Arsenal v Manchester United, Saturday November 3rd 2007
Football fever in football-mad Ghana will reach a crescendo in January, when the African Nations Cup kicks off in the capital, Accra. Ghanaians are passionate about their national football team – the Black Stars - but they also get mighty worked up about English football. Every Saturday afternoon in Accra (Ghana time being exactly the same as GMT), thousands of men, too poor to own satellite TV, pack into bars and halls to watch the English Premiership.
Last Saturday my friend, Abdulai, invited me and two other Englishmen to join him in a nameless location in downtown Accra to watch Arsenal v Manchester United.
For 7000 cedis (about 40p) we entered a large undecorated hall, where five hundred men, seated on plastic chairs, were grouped around four TV's. The TV’s were mounted on small tables, which were mounted on big tables. The game had just started, and the chairs were all filled, so we had to make do with a wooden bench at the back.
There were no women or children in the hall, only men, and we were the only obruni
(white foreigners). This was a
game for male adults only – a needle match between two teams and two managers who hated each other’s guts.
It was hot and humid sitting there, and after ten minutes my shirt was drenched in sweat. All the windows were shuttered up, to ensure that nobody sneaked in without paying, and the few ceiling fans rotated ineffectually. The expanse of corrugated tin not far overhead, combined with the number of bodies squeezed together, made me think of human sardines. Every so often a refreshing breeze would waft through the air-vent in the wall behind me, carrying the stench of human faeces. I craved water, but there was none to be had.
In fact, the lack of creature comforts hardly mattered, because the match itself was utterly compelling, and the crowd even more so. Never have I been part of such an animated yet good-natured football crowd. There was heated debate whenever the referee blew for a foul. There was huge and noisy expectancy as a promising attack built up, and corresponding disappointment when it broke down. There was applause when the camera singled out an African player. There were jeers and cheers for Wayne Rooney. English football
crowds are staid by comparison.
Manchester United scored first, and the place erupted – men exploding from their seats, dancing, clapping, cheering, shouting incomprehensibly in Twi (the local lingo). When Arsenal equalized, a different set of supporters made whoopee. It was clear now that most of the crowd supported Arsenal. This was probably because Arsenal had four West Africans in their team (Sagna from Senegal, Adebayor from Togo, Eboué and Touré from Ivory Coast) compared to Manchester’s one: Evra from Senegal.
We were perhaps the first white people daring enough to enter this place, and the locals graciously accepted our presence, our vocal support for one team or the other. Among the Ghanaians there was no bad feeling, no hooliganism. Arsenal fans and Manchester fans, resplendent in the shirts of their heroes, sat side by side, Fabregas 4 happily rubbing shoulders with Ronaldo 7. There was no segregation because no segregation was necessary. The shouting and gesticulating were non-confrontational, just a healthy and harmless letting off of steam. This could never happen in England where, if you filled a hall with Arsenal and Manchester United fans, they would be at each other’s throats – literally.
In the last minute, Arsenal levelled the score at 2-2, sparking the longest and wildest celebrations of the afternoon. Our TV screen was blotted out by dancing Arsenal fans, so the men in front of me stood up on their chairs to watch the final seconds of the game, forcing me to do the same. Merry chaos reigned as the Arsenal fans capered and screamed for joy, knotting their shirts into missiles and hurling them around the room.
The match over, everybody poured out of the sweaty cave into the sunshine. I was dehydrated and thirsty but exhilarated by the tremendous occasion I had been part of. Driving home, probably never to return, I knew that some of those fans – the ones who could afford it – would be coming back in thirty minutes to watch Chelsea v Wigan.
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