Postnet Kgale View, Private Bag 351, Suite 287
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Gaborone International Commerce Park
Plot 104, Moores Rowland, Unit 21
Memories of my first World Cup are from Phikwe and revolve around a small black and white television set owned by a local mentor called Tom who allowed his favourite boys in the neighborhood to come over and watch. Viewing games as a guest was solemn business. No noise making, kids pranks or even cheering of the teams on the pitch. You were lucky to sit on the floor in front of the telly. The unlucky chaps had to jostle by the window for a peep. Espana 82 was my first encounter with the global game in its quadrennial extravaganza to elect the champion of the world. Black and white television images left much to the imagination in terms of the actual colours worn by the teams. One therefore had to have a reference point to translate to television. For the lot I hung out with our frame of reference was a British publication called Shoot which was on sale at the local bookshop. It was flipping through the pages of Shoot that we got to encounter the many star names of the day and also get an indication of their bright squad jerseys which on television metamorphosed into black and white. We also had another mentor Papi who himself was a football player, ironically for Copper Chiefs, a team we didn’t support, didn’t even like because we swore by Nico United. But we liked him and his housemate known as Sugar who also played for the same team we disliked.
They collected stacks of football publications both South African and British. In reality our local football was just for weekend recreation and proper fans believed serious football was to be found in South Africa which then played alone due to the sports boycott prohibiting teams from free societies playing against the pariah apartheid outpost. Being isolated meant they ran a thriving domestic football scene. But because the Boers loved that inelegant game called rugby, mot much football was shown on television and for our weekly fix of football across the border we listened on Radio Tswana and its signal was better on the hills dotting the local leisure park. Every Saturday groups of grown up men would leave their homes, carrying portable transistor radios and make their way up the hill to catch the action from Orlando Stadium in Soweto. Around the radio owners would be us the kids listening intently as the proper fans berated a striker for missing a sitter just by following the voice on radio. Up in the hills of Phikwe they could also yell for a substitution purely from monitoring the ebb and flow of the match commentary. It truly was surreal and later in life recalling these pundits I surmised radio gave them a kind of touchstone to imagine and bring the game to life in their minds. So this meant in 1982 small town Phikwe, a fan rooted for a local team and a South African side. The more committed fan could also nail his affections to a Gaborone team and supporting the likes of Rollers, Gaborone United or Notwane was considered a badge of status by some of the more uppity types. Then there were folks mainly from the rural areas who in addition to the two or three teams they supported also backed a xmas selection back in the village where playing for a goat could even lead to fan violence.
In fact fandom was a demanding pastime long before the European leagues came into our lives due to television becoming an ubiquity in many a home. Anyway by the time we gathered at Tom’s house we had a reasonable knowledge of the team and players featuring in the World Cup courtesy of Shoot magazine. The South African magazines had returned the boycott favour and only profiled their teams. I think I only watched two games of Espana 82, because the Boers in any case didn’t want their television broadcasting a black sport when rugby was available. So they flighted only few matches and that gave me the opportunity to see New Zealand getting thrashed 4-0 by Brazil, and the then Soviet Union, now Russia for those born after the Cold War drawing 2-2 with plucky little Scotland. But Shoot magazine would in subsequent weeks treat us to comprehensive coverage of the just ended World Cup with glossy pictures, profiles and statistics. It was our bible of football and transported us to stadiums and matches we could only dream about. Resourced by Shoot we started following English league teams long before every local Mpho, Thabo and Modiri discovered an English team. These games we watched at the Ziga household. Through Shoot magazine we were the experts during football banter and beyond Jomo Sono and Ace Ntsoelengoe in South Africa, we knew dudes from far off lands bearing names like Kevin Keegan, Bryan Robson, Paolo Rossi, Socrates, Zico, Michel Platini and enigmatic players representing the Soviet Union, clad in iconic CCCP blazoned strip like Ramaz Shengalia, Oleg Blokhin and acrobatic goalkeeper Rinat Dasayev. Connoisseurs would later tell us the Brazil squad of Espana 82, coached by Tele Santana and captained by the elegant Socrates was the best since the 1970 World Cup winning selecao because they played a brand of romantic football known as o jogo bonito. It was Shoot that also brought into our football lives a kid called Diego Maradona from a delightfully named country called Argentina. In a decision that almost caused a national uprising, the coach Cesar Luis Menotti had opted not to select the boy of gold for the 1978 World Cup hosted and won by Argentina because at seventeen he considered him too young. Fans were baying if he is good enough he is old enough. Menotti desisted from adventurism and relied on captain Daniel Pasarella and striker Mario Kempes to lead the team to victory over Holland in Buenos Aires.
Finally when Maradona announced his arrival on the world stage at Espana 82, the twenty two year old was a marked man and literally butchered by every defender. In exasperation Maradona got sent off against Brazil for retaliation but the world had caught glimpse of the looming phenomenon. Talking of butcher defenders Espana 82 introduced to the world Claudio Gentile, a brutal Italian defender, an exponent of catenaccio who was a man marker par excellence whose present day equivalent in defensive thuggery is a certain Sergio Ramos. The years went by and Mexico 86 came around with colour television and more homes had acquired the wonder box through the new retail system called hire purchase. One no longer had to be friends with the kid whose home had the only black and white television set in the street. Actually some of the original black and white owners failed to upgrade to colour and the family would sit there forlorn with their once arrogant kids having fallen from grace as we migrated to new friends who had colour. We still relied on South African television because our country had no service. That is how Mexico 86 found us. Another big change was no more climbing the hill to catch Radio Tswana broadcasting Pirates versus Chiefs because they were now often on the telly. Shoot was still our encyclopedia and distinguished us from mere, unlearned fans. We were the clevers with the ammunition in terms of facts and stories behind the players. In this country and many in Africa , Mexico ‘ 86 was the first tournament that enjoyed mass viewership and how apt because it on that stage that the kid we had always known from Shoot since he was a sixteen year old prodigy affirmed his place as the greatest footballer ever conceived by leading Argentina single handedly to triumph.
Simply Mexixo 86 was Maradona’s World Cup. By the time of the 1990 World Cup in Italy satellite television had arrived and the local fan had become more urbane and better schooled in matters football. Now they followed a local team, a South African side and an English squad. Supporting teams in Italy or Spain was still some years away. The new badge of status was an English team, Manchester United or Liverpool. Arsenal would come into vogue later. Of course the ruralites despite living in town still hankered after their village xmas teams and on their return home for the December festivities would break into fan violence due to a refereeing decision that deprived them of a goat. Italia 90 took place when the state had shipped us off to national service in the hinterlands. The seismic event of that tournament was Les Lions Indomitables of Cameroon defeating cup holders Argentina in the opening game. Television hadn’t arrived in the hinterlands and I caught the game on weak and static BBC World frequency. I couldn’t believe the result and realized I would be missing out on a fantastic tournament if I didn’t make my way back to civilization. Back then for such an infraction national service deserters would have their tour extended by a month when everyone else went home after a year of doing good deeds for rural communities. I decided it was a small price to pay because there was no way I was missing out on this World Cup. If Cameroon sounded so good on radio they certainly were incredible on television. I deserted to join my friends who were already at university and from then on was hooked on Cameroon. They didn’t play like previous African teams who tended to be timid, afflicted by inferiority issues. This bunch played with swagger and panache. The likes of Cyril Makanaky, Emile Mbouh, the Biyik brothers showcased silky skills. Our defenders took no prisoners. Big and tough as baobab trees, defenders like Benjamin Massing and Emmanuel Kunde introduced the world to the tackling known in local leagues as man plus ball.
I was now a Cameroon convert and our fairy tale was thwarted at the quarter final by England through some dubious penalty decisions. Well I guess the powers that be couldn’t allow some African upstarts to knock the founders of the game out of their game. By the time USA 94 rolled in I was enrolled at university and already pushing my weight about to run the television set in the common room. The games were broadcast to us late at night or in the early hours of the morning and many of us sat through the cold. I think if some research were done, many a varsity student who watched the matches flunked exams that year. But it was a carnival World Cup nonetheless because we didn’t know Americans could embrace soccer. Up to now USA 94 retains the record for the biggest crowds at a tournament. One of the greatest goals was scored there by Saudi Arabian striker Saeed Al Owairan when he took on the entire Belgian team from his own half on a mazy run before finishing with fine aplomb. Besides a Nigeria team that flattered to deceive and crashed out through tactical naivety and indiscipline the less said about my Indomitable Lions the better. They were just a disaster. Russia, not a great soccer power hammered us by six goals and our young defender Rigobert Song summed up the calamity when he was sent off to commentators describing the moment as ‘ Song out of tune’. Play on the pitch was not so exciting and even the winners Brazil played so awfully they were undeserving champions. But the tournament rehabilitated itself in France 98 where we were introduced to Zinedine Zidane and his swashbuckling band of merry men who were worthy winners. Again the Africans, particularly Cameroon and Nigeria just never came through. It was after this tournament that I drew conclusions about the African football condition. Players don’t gel as a team, they are too individualistic and lack discipline. The root of all this is the village. Every problem in African can be traced to the village including the under performance of the squads at the World Cup. You see the village is so wired into the psyche of the African so much that with everything we do the village looms large and uppermost in our minds.
An African team could be winning the game; examples being Cameroon versus England 1990 and Nigeria against Italy 1994. But instead of listening to the coach and shutting down the game the minds of players begin wandering to the village. They think of personal glory and how their fellow villagers will be proud of them; how the chick who rejected them at secondary school will be left eating humble pie; how the jealous neighbours bewitching them will finally get their comeuppance. Our players think of how they will be rewarded handsomely and build the biggest mansion in the village. They imagine driving big cars on dirt roads with emaciated and snotty nosed urchins running alongside, feteing them as local heroes. As the players minds wander to rural villages thousands of miles away from the pitch, the non African team with no such pathology will turn the match on its head through focus and discipline and the next thing the African team will be out. Until Africans abandon their love affair with the village, none of our teams will win the World Cup and it, of course goes without saying that Africa’s host of problems such as poverty, indolence, tribalism, sorcery and superstition will continue as long as we retain the village mentality. Anyway I maintained my tenuous affair with Cameroon. We were after all winning the Nations Cup with regularity and going into Korea/Japan 2002 we had a superstar whom I had first seen in 1998 when the Lions hoisted the Nations Cup in Lagos. At the time he was seventeen but something was just special about the kid. He had a rare hunger and burning ambition in the way he moved. I recall very well we were watching the final game at my flat in Phase 2 and they will testify today that I sagely told all within earshot that Samuel Etoo was going to be a superstar. Which indeed he became but in 2002 in Japan didn’t carry us far. For me it was a good tournament and the first time I saw a goalkeeper who stood head and shoulders above all infield players. Except for a single fatal mistake that led to the Brazil winning goal in the final, Oliver Kahn was deservedly player of the tournament. Then an earthquake smashed into my football soaked mind. In all my time watching and studying the World Cup since those two measly games I watched at Tom house in 1982 it had never occurred to me that the World Cup could ever be hosted on the continent. When South Africa was announced as hosts I was in celebratory spirit and hardly paid attention to action on the field at Germany 2006. All I hoped for was to remain alive until 2010. I was besides myself with joy and expectation. Finally I would watch this xmas of football in my hood. Conversely the next best thing about not staying in South Africa is being its next door neighbor. You get to enjoy the best of the country but when you are done, just dart across the border to escape its problems. I want to see Rihanna twerking, its just four hours away. Unlike a fellow African living in say Tanzania or Liberia we are blessed that the most advanced and only country capable of bringing all manner of big acts in sports and entertainment is a shout away. I was determined to suckle the most joy from South Africa 2010. I got to see five games, watched at fan parks and was literally living there for the duration of the tournament.
It was an unforgettable experience for me and up to today I still cant fathom how some of my football loving mates never attended a single game or if on account of lack of ticket, never went to a fan park to revel with thousands of fans who came from all over the world. But this being Africa they couldn’t go to a once in a lifetime event and yet during the World Cup weekends they were regular visitors to the village; Africa’s source of every single problem. On the pitch my takeaway from 2010 was a complete loss of respect for Zidane who got sent off for violent conduct and thus lost France the cup. In my long football life I have never seen such a vainglorious player who thought nothing of sacrificing the dreams of his teammates simply because his ego had been pricked by a taunting Italian defender. Even after recently winning three UEFA Champions League titles I still detest the man. Still buoyed by South Africa 2010 I looked forward with relish to Brazil 2014. I didn’t have the money to travel but I set myself a challenge. I would lay in my bed, collect all necessary accoutrements and watch as many games as possible including obscure fixtures like Japan versus Greece. At the end of it all I think I missed out on only ten games of the 64 played. In terms of quality of football, Brazil 2014 was the best tourney by a mile since 1982. In fact at its conclusion, flush with euphoria I made a vow to ditch football and turn my back on the game forever because there was nothing that could ever surpass what I had seen. Who ever thought Germany could demolish Brazil by seven goals? Unlike the pundits who possibly smoke something illicit, my player of 2014 was not Lionel Messi but the remarkable Javier Mascherano. And oh the best goal was not scored by James Rodriguez but by Robin van Pierse when he floated in the air like a robin songbird to pierce Spanish hearts in that rout of a game. Thursday this week my 10th World Cup kicked off.
My love affair with football remains healthy, robust and quite fulfilling. I have called time on my attachment to the Indomitable Lions. That said, life is about second and even third chances. If the Indomitable Lions ever roar again they will find a place reserved for them in a portion of my heart. For Russia 2018 I plan to watch every single game barring unforeseen circumstances. And as a fan who has been around and confidently know my football, my smart money is on the Red Devils of Belgium. For the past number of tournaments I didn’t support any team but just watched as many as I could to enjoy the game. However for this year I have made an exception by choosing a side. I am a Red Devil and please Belgium don’t leave me bereft and humiliated.