Africa Cup of Nations Opening Match: The Man with the Loudest Horn sits Alone

There is no great insight about the sport of soccer to be gained here. My seat for the opening match of the Africa Cup of Nations in Johannesburg was in the 5th row. Close enough to hear and feel the players, but also too close to analyze the tactics and formations. It was, however, perfectly situated for those interested in the spectacle, the fun, the cheering, chants and music around the beautiful game.

My seat was to the right of the keeper 5 rows back. To my left, directly behind the opposing goal, was a large contingent of those covered in yellow and green: the South African supporters. I have adopted the teams of my new home and was supporting Bafana Bafana, as the nation soccer team in South Africa is lovingly called. If you need a translation try ‘The Boys, The Boys!’ or ‘Go Boys, Go Boys!’

Speeches were given, the President spoke, the national anthems were sang. When kick off ensued, another song was sung with the same passion as the anthem itself:

Shosholoza (to push forward)

Shosholoza, shosholoza (Moving fast, moving strong)
Ku lezontaba (Through those mountains)
Stimela sphuma eSouth Africa (Train from South Africa)
Wenu yabaleka (You are leaving)
Wenu yabaleka (You are leaving)
Ku lezontaba (Through those mountains)
Stimela siphum’ eSouth Africa (Train from South Africa)

I have never, ever, in my 32 years heard 90 000 people sing a song together in unison without prompting. For this experience I would like to thank every South African that was there that day and who has ever participated, that was really beautiful.

Now in North America that would basically be the end of it. Not here, the noise and fervour and jumping from your seat excitement continued all match. This was the loudest, most passionate and most in touch crowd I have known. And this is coming from a guy who spent a year working for his beloved Vancouver Whitecaps FC who should be biased but can not be. The match was not great, there were few chances as both teams played deep for the opening match tie. This did not stop anyone from getting into the match and enjoying the action.

What’s more is that during lulls people made their own fun. Some of this fun was no fun for others. Sitting directly in front of me was a man with a vuvuzela that wasn’t quite a vuvuzela. To the mouthpiece he had an attachment that double or even tripled the noise that these loud instruments could make. The horn itself was faded from countless days under the African sun and you could see, if you looked, that it was often used. One person asked him to point the horn to the pitch, he was swiftly whacked by the loud horned one for daring to suggest someone else stop having his own sort of fun. The man with the loudest horn soon sat alone with a ring of empty seats all around him.

Later in the match a very muscular man in a vest (tank top for my NA pals) was standing at the railing loudly supporting his team. When I say muscular I mean built like Lou Ferrigno. He befriended a group of other supporters sitting behind him and they got to talking. It soon lead to a flex off between the big guy and a man who was basically skin, bone and humour. They posed side by side as everyone had a laugh at the disparity in size. Sometimes you just have to find your own laughs at a soccer match and South Africans know where to find them.

The first match ended in a draw. About 75% of the crowd went home as Bafana were done for the day. The second match was between Angola and Morocco and I happened to be hanging out with an Angolan friend. We HAD TO stay.

The match began as any other, speeches, anthems and the whole thing. This time there was no special song sang at kick off. Instead, among the Angolan section set aside by their consulate a drum and horn band came marching down the stairs. It was quickly determined that this is where myself and the Angolans I was now watching the match with needed to be. Had to be. Must be.

We made our way there and as we approached the security guard for the area pointed to the group and said ‘you are Angolan and I will let you in,’ then pointed to me and said ‘but what about this guy.’ One of them chimed in that we were married and I was half Angolan. The right lie can get you in anywhere some days.

The crowd all spoke Portuguese, a language I know not one word of. I did understand the music and the fun as we danced between the cheers and gasps of too close goals and bad calls. Flags were waved, banners soared and the feeling and impact of the passion was the same from this small crowd as the larger one.

How to conclude this article? How indeed. All I can think of, and all that seems appropriate is this:

Thank you to all Africans who shared this with me, and to all South Africans for hosting this tournament. Sincerely.

Now on to Rustenberg to see the legends Didier Drogba and Emmanuel Adebayor in person during an Ivory Coast v Togo match.

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Will the Return of Soccer Help Heal Cairo?

I stepped onto an airplane at JFK International Airport on January 1 2013, leaving behind a whole city hungover and drinking mimosas with just enough orange juice to make them feel ok about their decision to drink more booze. It was cool but not that cold, the snow ‘Live from Times Square’ at midnight the night before was fake, the warmth of the people was not. I had visited this hub-bub and the hundred shouting cops telling me exactly where to put each foot as I traversed the packed shoulder to shoulder streets ‘Hey, mohawk,’ they would shout at me, ‘this way! No, this way.’ ‘Yeah man, no problem,’ I would reply and step in the general direction of ‘the hell out of here.’ I left Times Square and went instead to the Lower East Side and drank whiskys (plural, yes, at least 2 kinds) the requisite champagne at 12 and many cheeks were kissed as I hugged strangers I will likely never again meet. But that is New Years in New York City.

The airplane is the point of this story. It was an Air Egypt flight, 14 hours to Cairo and my first time outside of North America. I had booked a tour with Memphis Tours to see the Giza Pyramids and Sphinx with a stop or 2 at local markets for fun, drinks and pointless consumerism of unique gifts. I slept most of the flight and woke to find myself over Africa.

A man playing with a soccer ball in Egypt on a sandy beach.

A man plays soccer under Egyptian skies.
Photo credit to: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fourthfloor/

Don’t worry, we’re getting to the soccer soon.

I was greeted at the airport by my guide, Mohamed Abdel Salam, and my driver, Mohamed. No, I’m not being smart! I met 3 other men named Mohamed during my time in Egypt. It is a popular name considering the importance of Muhammad Ali, who is still spoken of quite highly as a leader of modern Egypt, 50 years after his death. We began our trip through the chaotic 4 lanes driven 5 cars wide with motorcycles darting about that is normal in 22 million strong Cairo, and on our way to one of the most revered of ancient wonders of the world, I had to talk about soccer.

Me: “Mohamed, the two big teams here in Cairo are um, forgive my pronunciation, Al Ahly and Zamalek, right?”
Mohamed: “Yes. And now you will forget the name Zamalek and you will join the rest of Cairo in cheering for Al Ahly.”
Me: “Ha! I was wondering which way the fans would fall on that division. I have not preferred either but I will join you my friend.”
Mohamed: “Good. Zamalek has many fans but they are not the true Egyptians and many of them are the rich. The real people of Cairo cheer for Al Ahly.”
Me: “Al Ahly sounds like my kind of team. Let’s not talk about Zamalek anymore.”

I laugh, he laughs and we continue on to the Giza pyramids. We cross the Nile River into Giza where I ride a camel and see the Sphinx. We discuss the history of Egypt extensively as we see the sights where ancient structures frame a modern metropolis, but this is not a travel blog.

We are heading back to the airport at night and as Mohamed points out the beautiful Mosques of Cairo, some of them more stunning than any church in all of North America, I keep an eye out for soccer. I count 5 pick up soccer matches being played in lit fields along the highway. It is cool at night in the desert, but I still see the players sweat and work and push for goal. Egypt does not play soccer. They live it, I see no signs of any other sport being played or enjoyed anywhere in the city, except maybe for a game on horses with whips at the exit we took from the pyramids.

Mohamed and I discuss our favourite Euro clubs: Arsenal, Norwich City and FC Barcelona for me, FC Barcelona for him as well. He does not have the same excitement in his voice for these teams as when he speaks of Al Ahly, but we both speak reverently of Leo Messi. How could you not, except out of jealousy that he once thumped your club.

Me: “How do you feel about the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations?”
Mohamed: “Not very well for Egypt.”
Me: “Why is that?”
Mohamed: “Our league has been shut down since last year. Our players are out of practice”
Me: “Oh yeah?” I feign ignorance of the Port Said riot where more than 70 fans of Al Ahly were killed, to hear some of his opinions.
Mohamed: “Yes, with the violence and everything going on we have been shut down.” He looks down, which is rare for him and says much about a sadness he must carry over the disaster. He looks back up and continues, “but we should start again next month after the Cup.” I can see some hope come back to him at this. He says no more and changes the subject. Egypt has some work to do to be a completely stable country once more. Anyone can see that. I see on his face that Egypt needs soccer back to heal, I drop the topic and do not push on the still open wound any more.

At the airport I thank both Mohameds for an excellent time and wish them, their country and Al Ahly all the best and much success. If you are worried about visiting Egypt do not be. You should be smart, book a good tour guide if you do not have the time to research, and please do stop by where you will be met, regardless of your nationality or race, with the greeting: “Welcome back home.”

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The True Trip to South Africa Begins Soon

A picture of South Africa: How it was…..
Photo credit to: http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3356/3479180033_60e703e34e.jpg

I’m taking a moment from the 2 full time jobs I’m working to let you all in on my plans and future movements toward Africa and the soccer organizations I will work with there.

I have booked my flight to South Africa. I will fly out of New York City on January 1 via Egypt Air. I will have an 11 hour layover in Cairo before continuing on to Johannesburg where I will stay for 1 month and watch some of the Africa Cup of Nations tournament and connect with some local soccer organizations. I will then head to Cape Town for the beginning of February. The visa I am applying for will be for 9 months.

What is there to say but I am slightly nervous, a bit excited and slightly detached. I keep telling people what I’m up to and they continue to act as if I am launching myself to the moon. Mentioning Africa puts strange thoughts in the minds of western people, to me it is another trip with the same anxiety as any other. I stopped fearing any trip the day I left home for parts unknown 5 years ago and walked in every shadow I could find along the way. Am I naive enough to believe the slums of South Africa will be like any walk through the slums of Vancouver? Or New York? Or any other North American city who’s dirt I’ve put my feet in? No. But I have learned you live your life or you do not.

And so much for that rambling philosophy. It is t-minus two weeks until I leave Vancouver and get this under way. What I would like to ask any of you reading who care to share: what would you be doing right now? Packing? Planning? Partying? Any other ‘P’? It would be great to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.

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Thoughts on the ‘White Saviour Industrial Complex’ From a Born White Male

The thinking behind the ‘White Saviour Industrial Complex’ (WSIC) has been one long on my mind since before I first read Teju Cole’s thoughts on, and naming of, the idea. There have been many times where I have thought to myself ‘what right do I have to go anywhere and think I have any god damn idea what I’m REALLY doing among these vastly different cultures?’ I reconciled that with the fact I’m only intending on reporting with as unbiased a view as I am capable of, and not actually participating or telling anyone what to do.

The genesis of the WSIC for Teju was after seeing the Kony2012 video. He posted a series of messages to his Twitter account that got some folks a bit riled up. There was some language in there I found a bit off-putting, but for the most part I felt the same way he did. I was not swept up in Kony2012. I only thought ‘I wonder what is really going on here.’ I felt the narrator was a borderline zealot and possible nut job (which if my spotty memory serves me proved to be true) with his heart in nearly the right place. I was also annoyed with his endless attempt at tugging at my very firmly planted heart strings with images of his son, but Kony2012 isn’t the subject here so I’ll lay it to rest.

The main notion that Teju touches on with WSIC, and that has been ringing through my mind, is how these types of experiences are being turned into commodities and being hyper industrialized by Western society. The west loves doing this, we’ve been doing it for more than a century, and I’m sure that anything you care to name could be commodified and industrialized by someone in this society. It irks me to think that people helping people can, could, and has had this done to it. We need to take caution in this regard, in my opinion.

He also argues that people would be better off worrying about their own countries doings, such as the Iraq war, rather than the “awful African warlord.” Which is fair, people should be worried about their countries. The issue it raises for me is this potentially a line of thinking that lead to Martin Niemöller and his “First they came for the communists, but I did not speak out because I am not a communist” statement.

I am by no means comparing Teju to a Nazi mentality (whom Martin was speaking of in those quotes) or anything o that nature. Rather it seems to me that someone could take a line of thought like that and interpret it that way. It’s a slipperly slope unless you have good cleats on, and most people these days wear slippers.

I feel that Teju was touching on the idea that other people’s problems were just that, other people’s problems and that we should not interfere directly without all the facts. He was saying it would be best to hang back and influence foreign policy in our own countries, but even that sounds to me like ‘stay where you are and do not explore the reality.’ That isn’t what I want to do. I don’t want to experience the world from North America. It is no way to get a true picture and the whole story. I want the whole story. I want to breath it and feel it under my fingernails.

I’m going to need some more time to digest all of what he said for this is a matter that I do care deeply about, but this last point is one which rubs me the wrong way. I believe quite fiercely that borders should mean nothing and that we are all one people on One Earth.

At the need of all this I highly respected the position he has taken and how he articulates it. I am glad he helped to put words to thoughts I have been having. His main thesis is that you must know the underlying causation of a problem before you can truly solve it. That has been my goal all along. To find out what is really going on and share it. It takes a bit more time, a bit more thought than ‘liking’ a video on Facebook to pursue real change.  It takes a few pushes on the doors leading to the corridors of power.

With all that in mind, I still believe that there is time for people to take time out of their lives, get away from this awful monstrosity we make of modern consumerist culture, and see some more of the world so we know first hand what we are talking about when we tell our governments we want to change how our country treats others.

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Senegal v. Ivory Coast Ends in Fires

I was watching the Ivory Coast v. Senegal match today. This was the first time I’ve sat down and watched a match on TV in too long. I was cheering for Senegal as I have friends from there and I was having a good time with it. The teams were spirited, the fans came out in droves to cheer on their home side in Dakar, and the teams were both very muscular in their pursuit of a result for their side.

Senegal was clearly outclassed and were already down 4-2 on aggregate from the first leg of the match. That’s a tough position to be in when you’re playing against a guy named Drogba and two guys named Toure. Senegal pressed very hard with repeated crosses into the box that could have resulted in goals, until one of those 3 previously mentioned players stepped in and headed the ball away. Again and again.

The inevitable happened at 52 minutes when Drogba scored on a free kick. The match continued until a penalty (I saw a hand ball and a trip, others disagree but the call still stands) converted by Drogba set off the down mood in the stands into an angry mood. The celebration infront of the home crowd by the visitors didn’t help much either. But who can blame the scorer for being happy?

It started with a pitch invasion that was ended at mid field by a tackle from police. Then a fire broke out around mid field up in the poorly designed terraces. It descended into general anarchy and disorder from there. Fires all around, Ivory Coast fans abused, explosions and smoke with fans gathering and pressing in groups from terror and excitement. The match was suspended, and at this time likely abandoned. The audio feed was cut so I do not know the ultimate outcome.

I was watching the match while chatting online with a friend of mine from Kenya. She was born in Nairobi, raised in a village outside the town until high school, and grew up in Canada and Kenya in alternating years from then on. She is a huge soccer fan and watched numerous matches back home in Kenya. I told her what was going on when the fires started to happen and she replied “That’s Africa for you. We go hard.”

I continued to watch as the terraces emptied and the commentators spoke on. What I saw as the people left the spaces around them empty was a stadium built for rioting. 60 000 people all packed into one level of a terrace with few exits, no aisles, and no seating. This is exactly the stadium design at fault for every other stadium disaster in soccer’s history. This was not an ‘Africa for you.’ Rioting over sports is not something I’d put on any one nation or nationality. I was working as a bouncer at a club in downtown Vancouver after game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals when the Canucks lost.

What happened in Senegal today was the result you get when 60 000 people in a constrained place are the wrong kind of passionate about what is going on around them. Couple that with poor exits, poor walking paths, and a bad police/security presence (despite 1000 claimed to be on hand) and this will happen in England, Canada, USA, Spain, and anywhere else. It is a shame, but I will not blame it on the African people. As a Canadian who has had a few lung fulls of tear gas and mace because a sports team lost, I will say it is much more than the ethnicity of those participating that matters. I will even say it is the last factor to look at.

I do hope everyone at the Senegal v. Ivory Coast match got out of the stadium in Dakar uninjured. I believe it is time for careful consideration on all stadiums that are to be built in Africa and everywhere else, and to consider alternatives to the current ones still in use. These types of old terraced single level stadiums are no longer acceptable for any sporting event of this size.

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Charity, Aid, and Development in Africa: What the Words Mean to Me

The most frequent question I get from journalists and other soccer blog writers who are looking to dig that extra step deeper goes something like this: “How do you feel it is possible for soccer to provide aid in Africa?” Or maybe more like this: “Can soccer be a form of aid in Africa?”

I understand what they’re trying to ask. I feel that the words, and the perceptions these words bring, are incorrect in these instances. Words are very important to me. I have complete faith in Mark Twain and his quote: “The difference between the right word, and the almost right word, is like the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.” Is it a brilliant and powerful flash of light that illuminates the night sky, or a tiny blinking insect that you can only see for a moment or two? ‘Charity’ and ‘Aid’ are the almost right words.

I feel that the word ‘aid’ implies a one time cause. The victims of Hurricane Katrina required aid. Those caught up in earthquakes, tornadoes, landslides and other short term disasters require aid. It is the same with the word ‘charity.’ The words imply giving a sum of money and walking away. They imply an unsustainable interest.

‘Development,’ ‘building,’ and ‘bridging’ are the words that I feel better apply to the type of organizations I wish to profile. To connect those words with other important words we’ll say sport development, community building, and societal bridging are the key concepts.

Africa doesn’t need aid. Africa (and yes I’m generalizing about an entire continent, I don’t have the time to research and write an entire book in this one blog post) is not facing a natural disaster every day. The people of Africa can, and do, get by on their own. What I want to discover is if these groups are participating in activities that lead to community building through sport to improve quality of life indefinitely. I want to observe if what is happening, with people from all over the world actually going to Africa and participating, is also what I want my audience to get from this – societal bridging. By building links between actual people, not governments or faceless organizations, we will all come closer together in terms of equality of standard of living and in our understanding of one another. This should lead to everyone becoming and remaining interested in the world around them, and for soccer to play a part in that equation.

You may be thinking, what do I mean when I say I want to ‘profile charitable organizations‘ then. I am speaking of the actual program administrations themselves. People and corporations donate money to these groups and walk away. It is the actual volunteers, coaches, teachers, mentors and front line staff administering these programs to the people they directly affect that are the ones doing this developing, building and bridging. The organizations are charitable by nature, the programs they administer shouldn’t be. Walking away is no longer acceptable.

I hope I have given you a better understanding of how I feel about the words ‘charity’ and ‘aid’ as they apply to development in Africa. What are your thoughts? The comment section is below if you would like to discuss.

If you would like to contribute to my ability to undertake the task of profiling these groups first hand please visit my fundraising campaign homepage: http://igg.me/p/193979?a=796969

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African Cup of Nations Soccer Highlights 2012

Part of why I want to go to South Africa is the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations taking place there. After watching this video I am even more psyched! Give it a watch yourself and see why.

Africa Cup of Nations Soccer Highlights 2012:

Yes, I want to go and profile these charitable organizations as outlined in my plan, that is my goal. Let’s be real here though: I’m also going to have the opportunity to watch some world class soccer!

Visit my funding page now on IndieGogo to contribute and be a part of this journey.

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