Monday, July 14, 2008
Of downhill football and through-balls through the palm-trees
I recently returned from a two-week holiday in Madagascar, where I watched a soccer match between an under-18 development side from Cape Town in South Africa and an invitation team drawn from the islands surrounding Nosy Be in the North of Madagascar. The pitch was equal parts clay, soil and grass, and sloped noticeably downward towards one set of goalposts. In the middle of the pitch were two palms which grew outwards and away from each other, which made it possible to play the ball between them, or off of them and back to oneself or a teammate. We were staying at a guest lodge on one of the islands, and lunch was delayed while our cook ran at striker for a half, trying his best to score a goal for the Island XI. The game was played in a fantastic spirit, with smiles all round and great sportsmanship displayed by both sides. The South Africans won 3-2 in the last minute via a spectacular overhead kick, but it was clear that the result was unimportant. Afterwards, each Malagasy player split a coconut he had brought and handed half to his opposite number – it was only when the islanders began distributing generous measures of rum to the players that the South African coach, smiling broadly, intervened. For me, a lucky spectator, the match showcased the power of sport to draw people from the most diverse communities onto common ground, for no other reason than to compete and have fun doing so. The supporters too were amazing, shouting for and praising the skills of the opposition as well as their own players. It made a nice change from the vitriolic taunts of the crowd at most major football matches. In the end, there weren’t millions riding on the result, the players weren’t going to negotiate new multi-million dollar contracts after the game, and the coach’s jobs were safe. Simply, those involved celebrated a soccer match in a joyous spirit which is so noticeably absent in sport today. Everyone was smiling, whether they won or lost. How many times have you seen that lately?