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Only connect (with the ball): how football is, well, important.

December 10, 2010

There’s something I never thought I’d say.

As a Briton, If you want to converse with locals and get under the skin of Ethiopian life, there’s one thing you need to understand. And it’s not Amharic.

It’s what boys are playing on grassy patches and dusty clearings the city over, or if there’s no open spaces nearby, in miniature, huddled around rows of well-worn tables on the sides of roads. It’s what the kids near my house want to play when they shout at me to give them a ‘kwass’ – ‘ball’ – and it’s what captivated the whole continent during the World Cup. 

But ultimately, it’s about a prestigious, venerated and very English institution adored the world over – the Premier League.

and in one minibus, it's this. best minibus ever.

Scores of Ethiopians gather in bars on Saturdays to watch fixtures, and posters and stickers of popular teams adorn the walls of minibuses. But there are two icons of devotion in Addis Ababa: the Virgin Mary and Man U. Rear-view mirrors almost always have something dangling from them, and if it’s not a cross or the Holy Mother, it’s probably Wayne Rooney.

Boy, how that man gets around. On a field visit in Awassa, southern Ethiopia, we take our 4×4 on a thin track, through clouds of dust, for about fifteen minutes to visit some newly-irrigated fields, where we find, in the middle of the middle of nowhere, a boy in a Rooney shirt.

far far left: boy in the middle of nowhere in a rooney shirt.

A few hours later, driving back from a cash-for-work scheme where the community is building a road, I glimpse, through the slats of its fence, a hut plastered with a huge poster of an English team: no road, but posters of footballers.

Premier, then, is an understatement for the League’s popularity here. Which means that, if you’re English, you’re an ambassador for football – whether you like it or not. The first thing my students asked me was what team I supported. ‘Everyone knows that England is the home of football,’ commiserates Teddy, a guide at the museum I’m visiting, as we discuss FIFA’s recent choice of world cup host nations. (He’s just discovered I’m English).

‘I’m sure England will host it soon, maybe 2030,’ he continues, ‘or maybe for the next millennium, 3000!’

And this is why, although my knowledge of football derives substantially from Merlin sticker albums circa 1994 (Sheffield Wednesday ftw!), I don’t mind being its ambassador here. It generates conversation – sometimes it is the conversation, and this is priceless.

Walking home in the dark one power-cut evening, a boy comes up to me and asks where I’m from. I won’t forget the way his face lights up when I say, ‘England’. ‘Rooney!’ he replies, and thus ensues a short but meaningful exchange about favourite football teams and players. As it tails off he says his goodbyes and leaves: I’ve assumed that, like most children who approach me, he wants money or food, but he just wants to talk about football.

man u binbag, in the middle of addis ababa

This happens fairly often – another time, lost in Piazza, a boy greets me and asks where I’m from, followed, inevitably, by my favourite football team. ‘Manchester United,’ I lie, and the look on his face is priceless – as passionate as the other boy’s, but completely the opposite. It’s disgust. He’s an Arsenal fan.

Other instances abound – short exchanges on minibuses, a longer chat with two guards in the car park of Dembel mall, who wave me goodbye when my taxi finally comes. Ethiopians are a truly friendly people, and it doesn’t take much for their warmth to show. In most cases, they can speak hardly any English, or I Amharic, but there’s one thing we have in common. We can communicate through football.

And, as I discover in truly cringe-making circumstances, not just by discussing it, but playing it, too. When I see a large crowd gathered in a circle on a street in central Addis Ababa, I weave into it (has FCO advice taught me nothing?) to discover, in the centre, a man doing utterly incredible juggling – balancing three beer bottles on his mouth, heading a football while changing his shirt, performing an endless succession of keepy-uppies.

When I discovered this unmanned and outside, I thought it was junk. I didn’t realise it was just communal.

Occasionally he stops to banter with the crowd, delivering the ball into our midst for someone to kick back. As the only farenji (foreigner), I am an obvious target. I catch the ball no problem (I was a mean goalkeeper in my day), but kicking it? Not my strong point. Hoping for the best, I throw it up and extend my leg in a promising direction…

It doesn’t connect. Two hundred-odd Ethiopians laugh uproariously as my leg kicks air and the ball bounces away towards the middle. I’m used to sporting ignominy, but this is something else.

When he’s retrieved the ball, the balancing-man moves on to headers and, inevitably, when he’s had enough, angles the ball my way. Two-hundred people look on. I steel myself for failure. And head it back.

Total connection.

Two hundred-odd Ethiopians clap uproariously and cheer at length. I’m overwhelmed  – all I’ve done is head a ball. But I guess I didn’t have to join in, I didn’t have to laugh at myself, I didn’t have to stay. I’m very glad I did.

I won’t go as far as Korea’s World Cup bid video, where football literally breaks through a wall, but it can break the ice, and in some cases an otherwise total linguistic barrier. It can even make a difference in ways you wouldn’t expect – as I discovered when I stumbled on this blog about a charity in North Ethiopia using football to encourage students to re-engage with learning.

Football-based initiatives abound, and in Ethiopia there’s also the Tabor Wegagen Association, who’ve created a football team to promote the sport ‘as an alternative to unsafe sex, drugs and violence’. As the UNICEF article, about how football helps communities, puts it:

 ‘in economically depressed Ethiopia, football offers one of the few healthy diversions for young people suffering from the country’s high unemployment rate and limited educational opportunities.’

Who woulda thought it? I don’t have a favourite team yet, but now I’m definitely a fan of the beautiful game.

PS This post is dedicated to Nav, for teaching me everything I know about football (and Keynesian economics…) Legend.

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