“Mourinho! Mourinho!Mourinho!” was the chant from the euphoric crowd. Replica jerseys were whipped around in a sweat-drenched frenzy. Real Madrid had just beaten Barcelona to win the Copa del Rey for the first time in 20 years and it was pure ecstasy for the fans. For 2 hours they had watched, mesmerised and nerve-wracked on the edge of their seats, as the two Spanish giants battled it out. When the winning goal was scored, an explosion of whooping and hollering drowned out everything else and the celebrations continued long into the night.
But the setting was not the Fontana de Cibeles in Madrid, where Real Madrid fans traditionally gather to celebrate their team’s success, or even a bar anywhere in Spain. Instead, we were in the middle of Guinea, in a tiny ‘video club’ –small buildings, or even huts, in which televisions have been set up for screening sporting events. In one corner lay the bed of the owner and, in the front centre of the room, two small-screen TVs. The rest of the room was entirely occupied by rows of benches, tightly squeezed together to cram as many avid fans as possible, each one having paid a small sum for this privilege. In these rooms, the temperature rises by 5-10 degrees just from the sheer volume of human congestion. It’s humid, sweaty, smelly, and there’s a very high risk of becoming intimately acquainted with your neighbour’s armpits. But ask the fans if they care. These young men –and occasionally a brave woman or two –are as fanatic about their team as any supporter seated comfortably in a European stadium.
There are people who enjoy the game as pure entertainment. And then there are those who agree entirely with Bill Shankly: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I’m very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
The beautiful game can reduce the most hardened of grown men and women to blubbering fools. Men have killed wives who got in the way of watching a World Cup match. I could recount many stories from personal experience about how football brings out fanaticism in its supporters in Africa. But what is more interesting than the how is the why? Why is every conversation in a taxi in Sierra Leone talking about the previous night’s game instead of a rising food prices? Why is it that in a place with staggering levels of illiteracy and where internet access is a rare privilege, the average fan can tell you the latest transfer or injury news concerning their team, thousands of miles away? Why do people who have no discernable source of income find a way to pay the entry fee to video clubs, week after week, to watch players that have no idea or care of their existence?
I’ve tried many times to explain the phenomenon of sports fanaticism to people who don’t understand the obsession with football: at its most fundamental, in the heart and mind of the fanatic, it’s not about the sport, but about tribalism. The love of the game is about more than just the 11 players on the pitch. It’s more than the trophies in the cabinet. Any football club, to its hardcore supporters, is far more than the sum of its parts. It’s a community within itself, a distinct tribe, with its own origin myths, heroes and legends, trials and tribulations, and eras of glory. It requires its members to enact certain rituals and perform public and private acts of allegiance.
But, unlike the traditional tribe, it is a totally inclusive community, wherein the boundaries of belonging are remarkably easy to define. Yes, there are some fundamentalists who believe that only people with history in the local area can legitimately claim to be fans of a club. But they are in the minority. For the most part, you decide to become a fan and you are free to choose which club you belong to. The only strict condition for membership is that you show loyalty to your team. Arsenal have gone 6 years without winning a single thing, and yet they boast legions of fans in Sierra Leone.
Where the dynamic in Africa (at least where I’ve been) gets particularly interesting is that in Europe, identity politics still plays a big role in communities of fans, because these clubs were created in specific social and historical conditions. In Rome, traditionally Lazio supporters are right-wing compared to their left-wing AS Roma counterparts. In Glasgow, Celtic are the ‘Catholic club’ and Rangers are the ‘Protestant club’, with serious incidents of sectarian violence common when the clubs meet. In Spain, Atletico Madrid and Real Betis are the ‘working class’ club to Real Madrid and Sevilla FC’s aristocratic origins. Athletic Bilbao –a club that unabashedly trumpets it Basque identity and resistance to assimilation to the Castilian regime –have a club policy of playing only Basques and you would be hard-pressed to find a local supporter who disagrees.
But in the places I’ve been in West Africa, the tribalistic comforts of football lose any hint of race, class, religion, and political affiliation. There is no Mandingo, Mende, Fula, Igbo, Soussou or Bamileke club. You don’t have to be the son of a chief to follow Chelsea. Muslims, Christians and animists call themselves Barcelona fans. Your place of birth says nothing about your association with a particular football club. Indeed it’s a refreshing change to see so much passion and loyalty demonstrated, meanwhile traditional identity politics are discarded.
Of course, it’s not all peace and fluffy bunnies. In football, the most negative elements of tribalism also tend to rear their ugly heads. It’s not always just enough to belong; some also feel the need to turn those who do not belong into an enemy, hated beyond reason. There is a fine line preventing loyalty and passion from spilling over in disorder and violence. Unfortunately, as in Europe, incidents of violence among rival fans in Africa are not rare. On balance, however, it’s the shared glories and highs of winning that define the experience of being a fan, rather than the bitterness of defeat and aggression towards rivals.
And in countries where the state and social systems offer few comforts to the average citizen, it’s not hyperbole to claim that your team winning a big match brings a certain high, a glow from a sense of being part of the glory and success. Defeat is painful, yes, but the beauty of the competition is that it gives you something new to look forward to every week. Every upcoming game offers the chance for redemption, another shot at glory.
Are these just the ramblings of an indoctrinated fanatic? Perhaps. But then, it was Albert Camus who said: “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football“.