The Beautiful Game

“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death.  I am very disappointed with that attitude.  I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”  

                                                                                                            -Bill Shankly

On Wednesday night Burkina Faso faced Egypt in the semifinals of the African Cup of Nations.  The winner of this tournament is crowned champion of all the national soccer teams on the continent, and since Africa usually makes the news for coups and humanitarian crises, this is a rare bright moment for international acclaim.  I had watched the Burkina Faso Stallions play live during the qualifying rounds for this tournament—I was present in the national stadium when we spanked the Comoros Islands 2-0—and I turned up a solid 15 minutes early to watch the game at the bar outside the camp gates.

By that time there were already dozens of motorcycles strewed around haphazardly.  This was the only place within 15 miles showing the game live, and 150 people were clustered around a TV the size of an iPad.  I looked around the crowd and noticed that there weren’t more than ten women present, and maybe half of those worked for the bar.  I also saw that not more than a quarter of those assembled were drinking beers or sodas that they had ordered there.  At a dollar a bottle a beer represents several hours working wage, and is an extravagance for all those who don’t work in the mining camp, as illegal gold diggers or as merchants in the town.  Nevertheless, no bartender could be heartless enough to chase away his fellow citizens when the national team are playing.

The game kicked off and it was clear throughout the first half that Burkina had the advantage.  Their passing was far sharper and more incisive than that of the Egyptians, and the stalwart defense soaked up pressure and then launched cunning breakaway attacks.  At halftime the mood was optimistic, but early in the second half the Egyptians nicked a cheeky breakaway goal.  There were no groans or complaints of foul or offside—just silence in the bar as people craned their necks to see what had happened.  Within ten minutes the Stallions surged forward and equalized.  I’ve never heard such deafening silence as when Egypt scored the opening goal, but when Burkina equalized the place erupted.  Beer bottles smashed to the ground, and as Aristide Bancé controlled a pass with his chest and smacked it into the net the crowd went wild.  People honked motorcycle horns and flashed their headlights, five different people shook my hand, and the bartender poured shots of rum for everyone, including some kids who didn’t look more than 14 years old.

I felt a sense of pure joy in the bar that night, but more than that, a sense of true connection.  Our link to the game was distant…the village where I work is 10 miles from the Côte d’Ivoire border and 15 miles from Mali, so we are about as far out in the country as you get while remaining on Burkinabé soil.  The TV we were watching was powered by a series of car batteries linked with twisted wires and charged during the day by a solar panel; the color commentary of the match came from a studio somewhere in France.  The action on screen lagged several minutes behind real life-whenever a team scored my phone vibrated 2 minutes before the play occurred on screen.  Nevertheless the fans around me were glued to every single pass, substitution, and throw-in of the match.  They cheered the loudest for players who had come from the Western region of Burkina Faso.  Everyone watching, young and old, screamed advice in Dioula and Senoufo at players who were playing a game two minutes in the future.

I first became hooked on watching soccer in Hoima, Uganda.  I was living in an outbuilding made of cinderblocks with no running water just outside of the office where I worked, and soccer matches provided me with a sense of community and international connection.  I would visit the Hoima Resort Hotel to watch Manchester United and Chelsea and Arsenal clash with each other in the Premier League, and I’d wonder if Wayne Rooney ever knew that kids in rural Ugandan villages saved their shillings to buy his jerseys, and screamed his name whenever he scored the winning goal.  I wondered if Arsene Wenger knew that old men in Hoima scoffed at his tactical setup, mocking him for relying on delicate attacking midfielders when his team was clearly lacking some backbone in defense.  I wondered if Luis Suarez knew that when Crystal Palace came back to draw 3-3 with Liverpool in 2014, grown men cried along with him.  Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that they didn’t know this.  Premier League teams are so globalized that the players and managers can’t imagine every village in every country on every continent in the world watching them.

That’s the joy of watching the Burkina Faso national team.  All of those players are boys who grew up in the villages, and played on stony soccer pitches like the one where I play after work.  When they score a goal they can see the people leaping for joy next to the straw-thatched huts in the village bars, and they can hear the whine of motorcycle horns in the starry night.  They really do play for the people, and the people can see that.

Burkina Faso lost to Egypt on penalties, 4-3.  After the match the bar cleared out instantly.  They played well, their resolve was strong, and they lost due to bad luck.  There’s always the World Cup in two years, and the African Championship two years after that, and then…

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