The thing with African soccer is its lack of inhibition. Not that Europeans or South Americans are reserved, but there’s certain protocol – organization, technique, non-lethal fan violence – that is ignored to exciting and sometimes tragic results.
Like so much of my brief experience here, there’s no routine, ordinary or usual. There’s a vague overarching goal (whether winning a game, getting a volunteer visa or not dying on the mini-bus) that can be achieved in any way imaginable, so long as it somehow gets done. Reinventing the wheel every day is part of what makes African life, and football, so vibrant and frustrating.
The goal yesterday was for Zambia to qualify for the African Cup of Nations, to be held in Ghana early next year. The Chipolopolo (Copper Bullet) Boys were up against it, needing an away win in Cape Town against continental funboys and group leaders South Africa. *2010 World Cup wistful note: I hope I get to watch game in that stadium*
It was the final game of a bizarre qualification phase for the national team. In June, 12 Zambians died in a stampede when they beat Congo. Last time out (as someone no doubt remembers), Chad somehow didn’t receive their usual drubbing and managed a draw in Lusaka, leading to the ridiculous semi-firing of Zambia's head coach. After already hiring his replacement – a Frenchman – the national media rallied around the flag and successfully argued for his reinstatement. Just last week, a Zambian player dropped dead during practice with his club team in Israel. A circuitous route to Ghana, if there ever was one.
Smuggler’s Inn, the local haunt showing the game on big-screen, was a tomb until the crack of game time. Then they poured in with the usual regalia – scarves, novelty headwear, annoying noisemaking devices – and even a few songs. With an incredibly loud roar for the numbers in attendance, I settled in with a Mosi and hoped my adoptive country could make it to the Gold Coast if I couldn’t; at the very least I’d have more games to watch at the bar.
Everything started off as expected: terrible ball control, frequent losses of possession and errant passing and all over the pitch. But there were equal parts breathless speed, tackling and opportunism that made for the exhilarating anarchy that sport’s all about.
The first half was, from an entertainment standpoint, one of the best I’ve ever seen. Zambia’s tireless pace (if nothing else) tortured the South African defense into a series of embarrassing mistakes, and just six minutes in, the Boys capitalized on a giveaway to take an early lead. The crowd eruption was euphoric if somewhat muted, as if they expected the advantage to be short-lived. I certainly did.
But the team had confidence in spades. 28 minutes in they made it 2-0. Two minutes later it was 3-0 and people just lost their shit. The hardcores stuffed dinner rolls in their pints (a local custom? see photo) and doused each other in beer while casual fans danced carelessly in the aisles. As dusk set in and the game ended – final result 3-1 – a triumphant chorus of car horns filtered in from the road as decorated vehicles raced the streets even faster than usual.
After everything, from scandals to fatalities to braving alcohol-related collisions, at the end of the day the Chipolopolo Boys had qualified. That’s all that really mattered.