I grieve at the current footballing famine in lush, green England.
I’m talking about football you just bump into, that you needn’t buy a ticket for. Google ‘West Africa’ and you will see football pitches beautifully marked out as if sent down from the gods above to ensure a happy me and you. Some people get it, thankfully.
Last night, nudging curfew, on the banks of the River Niger, I saw the greatest game imaginable: shades of those afternoon-into-evening contests of your youth; mother calling you ‘in for tea’; shades of Disney; shades of something peculiarly, ecstatically African – or even Malian.
The Badala Hotel in Bamako, the country’s capital, is on the bend of the river. It looks out on a typical scene: people washing their clothes, washing themselves, collecting water to irrigate their crops. The beautiful, scruffy, natural, artificial, water-carried and human-discarded all coexist along this riverbank. There – here – where I am fortunately found, I am gazing upon crossbars, bound together by twine, and wanting to see again what I saw.
At 5 o’clock every evening – abandonment or postponement is inconceivable – young men begin to filter out of buildings and alleyways. The weather is almost always one of four variants on the same theme: hot; hotter; really hot; or hot with thunderclaps, as if God were saying, “That’s quite enough heat!” The men have just finished work – some are gardeners, tending to the luxurious lawns of former colonial properties in the area – and they are ready; here they come, skipping, peddling, revving and tooting, to greet each other and argue the toss. An elder in a turquoise cape wags his finger and spouts expressive, much-loved nonsense, mostly to the smaller boys – they actually try to listen to him. Another man with a clubfoot, who declares himself ineligible for selection, bangs the ground with a spare goalpost. Perhaps the gods are being summoned, I think to myself.
And if you had seen what I was about to, you would surely have agreed that God himself must have been present, perhaps in disguise.
Imran Mohammed will miss the game. It’s a fact that, if Bamako had its own Time Square, its own Piccadilly Circus, should almost certainly appear in neon lights. Imran, the hotel’s faithful gardener and part-time security guard, is having to work overtime because of the threat of violence engendered by conflicts overspilling from neighbouring countries. Oh, Imran. So unhappy. For he never misses the 5 o’clock kick-off.
The stage is set, the day’s washing removed. The pitch is ready: 50 metres of humps, bumps, hollows and pools of water from the Niger, flanked on the near side by prickly bushes and a smattering of spectators. One team are made to play bare-chested, and a player is unceremoniously nutmegged as he vainly attempts to untangle the vest wrapped around his head. But the game is underway, and it’s a passing game, with some dribbling, then an uncalled-for bicycle kick, then a clutch of players jumping for…a shoe! The ball is elsewhere!
The powerful Skins team is 2-0 up in the blink of an eye. Arguments-cum-discussions abound as the smallest boy on the pitch – as per always – is singled out to get in the water, in this case the lilac pond, to recover the ball. From the banks, he is lectured about keeping his head up – and told to jolly well get on with it – by a ring of Skins eager for a third goal.
A family arrives, and Papa, on learning that the team at his end are 2-0 down, urges his wife and toddlers to ‘go and look at the river’. He rolls up his sleeves and starts barking instructions, reorganising his team from his goalmouth as they move forward.
The second smallest player, perhaps fearing that he will be the next water boy, commits a series of fantastically badly-timed tackles, sending the stars and giants of the game crashing to the ground. Even his own captain gets walloped. Had there been a referee, this small boy would have walked.
In another incident, a high-speed slip on a pile of donkey dung sends a player boasting some fancy footwork headlong into a murky pool. His luminous vest is not quite so eye-catching now.
The fightback, however, is on. The scores are level. Another diminutive boy, a goalkeeper, stops a thunderous shot with his midriff and, with tears in his eyes, pulls off a second, miraculous reflex save. Then a third, a fourth and a fifth. But not a sixth. T-shirts bearing random slogans seem to be the order of the day for the non-Skins; when the crumpled goalie eventually stands up, his reads, ‘Tell Santa not to speak to my teacher’.
Just then, ‘One Love’, picking up the ball, sets off on a dazzling run, sidestepping and skipping over all in his way – donkey dung, pieces of hose, plastic bottles, lost shoes, fishing nets and crocs (Bamako means ‘crocodile’) – to pass twice and score: 3-3! High fives all round. The toothless witch doctor in the turquoise cape is beside himself and storms on to the pitch, six fingers outstretched to try and convey some vital piece of information. There is so much laughter in the air, though, that it’s unlikely his advice will be heeded.
The ball is now in the brambles flanking one side of the pitch; five players, covered in cuts, are hacking it out mercilessly. One turns to protest a throw-in, but it’s taken quickly, leaving behind the four still fighting in the bush. It turns into an exquisite move – the throw, to feet, leads to a quick header through and a cannonball of a volley that would have taken the net clean off, had there been one.
The light is fading, but tired eyes are smiling. And, somewhere, mothers are silently willing their boys home, not too long after curfew, in joy and peace, their life-forces intact.
Footnote: Stuart Roy Clarke and his colleague – a woman without a veil – travelled to Mali to photograph football and suddenly, unexpectedly, found themselves in the midst of a military coup. With death threats in the air, the airport closed and the Mali Premier League suspended, the pair found themselves unable to leave the country. They were eventually allowed to return home safely. But Stuart’s ears will forever prick up, his eyes excite, his legs start dancing at the mention of ‘Mali’.