Football (or soccer for followers of this blog across the Pond) often gets in to the press for the wrong reasons. Hooliganism, racism, homophobia, overpaid players and corruption all drag the name of football through mud; but in its purest form, the game played by children in, well, mud, brings people together no matter their race, religion or nationality. And as the most popular sport on the planet (4 billion people follow football), fans reflect us, humanity. Christmas day in the trenches 1918; the multi-ethnic French wining the world cup in 1998 (when les bleus became the black-blanc-beur); even recently when Liverpool FC fans composed a new chant about Mo Salah (‘if he scores another few then I’ll be Muslim too’). Football has a magical ability to unite, to make grown men cry, to make strangers embrace; football can be a powerful agent of positive change and the fan, at his heart, is a romantic, a dreamer.
Continuing the series Letters from the Heart of Africa
It’s the evening of 21st May 2008: young men of Kigali file in to tribal lines. An expectant fever grips the city. The two tribes are Chelsea and Manchester United, English premier league teams about to contest the final of the Champions League.
The owner of the Horizon, an airy sports bar in Kiyuvu, wears a huge smile and a small Chelsea shirt, his bulging belly stretches the shirt sponsor, S A M S U N G, and he greets everyone personally, taking 2,000 francs off each of them for entry.
The semi-outdoor sports bar fills for the 9pm kick off. Late comers are ushered to sit behind the screen; for them the advertising billboards, the players’ names on their shirts, the team names at the top of the screen, the score are all reversed. They don’t care; a goal’s a goal; a win’s a win, mirror image or not.
The projector cable dangles precariously, nudged by passing shoulders. The screen suddenly blanks out. Conversation fizzles away. The energy in the room deflates. The room full of a hundred faces freezes and shouts start up. The tubby owner is unflustered – he brings a roll of tape, bites a length and fixes the cable to the edge of the projector. An image flicks up – the lines of players in the tunnel return. We all breathe again.
My friend Thierry kisses his mobile phone, something that he repeats intermittently in the course of the evening; he’s not nervous, Manchester United will win for sure he says.
English Premier League Football occupies the male Rwandan mind obsessively. Windscreens of buses are filled with decals of Christianity and football with equal prominence. Wayne Rooney and Stevie Gerard have as much transport space as Christ and the Saints. When I lived there in 2008, Rwandans mainly supported one of the big four: Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea or Manchester United (City were not big enough then). Tell people you supported a small non-league side, AFC Wimbledon, and you’d get quizzical looks with furrowed eyebrows.
Before the genocide the French League was popular in Rwanda, but the complicity of the French in the genocide, Project Turquoise, followed by a messy divorce, swung things away – Rwanda turned from Francophonie to Anglophonie. English became the second language. Rwanda joined the Commonwealth. The English Premier League was taking off and was wholeheartedly embraced not just here but all across the continent. Africans after supporting their national teams, frequently support a second national team where their English club players play. For example, my friend Yves is a Rwandan Chelsea fan; his first national team is of course Rwanda, the amavubi, the wasps. His second national team is Ivory Coast, because of Didier Drogba the Chelsea striker.
Players enter the pitch. We all stand and clap. It’s all very civilized and gentlemanly, quite unlike the rowdiness of watching football in an English pub and rather like being at a cricket match applauding a fine boundary at Lords from the balcony.
Ferguson comes out; his indefatigable jaw is chewing on a piece of gum, as usual, like he’s trying to destroy it to dust. Frank Lampard looks up to the Moscow clouds, to acknowledge his mother.
There are no chants or songs from us in this room, but yelps as the match kicks off. Ronaldo scores, and the room erupts in places. A man on the other side of the screen takes off his shirt and swings it around the bar. He has a t-shirt on underneath. Bare-chestedness doesn’t work here. Rwandans are a modest and understated people.
The 2nd half is subdued. Around me words are uttered in Kinyrwanda interspersed with an occasional word I can understand, ‘Balak’ , ‘Ferdinand’, ‘offside’, ‘foul’, ‘substituted’. A conversation in English starts behind me.
‘ How many Africans are playing?’
‘Drogba. Ivory coast,’ comes the reply.
‘Makelele,’ says another.
‘No, not Makelele. He is French.’
‘Makele? He is AN AFRICAN.’
‘I tell you he is FRENCH.’
There is a short silence. Then one of the voices, this time softer, utters,
‘He may be French but he is African too.’
Chelsea hit the post twice; there are joyous yelps and quivering long shrieks, like a native American war-cry. Drogba is sent off for slapping an opponent. Cue – polite handclapping. There is a rhythmic hip-swaying from some lads in front of the screen, their shadows like a Bond film opening. The mood is energetic and loud. There are copious amounts of beer on tap, and testosterone in veins. A man runs up and down the side aisle encouraging cheers with flailing arms but apart from this the dynamic between fans is not intense. Just a lot of noise.
The teams are level at 90 minutes. Extra time arrives and goes. It comes to penalties. Ronaldo misses. There are jeers and whistles, and screams. Heads are held in hands.
John Terry, the Chelsea captain squares up for his penalty. A winning chance, a fairy tale ending beckons. In his run up he slips and misses. There are cheers and pained grimaces. Finally, Anelka misses. Manchester United win. Euphoria erupts. People jump and embrace. Other sit, disconsolate and forlorn.
‘I love Ferguson,’ says Thierry. The trophy is presented and people in blue, tanked up and tired, get their mobile phones out to video the scene of ticker tape and flames.
Thierry is kissing his mobile phone again. He’s been doing it all match at random moments.
‘Why do you do that?’
He shows me the screen-saver of his wife and 9 month child. ‘They bring me luck,’ he smiles.
This was a post in the series, ‘Letters from the Heart of Africa’ first published on http://www.heyloons.com. Previous posts in the series are below, further posts will be published over the summer of 2018.
20. Feeling down
25. As time goes by