The stands filled to the brim, football mad African crowds singing and dancing, the glorious victory run back through an admiring team. That is how I imagined my international debut.
Our footballing campaign in Punia was inspired by the World Cup. In the usual morning conversations about the previous night’s matches, which I had occasionally watched in the bar across the road (a TV on a plastic table under the palm trees), I was desperate to hide my ignorance. So, before the motards realized I only knew three international footballers, I would turn the conversation to their own footballing exploits, and soon discovered that, at least according to their own judgement, there was a pool of untapped talent. I plotted with Yusufu, head mechanic and undisputed captain of our humble band, who fixed a debut match against a team of local businessmen.
On match day, I arrived at the allotted time at Punia’s main stadium, hoping for a few minutes to gaze into the stands, soak up the atmosphere and elevate my mind to a glorious match-winning mentality. The stands I had dreamed of were there – a concrete structure the size of a small house, with the remnants of peeling paint from yesteryear, and faded black letters spelling out the name, M’piala. From the stands, the pitch ran out into town – looking straight across to the winding track that formed the main highway, left to the crumbling offices of the electric company, and right to the back side of a palm fence behind a cluster of mud huts. The pitch was a mix of bare earth and tufted grass, with a large stagnant puddle covering much of the left approach to the southern goal. I shared the turf with a few grazing goats, and began to stretch off. An hour went by, maybe more – I retired to the stands to study the pitch and chew grass.
Eventually, a cacophony of horns and chanting erupted over the hill, and two pickups bounced into the stadium. Yusufu and his boys leapt onto the pitch, followed sedately by our opponents, climbing gingerly from the truck bed, as if not wanting to burden their aging joints with the full weight of their rotund forms. And clearly, the match had needed no publicity, for word had got around town, and the spectators started to trickle in from all corners of the stadium – football teams, barefooted schoolchildren, passing motorcyclists, shopkeepers from the town centre – the stands would be full after all.
The match itself passed in a whirl of heat and excitement – although far quicker with the tongue than the ball, the businessmen turned out to be a passable opposition, but no match for the accelerations of barefooted whippet Djavu up the wing. Defensive lines and midfield strategy never featured – Yusufu, rock of the central defense in a weightlifter’s vest, would twirl and twist the full length of the pitch before scuffing his powerful shot into the long grass. However, none got the crowd roaring as much as Rashaz. Old diabetic Muslim Rashaz, who had been relegated from the long motorbike rides to the short journeys which could be achieved with the landcruiser, and whose steering wheel he struggled to squeeze behind. When the ball headed for Rashaz, when he made a pass or began a lumbering few paces, the crowd went wild – and, a few steps later, doubled over with a wide grin on his panting face, Rashaz would raise his hand in bewildered appreciation, and the crowd would fall about laughing.
After our victorious debut, we carried on working out way through Punia’s footballing ranks – we played the local bicycle mechanics, who turned up with black oil on their hands, and then our local health authority partners, sliding on a waterlogged pitch under the warm rain. With each passing game, the transfer market became dirtier, as each team began to pull in ringers, local footballing superstars who might have worked as a ‘journalier’ driver once upon a time. The pre-match preparations evolved to include team introductions, and a surreptitious clarification of the cover story was required, in order to face the inevitable complaints from the opposition. One player who was assured a spot in every team however, was gladiatorial Rashaz, who had won the hearts of the M’piala Colosseum.
This, I felt, is the beauty of 22 men pointlessly chasing a bladder around the grass: On a pitch, we were equals – there were no nations, no white and black, no Muslim and Christian, no workplace hierarchies. Yusufu had learned his game chasing a ball between the mud huts in central Congo, I had been schooled 10,000 miles away on the pristine pitches of a boarding school in village England. The games did more for our local safety and the success of our projects than any official meetings or security strategies. My own salvation arrived with a left footer, soaring through the empty posts past the bemused cement merchant. I had finally returned to the glorious level of my teenage years, as star runner for the school 6th XI, a position I had won by virtue of being the only non-smoker on the team. More importantly, in a community suspicious and paranoid of outsiders, I had a strong sense that this was when we had really begun to break down Punia’s defensive barriers.