One constant in West Africa has been a love of European soccer leagues, primarily the English Premier League (EPL), the Spanish La Liga, and Italian Serie A. Also tremendously popular is the Champions League, and though it won’t happen until later this year, I’ll bet even more popular still will be the Euro 2012 tournament.
With no high-level domestic play locally, the Africans’ passion for the European league is manifested by whole towns turning out for matches; by scores of young guys with pirated European soccer jerseys, so much so that these shirts have become the de facto uniform of young West African men; and by the constant conversation about the matches before and after they take place.
In a testament to how global the European leagues have become, from Morocco to Liberia (and counting), we have seen everywhere signs written on chalkboards inviting patrons to watch matches. Whether it’s a tea house, a restaurant, a bar, or an impromptu movie theater, large groups of men (and occasionally a few women) gather to watch the matches on tiny screens. At their most classic, the venues are dimly lit sweatboxes full of men only, a hundred or more smushed into a tiny room, many of them adorned in the invariably pirated jerseys of their preferred squads. Everyone goes apeshit regularly – it doesn’t have to be a goal but when one is scored, the level of excitement skyrockets into the stratosphere. Everyone cheers wildly – celebrating the global game in a local way – for their chosen team for the particular night, no matter if it’s the team they support habitually. This is modern West African culture on display.
And it’s not only during the match. In Robertsport, Liberia, we were sleeping on the beach one morning, only to be awakened by a group of fishermen at about 5:30am, shouting exuberantly for about an hour. They were from two different boats, so we thought maybe they were having some kind of feud about territory or something. Unable to sleep, I started watching them; a couple of times, it looked like a fight was going to break out but none ever did – they were just excited. A woman passed by and I asked her what they were talking about. “Oh they’re just discussing last night’s football match,” she said, referring to the Champion’s League semifinal between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, which we had watched too.
I’ve always enjoyed watching sports, and it’s great to see these matches bring people together. For many, they also provide a respite for a sometimes difficult life in the world’s poorest region.