The weeks since the Hull game have seen a dip and rise in my own mood and enjoyment that has mirrored the schizophrenic form of Newcastle United. The week of the Everton game saw myself, and millions of others in the city, at a particularly low ebb – 16 days without running water, days blighted by erratic power cuts, sweltering humidity and floodwater still squatting on the city’s streets.
I’ve pinpointed the Friday (4th October) before Cardiff away as being the turning point. Having taken my first shower in a fortnight without my trusty 1.5 litre bottle of rainwater I headed out to Just 4 U, supposedly one of the best live music venues in Dakar and therefore in Senegal and indeed West Africa. Although this reputation is certainly deserved (and the quality, variety and just sheer beauty of Senegalese music culture is something I will return to in future posts), the highlight of the night was being joined at my table by two English-speaking guys who must have at least been in their fifties. To be honest I was originally just happy speaking in English to someone who wasn’t a student. This relief quickly turned to intrigue and then humility as it turned out that TJ and Oliver were former Robben Island inmates and now tour guides, visiting Senegal’s own historical symbol of oppression Goree Island, as part of a planned UNESCO link between the two sites of immense African heritage.
As was inevitable on a table with beers and great music, discussion turned to football and both were brimming with pride at South Africa’s relatively recent hosting of the World Cup and fairly pleased with the legacy of modernisation and cooperation it has left in the country. Consumed by the moment I annoyingly forgot to ask their views on the upcoming World Cup(s), in particular the one being held in Qatar 2022. The recent reports of Nepalese workers being subjected to slave-like work conditions and consequently dying, all for four weeks of football, left me disturbed and disgusted. That follows it being voted for, under false pretences, as a summer tournament by a set of FIFA delegates since alleged of corruption. And what has the FA, the protectors of our game, done in response? Well exactly the same as they have done in response to the Premier greed League’s continued perversion of the national game – sleepwalked alongside the problems with as much backbone as a fluther of jellyfish, happy to tread water from the comfort of Club Wembley as the people’s game drifts further away from those who care most about it.
How is that for a spot of pre-World-Cup-Qualifying-Campaign-Decider positivity!? Despite my pervading negativity about the governance of the game I have to admit something. The prospect of a South American, nay a Brazilian, World Cup, the first of my lifetime, has got me more excited about a major tournament than I’ve been in a long time. (What do you mean ‘we’ve got a chance of getting past Man City…’). Whilst England are facing Montenegro and Poland (and Jack Wilshere’s taking on Kevin Pietersen and packet of Benson and Hedges), Senegal face the Ivory Coast on Saturday afternoon in Abidjan in the first of a two-legged playoff. The odds are stacked against the Lions of Teranga , who should perhaps be referred to as ‘cubs’, such is their inexperience in comparison to their illustrious Ivorian rivals. Even the briefest of looks at the pre-match patter reveals a growing inferiority complex on behalf of the Senegalese. Sane: “We aren’t afraid of Drogba”. Cisse: “This is not about revenge… we are not afraid of the Ivory Coast”. And perhaps most bluntly, Diame: “If we only focus on Yaya Toure, we’re dead”! Even Macky Sall, the President of the Republic, has had his say (of course he has, this is Africa), urging his players to “Be aware that the impossible is not Senegalese and that you have the active support of the people”. On the other side of the battle lines, Yaya Toure has evidently been living off a strict pre-match diet of metaphor soup and daily re-runs of Rocky 3, evidenced by his wonderful assertion that “Lions are kings of the jungle, but when the Elephants pass they crush everything in their path”.
At the risk of getting myself a job on the Match of the Day sofa with some cutting-edge analysis, at the end of the day it is eleven against eleven and anything can happen. It could well come down to an individual error or indeed who ‘wants it’ more. Desire certainly isn’t as short as running water in Senegal’s capital – one of my colleagues recently shared his bewilderment that a football-obsessed country that has thousands of street football games underway at any given time, any day, can’t seem to create a core of players to compete regularly on a world class stage like their Ghanaian, Nigerian and Ivorian neighbours. Another claimed that it was only a matter of time, given the sheer power, pace and technique required to shine in a game played in often abysmal conditions. I’ve found myself quite nicely placed to comment on the issues raised by these two comments, having played in the local quartier’s game twice in the last week.
On Tuesday I received a call from Elza, a local lad I’d been chatting to whilst watching a match take place on the pitch below my flat. He’d previously told me that he and the other lads (18-25) play every day after studies, work or possibly a day of little enjoyment (the youth employment rate in Senegal is 30%). This time he was calling to see if I fancied a game. As I was on my way home from work when he called I made it in time to see the final 15 minutes of the first half and then play in the second. It was helpful to acquaint myself with the way the game is played here. I noticed, almost to the detriment of my skeletal structure, that there is no stopping, even if the ball goes into a crowd, up against the nearby house’s wall, behind a tree or onto a nearby road. I admired the rather ingenious refereeing tools – a flattened metal drinks can and a rock, tapped several times to signify a foul, goal, corner or goal kick.
Half time came and it was my turn to be introduced to the game. Elza was really welcoming, as was Florent, a lad who played on my side and told me who our other players were, not that I could remember in the heat of action! My first few touches were loose or even non-existent as I took my eye of the ball as it approached, wary of an oncoming freight-train of a tackle – one lad was wearing a top with ‘Tank’ on the back and although I wasn’t sure he knew the translation of the word outside of Wolof, I did not want to take my chances by entering into a 50-50 with him. The pitch was so far removed from what we play on back home that it almost turns the game into a different sport – a one where split-second reactions and fortunate last-minute flick-ons are required 90% of the time you receive the ball because of the various undulations or obstacles.
I’m still not sure quite what surface I’ve been playing on. It’s undoubtedly mud in the middle, although at one point I looked down to realise my starting point at a corner was a former water pipe. The right wing seemed to be a black, bobbled concrete, similar to old urban backstreet alleyways, perforated by potholes and upturned tar. The left wing was what I would call standard Senegalese fare in terms of football pitches: an abrasive and unwelcoming combination of dust, sand and rock. All in all it offered about as much balance as a Niall Quinn co-commentary and played like a kick about on Giant’s Causeway. Originally I could follow my colleague’s argument that these of pitches will produce extremely tough players with excellent reactions. However after a second game later in the week my opinion had turned away from this thought, just because of the sheer lack of time, composure and passing on the ball. These lads may well have desire in abundance but they’ve been dealt a bad hand in terms of a lack of surfaces suited to the current ‘en-vogue’ style of possession football, intelligent interplay and guile over brute force and raw power. That, accompanied with the small matter of Messyrs Drogba, Toure, Zokora, Tiote, Eboue and Bony, may well see the current crop of Lions of Teranga fail to reach the World Cup for a third consecutive time to the disappointment, but not surprise, of the majority of their patriotic public. I’m hoping that Saturday afternoon in Abidjan is more like this season’s Saturday afternoons in Birmingham or Cardiff for Papiss and his teammates than the Monday nights in Manchester or Liverpool. However with the post-September schizophrenic state of football and life that I have experienced, I’m left only really able to conclude we should predict the unpredictable and expect the unexpected. I’m actually starting to get the hang of this support the erratic underdog thing…
Allez Les Lions! Senegal Rek.