I've never been into football, much to my annoyance. It's a real pain being English and not being a football fan, because every Saturday, between 5 and 6 o'clock, I end up being left out while most of the country sits goggle-eyed as the results roll into the television. More importantly perhaps, football is the global language (along with the music of Bob Marley) and being fluent in football goes a long way to breaking down even the highest cultural barriers. Of course, there are exceptions – India is obsessed with cricket, and in the USA soccer is regarded as a children's game – but in most countries football is a religion, and sometimes I wish I believed in the Beautiful Game.
Unfortunately I don't, and I have to get my sporting kicks from other, more minority pastimes. I like cricket, though I have great trouble explaining why, and I have lots of time for darts, curling and other sports that get almost no television airplay. I used to like snooker back in the days when it was a TV novelty, but like Queen's Greatest Hits and sweet cider I overdosed on it in my youth and now I can't stand it. Hell, I once watched televised bridge without knowing the first thing about the game, but football just leaves me cold. However, I'm a sucker for the mob effect, and live football matches are perfect examples of people power. I've been to a few live matches and they're quite different to an afternoon in front of Soccer Saturday, but nothing prepared me for how much I would enjoy watching Senegal play Nigeria in Dakar's national stadium.
Tragedy struck Senegal on 26 September, a couple of weeks before I flew out. The ferry MV Joola, while plying its regular route along the coast between Ziguinchor in southern Senegal and Dakar in the north, hit a storm and capsized. Of the 1000 or so people on board, the vast majority drowned, including a large number of women and children; even worse, it took a whopping eight-and-a-half hours for the air-sea rescue service to notice that the Joola was in trouble, by which time most of the passengers had already met their maker. One story I heard told how one survivor held on to a piece of wood for nine hours, during which time the four other passengers holding onto the same piece of wood let go one by one, worn out by the storm battering the sea around them. It's impossible to imagine what that would feel like; understandably, the disaster hit Senegal hard.
One positive response to the tragedy was a hurriedly scheduled friendly football match between Senegal and Nigeria, as a tribute to those who perished. I'd originally planned to head north today, but when I heard that there were still tickets available and that the stadium was only just down the road from Yoff, where I'm staying, I joined up with a small group of fans from the hotel, handed over CFA2000 for a ticket, and postponed my departure. It turned out to be an inspired piece of procrastination.
Football is indeed a universal language. As we approached the stadium it was apparent that the whole of Dakar wanted a bit of the action, and I naively assumed that the whole place would be absolute chaos. I was stunned, then, to see that everyone was queuing up in one extremely neat line, each fan standing exactly behind the man in front, never two abreast. I couldn't believe it, and I felt a bit guilty; perhaps the lack of queuing etiquette you come across in Asia doesn't apply to the Senegalese, or perhaps it's a case of football being a higher authority than anything else. Whatever, we joined the back of the long but perfectly formed queue, and started shuffling forward with the rest like an orderly collection of millipede's feet.
I'm not quite sure what happened next, but suddenly the officials herded us into a separate line to stop the ever-expanding first queue from blocking the nearby dual carriageway, and by some amazing fluke our new queue ended up being about three people long. Before anyone else noticed that we'd managed to avoid about 15 minutes of shuffling, we squeezed past the ticket inspectors, grinning madly and flashing our tickets, and a couple of minutes later we were in the stadium.
It was packed. One of the local supporters in our group told me the stadium's capacity was 50,000, and on the other side of the pitch the stands were full, looking like a Jackson Pollock on black canvas as the yellows, reds, greens and whites of the Senegalese strip peppered the stands with colour. The simple but effective stadium terraces had about 50 rows of concrete steps all the way round the pitch, with not one seat in sight; we just sat on the concrete and waited for the entertainment to start while the crowd buzzed in anticipation.
I might know precious little about the subtleties of football, but I can recognise a friendly match when I see one. The crowd was there to watch good football, and that's exactly what they got. Neither team was taking it too seriously, and every time a player managed a particularly skilled turn or played a trick shot, the crowd murmured its approval, whichever side had the ball. Given the swift arrangement of the fixture and the prohibitive cost of flying from Nigeria to Senegal for most Nigerians, the crowd was almost totally Senegalese, but that didn't matter; it was the football that counted.
Surprisingly for such a musical nation the crowd didn't sing any songs – a pity, as I'd love to know what 'Who ate all the halal pies?' sounds like in Senegalese – but the local drum troupe provided a constant and invigorating beat to keep the crowd going, and even the shock scoring of two Nigerian goals in the first five minutes of the second half didn't dampen the crowd's spirits; indeed, the Nigerians got a huge round of applause for both efforts, especially the second one which flew over the Senegalese goalie from just inside the halfway line. Everyone was into the spirit of the game, and when the entire Nigerian team dived to the ground after one of their goals, the stadium grinned from touch-line to touch-line.
I don't know if the football was skilled but it was highly entertaining, and apart from a healthy collection of RADA-standard dives from the Senegalese and one yellow card for a late tackle, it was gentlemanly football to a man. The fact that Senegal scored 15 minutes from the end and then equalised with a couple of minutes to spare was the icing on the cake, and I was up there slapping hands with our neighbours like I'd been supporting Senegal for years. The power of the mob had me, and I wasn't going to let on that my relationship with football hasn't even reached first base. Somehow, out there in the crowd, that sort of technicality doesn't matter one little bit.