(1000 words by Stuart Roy Clarke about his trip to football-mad Mali in West Africa).
Let’s pretend it is (over). And that widespread famine is not just around the Sahara corner. Google Earth Africa West Mali Bamako or any village in the whole darned area and you will SEE football pitches beautifully marked out as if sent down from the Gods above to ensure beautiful pasture. Last night, nudging curfew, on the bank of the River Niger, I saw the greatest game imaginable. Shades of those afternoon-into-evening games of one’s youth, mother calling you ‘in for tea’- shades of Walt Disney – shades of something peculiarly ecstatically African or even MALI-an. And that is why we came here, I guess.
Badala in Bamako is on the bend of the river. The usual scene : people washing their clothes, washing themselves, collecting water to irrigate their crops. Beauty and scruffy and natural and artificial and water-carried and human-discarded are all along this river bank. There, here, where I am fortunate, there are two goals, with crossbars, bound together by twine.
At 5pm EVERY night (there is no abandonment or postponement conceivable) (and the weather is much the same: hot or hotter or really hot or hot with thunderclaps as God says THATS QUITE ENOUGH HEAT) the young men of the area filter out from alleys and work places – some are gardeners – on mopeds, scooters, bikes and on foot to greet each other and then argue the team selection and the toss. A man, an elder nowadays, in a turquoise cape, wags his finger and utters lavish much-loved nonsense, mostly to the smaller boys who actually try and listen to him. Another man, with a club foot, who casts himself out of team selection, bangs the ground with a spare goalpost. Perhaps the Gods are being summoned …if you see what I am about to see, you would surely agree that they must be here.
Iman Mohammed will miss the game. Because of the conflict our humble hotel’s faithful gardener and occasional security guard is having to work overtime. He is unhappy at this, only. (He NEVER misses a match).
THE GAME IS UNDERWAY
The stage is set. The daily washing removed. The pitch is 50 metres of bumps, big humps, hollows and pools of River Niger overspill flanked on the near side by prickly bushes and a few spectators. No dogs. One team are made to go bare-chested and one player is still untangling his vest wrapped over his head when a player nutmegs him. 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 are 2-0 up with barely a blink of the eye. Arguments-cum-discussions abound just as, as per always, a smallest boy is summoned to get in the water, in this case the lilac pond, to recover the ball. He is lectured about keeping his head up. And to get on with it, by a ring of Skins eager to get a third goal. A family arrives and Papa on learning that the team his end are 2-0 down urges his wife and toddlers ‘to go look at the River’. He rolls up his sleeves and starts reorganising HIS team from the goalmouth going forward.
The second smallest boy, perhaps fearing that go-get-the-ball-out-of-the-water service will soon be upon him, commits a series of fantastically badly-timed tackles sending the stars and giants of the game crashing, looking up at him. Even his own captain. Had there been a referee this small boy would have walked.
Another incident – a high-speed slip on donkey dung sends the player of the most fanciful footwork and the best-dressed, clean, airborne into a murky pool. His illuminous vest is not so eye-catching now. The fightback however is on. The scores are level. Another small boy, in goals, saves a thunderous shot in his ‘midrift’ and with tears in his eyes completes a second reflex save. But not a third. Random t-shirts abound and when the crumpled boy eventually stands up his reveals “Tell Santa not to speak to my teacher”.
Meanwhile “One Love” sets off on a dazzling run, sidestepping and skipping over all challenges, donkey dung, pieces of hose, plastic bottles, fishing nets, lost shoes, crocs (Bamako means crocodile)…to pass twice and score. 3-3. High fives. The tooth-less witch-doctor in the turquoise cape is beside himself, storming on to the pitch finger-pointing. There is so much laughter all around about everything, he won’t be heard.
Now the ball is in the bramble-bushes and five players with cuts and bleeding are hacking it out mercilessly. One turns to remonstrating the idea of ‘a throw-in’. Taken quickly. Leaving behind the four fighting the bush. This turns into an exquisite move – the throw to foot, a chip, a passing header and a cannonball of a volley with complete follow-through takes the net clean off (had there been one).
The light is fading, the teeth and eyes are smiling and, somewhere, mothers are silently willing their boys home not-too-long-into curfew, in joy and peace, their life-forces intact.
Footnote: Stuart Roy Clarke and his accomplice Lucinda Helen Grange travelled to Mali to photograph football and suddenly, unexpectedly, found themselves in the midst of a military coup. Unable to leave the country. The Mali Premier League was suspended. Local people whose lives were already on the edge were even more on the edge.
The two photographers eventually got out safely, allowed ‘to go home’.