If you want to see the African Game go to a Stadium

Knox Robinson

If you want to see the African Game go to a stadium. Of course, you say, of course Africa has stadiums. And you’re right – Dakar alone has a handful of them: one named for a prizefighter, another after a prominent musician, one for a poet turned president. But you don’t always think about stadiums when thinking about Africa – the hard fact of Stade Léopold Sédar Senghor doesn’t crop up in your brain when there is talk about the games Africans play; there are already so many images we’ve been led to associate with the place: we consider ourselves well familiar with the village’s scorched playing turf and the perpetually smiling children who run on it and so perhaps we have not considered the sudden shock, the physical irrevocability of a colossus like this. And yet here it is.

StadeLeopoldStade Léopold Sédar Senghor is surrounded by stacked concrete apartment buildings and low-lying shops of brick, it’s ringed by the asphalt arteries of sub-Saharan Africa’s unchecked urban sprawl and in the spaces left by the crisscrossing of the autoroutes and overpasses and parking lot taxi stand bus stops; there aren’t smiling children running but rather packs of men at various stages of young manhood chasing balls with an intensity reserved for kung fu flicks and real-life street fighting, some of them are wearing cheap PVC plastic backstrap sandals normally sold to women in markets – in the ’80s we called them jellies – and the young dudes here have stretched them as far as they will go but their heels still stick out an inch or two. It hardly matters though, because the coin-sized studs on the soles of the sandals somehow provide the best available traction since this isn’t the village’s scorched playing turf, the ground is actually a sandy loam several inches deep and it pulls on you the way it does when you trudge through the beach making your way to the firmer sand near the water’s edge, walking on it gets tiring pretty quick. These dudes aren’t trudging through the sand, though, it’s more like they’re racing through the air just above it, they’re out here chopping up the space right over the earth, they’re playing football.

Stade Léopold Sédar Senghor was built in the ’80s and radiates the kind of proud perfect math of mid-century modernism, but the visual experience of pulling up to the place for the first and probably the millionth time is an arresting blowback in  such a way that when you consider it later, maybe after you’ve left Dakar and gone back to all your mid-century modernism Stade Léopold Sédar Senghor sits in your mind like an idea that’s profound and black, like the Rosetta Stone or the cornerstone of the Kaaba in Mecca or perhaps even something older; in many of the world’s religions there exists the notion that a higher power can remove our faults to reveal a perfection that is hidden and unknown to us, we are blocks of wood that can be carved into something special and unique, this massive outcropping of stone before you has been painstakingly chipped, filed and sanded down into God’s own design for this place, yes, a stadium that the tops of their lungs. In this case the 60,000 would be screaming for the Lions of Teranga.

In circles of obsessive football fandom it’s fashionable to discuss Africa’s top ballers in the context of the big-budget European clubs for which they usually play professionally and full-time: Henri Camara at Wigan, Papa Bouba Diop at Fulham, Ferdinand Coly at Parma. But playing for an African national team is something else entirely, playing at home is eating at your mother’s house, playing for one of the 54  countries in Africa is almost like playing for Africa itself precisely because that’s not what it is at all, here you can be a person and a people simultaneously so it means something different, whether you’re Issa Ba in Chateauroux getting a call to come play as a Lion of Teranga for the first time – your smile outshining the outsized diamond of suspicious clarity on your ear – or you’ve got the sheer blinding star power of El Hadji Ousseynou Diouf, who rocks well-set diamond studs and the kind of expensive limited edition sneakers that come in problematic colour clashes and are favoured by the 17 year-old black style princes of New York’s Fulton Mall and 145th

Street – the smaller spoils of his contract with the Bolton Wanderers in the UK.

Diouf! That’s the way it’s said in Dakar and elsewhere in Africa, although  Muslims everywhere will also call to him El Hadji! without warning, it’s like that for you as well, at any time you find yourself shouting Diouf! like a raw idea verbalised for the first time or simply the kind of thing you blurt out before you think of anything else to say. It was the mercurial 21- year-old Diouf who created the shot for Papa Bouba

Diop that stunned defending champions France in the first round of the 2002 World Cup. You could use your internet connection to arrive at the exact amount of his salary as a striker at Bolton but that won’t tell you what you need to know about his true value, his real worth. At a European club you might be a gladiator, a golden boy, a devil, but slipping into the kit of your national team can grant you an almost mythic status that sets you apart from the 60,000 citizens screaming for you in the stadium. You can reason it away, say it’s just the klieg lighting that creates the nimbus that hovers over the players when they step out onto the pitch, there’s no way we can fathom what it means to see Diouf! throw on the red, green and gold to play as a Lion of Teranga – there’s no way we can understand the African game.

You’re perfectly right, there’s no way to do any of that aside from taking all of it in, the red, the green, the gold, we know it’s tricky to say what’s holy or spiritual to other people in other places but the supernatural is everywhere around us. On the surface Diouf! is a collision of contradictions, his peroxide blond hair cut into a close Caesar, his ear stabbed by a diamond, his name El Hadji connotes a Muslim who has made the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca and made turns around the Kaaba while deep in prayer, around his neck is a silver or more likely platinum chain and a crucifix encrusted with yes, more diamonds; star power like this is a peculiar alchemy we’re a long way from understanding, how the coming together of all these signs and  symbols points out a differently mapped belief system. Diouf!

You want to ask him about all of it but he pulls away, I gotta go boys, I have 14 wives and I can’t keep them waiting, he jokes. Diouf! is a straight-up 21st century international black prince playboy and you can find out how many millions of pounds he’s paid per year and maybe convert that to euros or dollars and then do the same for all the other line items on a balance sheet of his career, bonuses, appearances, endorsements and whatever sort of payment he gets for being number 34 in a series of 108 collectible trading cards found inside a certain brand of Turkish chewing gum.

And the fines! Diouf! He’s run afoul of authority since making his European debut at the age of 17 and perhaps on the streets of Senegal’s Saint-Louis before that; a car crash as a teen playing professionally in France; a week and a half disappearance after a loss to Cameroon in the finals of the Africa Nations Cup in 2002; a fracas with the wife of an ex-teammate at a casino back home in Dakar; a year’s license suspension for driving under the influence in the UK – his lawyer argued that he’d had three glasses of champagne over three to four hours celebrating a win with Bolton, that he felt himself to be in “absolute control of his faculties,” that he appeared to be “absolutely sober” to the restaurant staff that saw him out just  minutes before his black Mercedes truck was pulled over by the police.

Diouf! The fines! It’s tough to keep track of the number of times he’s been fined for spitting alone, not just because there’s been a string of accusations but because he’s been fined by his team, the league and the courts.The most publicised case was at match described as the Battle of Britain when he overran the pitch and crashed into a section of opposing fans – something happened as he got back to his feet. Diouf! later pleaded guilty to assault under provocation, a news report of the trial explained the prosecutor said the victim touched the accused on the head. It was a jovial mood and the crowd were in good spirits. It was a pat on the head, the report continued. Diouf’s lawyer made the minor point that spitting is not a crime in Senegal before making the more serious case that his client would’ve found such a gesture degrading, insulting and patronising, those are the words of the lawyer, to be touched in such a way on the back of the head because in past years slave traders had done that, those are the words of the reporter. It’s well into the 21st century but things like that, gestures, words, affronts, tensions real or imagined, are far from disappearing into the mists of the past, in many stadiums in Spain, for instance, it’s common for fans of one side or another to unite in screaming like monkeys while African players are on the pitch. Sometimes such attitudes are conveyed in more subtle ways. When discussing the African game a prominent European football magazine wrote that Ivory Coast’s players were the “new kings of the jungle” and wrote that Angola’s team would be playing against its “former colonial masters” in the first round of the 2006 World Cup. Perhaps in Diouf’s case we might point out just off the coast of Senegal, a kilometer from Dakar – a short ferry ride away, really – sits a tiny outcropping of stone that served as one of the most notorious ports that trafficked in the trade of enslaved Africans for more than 300 years, Gorée Island.

Ah, but pull up to Stade Léopold Sédar Senghor and your grip on all that slips, the historiotopographical footnotes we hold on to are part of another conversation, sit with 60,000 screaming football fanatics in Dakar or glimpse Diouf’s face on a faded bootlegged t-shirt on some kid in the street, see the Lions of Teranga step on to the pitch and some warm understanding washes over you, a different way of thinking on the game that has you just open enough to wonder what’s real or not, what’s possible or not.

For example: one October afternoon in 2005 Abdoulaye Thiam was describing his duties as the official mascot of the Lions of Teranga, in addition to leading the legislators as well as its conscience? The cover of a children’s newspaper I picked up in Cameroon phrased it nicely: ETO’O ET RONALDINHO: DESTIN COMUN. Players of African descent have been among the best in the world for years; as European leagues and national teams fill up with more black players – a new level of melanisation – we see a new dynamic on and off the pitch. Beyond sport and beyond politics, the power élite and the faceless citizen are reckoning with the culture of the new Europe.

But there’s more to this. There is African football, and it is part of the African consciousness: in the airless waiting room of the Cameroonian embassy in Dakar there’s a large poster of Paul Biya, the country’s president since 1982, walking down a wide road through a forest with a group of happy citizens – a farmer, a nurse, a teacher, a bureaucratic middle manager and directly off the president’s left shoulder, an anonymous football player in a facsimile of the national team kit. What is the African game? At first it seemed Cameroon’s years of success were the answer, but the team’s failure to qualify for the 2006 World Cup flashed like an end of history, or at least a definitive moment in African football. The Confederation of African Football received guaranteed places at the World Cup in 1970 and since then thirteen countries from the continent have gone to the tournament, Cameroon and Senegal had quarterfinal runs in 1990 and 2002, respectively, Olympic gold went to Nigeria in 1996 and Cameroon in 2000. Those are some of the definitive moments we’re talking about. Cameroon’s bowing out was something different if just as definitive, the country’s been to the World Cup more than any other on the continent, since 1982 they’d only missed one and that was back in ’86. Enter into any conversation about Cameroon and football and it was more like discussing the agricultural achievements of Zhou Dynasty China – the prominence of the Indomitable Lions was a mandate from heaven. But Cameroon’s campaign was just one of With the Cameroon spell lifted I was back to wondering if there was something separate and distinct about African football. To understand the African game means approaching Africa on its own terms and discerning something in the young hopefuls training at dusk on the seaside cliffs and deep sand beaches of Dakar, an amateur team deploying a rugged, manic style of play to win a local championship on a muddy pitch in a tucked-away neighbourhood of Yaoundé, and again in the mid afternoon pick-up games on Labadi Beach in Accra. Those aren’t simply anecdotal experiences; something in the way people come together buzzes like men arguing over how best to take a goat to slaughter and women discussing fabric prints in a market – or even, how those prints speak to each other – what if the African game doesn’t exist, what if Africans enter football less as a spectator sport and more as another way of seeing themselves?

cairoThe continent was in Cairo for the Africa Cup of Nations: 16 national squads including the 2006 World Cup qualifiers, plus trainers, coaches, hometown photojournalists, brass bands with full percussion, shamans with chalices and animal skins, corrupt federation officials holding well-coiffed girlfriends at their sides, fans with flags painted on their faces and a young woman who jumped up to the windows of the Cameroon team bus with a note handwritten with uncertain script but a confident message: SAMUEL ETO’O JE T’ADORE. In Cairo’s streets the men watched the matches on tiny TVs in hookah teahouses and they’d holler at you, reaching out in the language they know you must know Cameroon! Zamoleto! to which you might respond Naija! Okocha! or lie and say Angola! Akwa! or Mozambique! because of the way it felt to throw it out there, then they’d say Egypt! Mido! Number one! Another Africa story, one of millions: at the edge of the orange lamplight in a stadium parking lot, two Sudanese working girls and a male companion masquerading behind paper cut-outs of Cameroon’s flag.

The cheers of fans both home and away with flag bearer Moamar Ndiye. Thiam said, I bring the drums and I bring the lions. And he said it in such a way that when you consider it later, maybe after you’ve seen the young dudes in Africa with gold-set lion teeth on gold chains and definitely after you’ve seen the plush stuffed animals Thiam takes to games, you laugh a little because for a second he had you conjuring up this image of him parading a pride of real-live lions there in Seoul before Senegal took the pitch in the opening match of the 2002 World Cup.

What game is playing? Is it more or less about a few brothers balling for big salaries, product endorsements, gated homes and chromed-out luxury SUVs in Europe and the myriad perks of agape veneration on the occasional trip back home? It wouldn’t be profound or revelatory to suggest that in the world economy they’re tools, commodities, labourers like the rest of us, each in his place to score and defend and hold aloft the shiny accoutrements of this disposable modernity to encourage consumption; no, it’s not particularly deep or unprecedented that the African footballer should be judged a hero or a pariah based on creative playmaking, beauty and form under pressure and the archaic team rivalries to which his club subscribes, but is instead ostracised for his skin colour or the country in which he or his parents or his parents’ parents were born. He discovers his mere presence on the stadium pitch can throw thousands of fans into paroxysms of hateful taunts. And so the sometimes spokesmen for the crisis of material poverty in Africa find themselves delivering indictments of the spiritual poverty in Europe. What if the Africans only exist to reflect a malignancy that many in Europe consider to be part of another era, a moment set apart and sealed off from the present? Or, are sons of Africa more than just the holders of that mirror? They are many and they are poised to affect the grain of the game as it travels to a new level of internationalisation – will they be its arbiters and the currents running through African football; other teams in other groups had chartered their own course in a series of competitions beginning in June 2004. Tunisia would be booked its fourth trip, while Ghana, Togo, Angola and Ivory Coast went to the World Cup as debutantes.

I sat with the Ivory Coast contingent when their team played Morocco in an early round, probably because January in Cairo is only somewhat warm and the sun was shining on that part of the stadium at 2pm. The Elephants turned out 40 or 50 supporters waving paper Italian flags – presumably red, white and green was the closest match to their own flag that they could turn up in Cairo. Morocco’s fans were in the shadows on the other side; they had more bodies but between the two teams there were so few people sitting in the stands it seemed like the Moroccans were very far away and watching another game entirely. Cairo International Stadium can hold 80,000 and for this afternoon game it seemed even larger because I’d seen it churning at capacity the night before when Egypt kicked off the tournament by crushing a confused Libyan squad. But if on this afternoon the stadium seemed more enormous, the players – Ivory Coast’s Elephants, anyways – also exceeded their scale. They moved in an essential street game, you know when you see it, it’s a man-to-man orchestration in which every man knows where the other is and the push forward is a consequence of moving a collective guerrilla energy around rather than the will of any individual.

It’s difficult to separate the metaphors of sports from the language of war games; it’s hard to watch Ivory Coast’s football team play and not think about how fragile and elusive peace can be; in Abidjan’s city centre there is sadness in so many faces and you can tell the avenues have been made wide for parades, presidential motorcades and military convoys – this was a team from a country at war with itself and anchoring its psychic vortex was forward Didier Drogba, a black Christ figure with an icon’s face turned flesh from wood and his hair pressed, permed and parted in the middle the way you can if you’re a natural black man from the American Midwest and you’ve seen a few sides of life. Drogba doesn’t gleam with a recognisable burst of light like Diouf or smoulder with the intensity of Eto’o’s heat but he radiates some undefined dark matter, a focus that controls all actions with its intent; the kind of essential blackness we all wish we had inside us when we’re frail, when we’re failing, when we’re broken, when we’re less than we need to be.

I read later that Drogba led his team in a prayer for the healing of the nation after the game the Abidjan papers called “Le Miracle d’Omdurman” – the Grobbelaar overtakes left and right while amiably cursing all other drivers, hoots instinctively at red lights, and tells me that Cape Town is one of the six best cities in the world. The others are Vancouver, Perth, London and Paris. I count. “The sixth one I have not been to yet,” says Grobbelaar, lifting that trademark moustache for the trademark toothy grin. There’s a lot to see in Cape Town. We pass a group of very small black children leaving a shop, followed a second or so later by a white shopowner brandishing a big stick. “Bring a big stick,” comments Grobbelaar. One of the children starts pissing against the shop’s wall. We pass a poster for a local newspaper: “SA REF SHOOTS PLAYER DEAD.” Grobbelaar grins.

He drops the players at the Spar, complimenting them on their choice of supermarket, and then takes me to Brian’s Tavern. We sit in the window with a view of the girls of the Guys and Dolls Adult Entertainment Club across the road. Grobbelaar orders beer, we sit side by side on stools, and luckily he starts talking about his bribery scandal, because I hadn’t dared ask. Like most foreign coaches in South Africa, Grobbelaar would rather still be in Europe, living with his wife and two daughters in Lymington on the English south coast. But the scandal sent him into exile. It erupted at Heathrow one day in November 1994, when Grobbelaar was confronted by two Sun journalists, who informed him they had videotapes of him telling his former business partner Chris Vincent that he had thrown matches for money.

Grobbelaar tells me: “On the video you see Vincent saying: ‘This is your money.’ I say, ‘No, it’s yours’. He says: ‘Hold it for now because I don’t have my jacket on.’ And then I put it in my coat pocket.” But the video wasn’t clear, adds Grobbelaar, so nobody knew exactly what was going on.

He had of course staged the whole thing to catch Vincent, he explains; still, it looked bad. No club would have him after the scandal, even though he was twice acquitted in court of having taken bribes. Two juries couldn’t agree, and so the judge let him go. “The trial ended, but the stigma didn’t,” he says. October win in Sudan that gave them the points to fling them, instead of Cameroon, into the World Cup. After this game in Cairo the team jogged over to the stands to touch the hands of their faithful.

Ivory Coast went on to face Egypt in the finals of the Africa Nations Cup; they lost after a penalty kick shootout. I was already back home and once I knew the outcome I found it impossible to care; every kick seemed redundant. I wanted to be there, not watch what happened after the fact.

The closest I got to understanding came from a handful of wire images not from that last game but from the Elephants’ return to Ivory Coast the day after; actually it was just a quick shot of the players deplaning on the tarmac at Abidjan’s Felix Houphouet Boigny airport and a couple more of the team with its military escort of fatigues and burgundy berets at Stade Felix Houphouet Boigny. That stadium’s capacity is between 35,000 and 45,000 but judging from the crowd sandwiched in the background it could’ve been holding 10,000 more on this Saturday in February. The day was hot, most of the players had their shirts off as they waved to the fans from the back of an army truck. None of them wore sunglasses, which meant you could read their faces as they cheered each other. Rising striker Arouna Koné filmed the moment with a handheld DV camera while Drogba and a couple other teammates climbed on to the roof of the truck’s cab. Drogba had his arms outstretched, but not with his hands up like someone pumping a crowd for another ounce of adulation. This was something different – his palms were facing down, as if he was about to take a bow. Or a leap.

Knox Robinson is a writer, music producer and former editor at the Fader. Milla’s dance drew him to football. He is currently at work on Ghetto Arc, a series of releases on the sound of the global urban underground from Kingston to Baltimore to Johannesburg. He recently co-authored The African Game with Nigerian photographer and filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu.

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