected professions such as in finance, medicine and education. Class and wealth had significantly affected how the men related to football and its role in their lives.

In interviews football emerged as an important frame through which these men related to their pasts. One man described learning to play football in the street where he not only had to contend against his childhood opponents, but also against passers-by and cars which sped down the streets near his house. These experiences had forced him to cultivate particularly fine ball control and had fostered an ability to keep the ball near his feet, shielding it from opponents before passing.

Adopting Wacquant’s work on boxing (Body and Soul), this man embodied his experiences and enacted them on the football field. His football skills were the product of his social environment and also offered a way for him to respond to that environment and invest it with new meanings. Paying close attention to a single amateur field allowed an understanding of how players’ positions within hierarchies of gender, class, wealth and age structured how their bodies move on the field.

At the same time, I was interested in how football might change the ways in which these men related to their contemporary social environment. The two amateur teams remained the same each evening. One team comprised of younger, poorer men in their mid-20s to early-30s and the other of older, wealthier men in their 40s and 50s.

While most social contexts in the rural community were divided along lines of wealth and class, the football field offered one of the few contexts in which these men interacted outside the relationship of employer and employed. Therefore, one interesting question to consider was the effect that entering onto the supposed egalitarianism of the sports field had on the inter-class relationships away from it. This relates to wider questions concerning how engagement in sports change the way participants view the rest of their lives.

One important realisation is that football is not a singular game and is approached and appreciated in very different ways. It can be very easy to assume that we know what football is and to project that onto fields. However, the case of the amateur field in Jamaica suggested that such an approach misses the variety and creativity of players. For the younger team of players, winning the match was not the only nor even the most important concern. For them, giving a ‘salad’ – a Jamaican term for a nutmeg – that is pushing the ball between the opponent’s legs, was more important than the score line.

Due to the pressure of ‘playing for a scholarship,’ these players had been encouraged to play an individualistic form of football that emphasised solo creativity over team play. While the two teams shared a field, they were therefore playing two very different games with two different aims: the older team concentrating on passing and highly structured team play; the younger team emphasising the importance of individual expression and freedom.

Moreover, the symbolic act of overcoming structures of wealth and class through individual entrepreneurialism found ready crossover into the lives of the younger men who had few opportunities to social mobility. On the other side, the success of the ‘intelligent’ football (their terminology) of the older team became a justification for class privilege and higher class positions.

Football is changed by the context in which it is played and, in turn, it also changes that context in unique ways. From one perspective, engagement in football incorporates communities into a global market of television coverage, t-shirts, advertising, and images of immense wealth – not to mention the frequent stories of industry and individual racisms.

From another viewpoint, each community that engages in football changes and affects how the game is played and appreciated. New skills, players, languages, and approaches continue to change the game and give it the dynamism and excitement that makes it popular throughout the world.

About the author

Dr William Tantam is a postdoctoral fellow in Caribbean studies at the Institute of Latin American Studies, part of the School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London. He runs the Centre for Integrated Caribbean Research, which draws together work from across the linguistic areas of the Caribbean. Recently, he has been involved in a project to improve access to the School’s Caribbean Collections. His book, Letting the Football Talk, is being published by Bloomsbury.