We’re very pleased to introduce a new blogger, ‘Oscar’, who finds himself in many troubled places around the world. This is, we hope, the first in an occasional series of his reflections on life in some of these places, and the part football plays in those lives.
The earth-orange mud road was licked through with car tracks and the single tracks of okados, the little Asian-built motorcycles so maligned for zipping in and out of Sierra Leone’s creaking traffic lanes. It needed a sturdy vehicle to get through its pits and puddles and, luckily for us, we’d been supplied an almost brand new Land Rover and a very fine driver for this mission.
Apart from the mud, churned up by our swerving, sliding beast of a vehicle, the day’s journey was punctuated by blocks of colour. On citizens’ tee shirts and baseball hats, plastered on billboards, on bunting dangling along tiny village greens, on the okados and taxis and other vehicles besides, we encountered the same bold colours: mainly red and green, sometimes orange, and occasionally other colours. Mixed in with the bright deep green of the hills, and the dark green of the mystery seen through dense palm tree forests, and the mud and earth with their hues of nature from brilliant clay all the way down to bassy oak, it was a spectacle. Only the dull grey sky abstained, stewing an explosion of rain, which would come later.
We were heading from Freetown to the far east of the country, near the borders with Guinea and Liberia, to help observe the country’s national elections. At the time of writing – in a guest house after the day’s travel, with the sky darkening on the eve of the vote – there were no certainties about the outcome. The main fear was that the incumbent party – the All-People’s Congress, their colour a bright corporate red – would be unable to gain 55% of the popular vote. This would trigger a run-off, a murkier path in terms of legality and due process, which would provoke greater suspense and tension. This is a country whose history of violence still stalks its democratic process: we saw amputees, all smiles, hobbling alongside us as we navigated the mud. Diamond shops abound, and one of us was shown a sparkling sample through the car door, nestled in a black rag: best price, with a grin.
It’s an epochal moment, these elections; history being made inked finger by inked finger, and we were examining a little corner of it.
It’s a time when politics creeps into the innocence of the day-to-day. During our trip, it was common for people to wear the reds of Arsenal and Manchester United football clubs, and even red away England jerseys (ironically, this being the heart of black Africa, jerseys with John Terry’s name on the back, but that’s another story). The green party, the Sierra Leone People’s Party, could often be seen wearing the green of Sierra Leone’s home strip. And, in the crowds of orange-clad supporters as we passed through the town of Bo en route, we spotted some Holland jerseys. A taxi I had taken several days earlier was swathed in equal numbers of APC pictures and slogans and Manchester United flags.
This highlights what is common to both football and politics: tribalism, the stark divisions of colour bringing clear demarcations to a common people; but also the inverse: an ineffable, ethereal togetherness.
En route, I saw the village-made football pitches with their goals made of three sticks of wood and which doubled as clothes lines – sometimes at the same time, if the kids were daring enough, drawing big mamas from their huts to holler out in complaint, scattering the kids from their game. It gave me a kind of confidence, this quintessentially everyday playing of sport, that things would be all right the next day and the days after. This thought prevailed, even as we headed into the former stronghold of the Revolutionary United Front – a group responsible for many atrocities in the dark years – and passed the RUF Party’s campaign headquarters.
It was also a demonstration of social harmony, just as the road-building (with Chinese tractors and foremen, another story again), the new brightly painted schools, and the busy markets we passed were evidence of a kind of economic activity, however ambivalent you might judge it, but a sign of robust life without war nevertheless. In the shadow of the elections, the footie and the business were cast in a light that made them seem brittle, precious, worth protecting. I imagined what would happen if these little villages became punctured with post-election violence: all the peace, all the buying and selling, all the efforts by so many, including ourselves, all the games of football without incident, containing countless tiny heroisms, dissolving into that old narrative of horror.
The kids in their ramshackle villages lost to sporting abandon reminded me of the place I’d come from, Afghanistan, and a project I’d been involved in there. We’d been involved in setting up Afghanistan’s first professional football league. The company which had managed the project had gone into the provinces to try to uncover the new stars of the league and its teams. We’d founded the whole business pitch on the idea of national unity, and of building that through sport. We’d been ignored, of course, by our political colleagues: it amounted to nothing more than superficial public relations, according to them. They were partly right. If ten years of the US, NATO and international military and diplomatic pressure couldn’t bring peace to that place, a two-bit communications project certainly wasn’t going to.
But the project did hit a vein. It became something of a phenomenon, in fact. Kandahar, the eventual champions, gained huge support from other parts of the country. Our local embassy staff obsessed over it. Afghan government ministers told us it was a big step forward for peace, before asking our political colleagues who their favourite team was (of course, they didn’t know). Sepp Blatter in his ivory tower even spoke of it. It was used to bring people together, and it worked. It became a narrative of togetherness and innocence which spread to millions of Afghans.
Of my own football career: well, I played in London on Sunday league pitches where, during my first match, I witnessed a leg being broken in a tackle and was told by a member of the opposition he would get his gun from his car and shoot me after the match. I played in Afghanistan after that on an imported artificial pitch, for and against close protection officers, colleagues, those in the darker arts, Military Police, Kandahari accountants and Herati cleaners. We lost countless balls to the Japanese Embassy over our razor wire. In Freetown I played next to the military base, past the pizza shack, with NGO workers, volunteers, playwrights, and locals with nicknames like ‘Redknapp’ in knock-off football kit.
The goalkeepers were brave local boys, barefoot. The fence around was full of holes, and a flock of ballboys scurried to return any of our mislaid passes and shots to ensure tips afterwards. We wondered why the holes would never be fixed with the money we paid each week despite the promises, until somebody asked why the owner would actually do that and put his ballboy cousins and friends out of a job. An inside-out economy at work.
Here are two sides to football’s heart in two troubled places. Football: an obsession to many; definitely global; perhaps ultimately banal; a discussion topic of the working people; a political tool of the powerful (including ourselves); a sign of division; a force for togetherness; an empty dream of riches; a ladder from sub-Saharan poverty to global fame and a mansion in a European capital; a male bonding ritual; a machine for lining pockets, from a pittance to billions; a barometer. A single, simple concept with its perfect, austere physics butterflying in a million different directions across our little globe: ‘neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so’.