Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Championship Soccer Match

There is something about a championship game - in any sport - that creates a ring of energy around its venue.  Whether it's the Super Bowl, a high school tennis match or Christians vs. Lions, the atmosphere is charged.  Instinctively, some people begin speaking like How-ard Co-sell (look him up, kids!)

And so it was, with the local favorite Jaraaf team taking on Casa Sport for a 6:00pm championship game.  There are no reserved seats, so even if you pay top price to sit in the good section (about $10) the best you'll do is a moveable aluminum chair.  Therefore, our driver suggested we arrive early (say, 3:30pm) to watch the opening game: a "Class B" championship match between two teams no one seemed to know.

I should take a break here for a moment and explain my view of soccer. Soccer is the most boring sport in the world. I watched all of two minutes of the World Cup, and that was just so I could say I heard those annoying plastic horns that everyone seemed to be talking about. And - of course - we have 18 channels of television dedicated to nothing but soccer on our cable television.  Even ESPN's African feed shows soccer instead of SportsCenter.  But, this promised to be different...

Casa Sport is from the Casamance region of Senegal.  This particular area has been fighting for Independence and has - as recently as March, 2010 - been the only region of Senegal where the sound of automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades could be heard.  This wasn't just any championship soccer match:  it really was war.

The first thing I noticed upon arrival was a sea of green and white moving and singing in rhythm to the beat of a dozen drummers, real brass horns and other assorted local instruments thrown for melody.  The Casamance fans had arrived by the busload and were already partying at full speed.  It is at least a full day's drive from Casamance to Dakar, so these people had no intention of going to work the next day.

One person would dance as fast as he or she could to the music, to be replaced by the next fan in line, while the rest of the fans were doing some variation of the "Iggy Shuffle" (you might have to look that one up, too!) and waiting for their turn.  It was 86 degrees outside, and the sun was shining directly upon them.  How long could they keep up that pace?

The first championship game is what gives soccer its reputation.  Final score: 0 to 0.  That's right.  We sat for over two hours and basically watched grown men play "Keep Away" with a ball.  Over two hours?  That's because of "extra time".  For those not familiar with extra time, sometimes the referees think one team might have been stalling.  So - to punish the fans - he can assign "extra time" for us to sit and watch them stall even longer. 

To decide this championship, they had a shootout.  Suddenly, EVERYONE seems to be able to score.  The shootout lasted for another 30 minutes as players would queue up and take 90 seconds between shots.  The blue team won, their 26 fans went wild and my butt was already molded into the shape of an aluminum chair.  Meanwhile, the fans from Casamance kept pounding away at the drums, dancing at full speed and singing whatever song it was they were singing.

By this time, the Jaraaf fans had also shown up.  They were separated from the Casamance fans by a ten foot wide aisle - and several armed guards.  They brought their drums, their horns and their singing legion of support.  It was a duel for the ages.

Jaraaf got on the board quickly for a 1-0 lead.  Finally, someone scored a real goal!  And the only idiot in the entire stadium with a plastic horn was celebrating - directly in front of me.  At that point, I knew I was a Casamance fan and I wanted nothing more than to see that region become Independent by 8:00 pm...

Then, Jaraaf's goalie was called for interference (or some other stupid penalty) and was given "the red card".  It's a whole lot more exciting to watch a baseball umpire throw a manager out of a game than it is to watch some idiot - wearing a safety orange outfit - stand at attention holding a red card. 

Speaking of stupid penalties, soccer has a penalty called "offsides".  This rule states that if the fastest man on offense beats the defense down the field, the offense gets a penalty.  It doesn't matter where it is on the field, it's a penalty.  Let's put that in perspective for you real sports fans, with Gil Santos as the call...

Brady drops back to pass.  He sees Randy Moss down the sideline and throws toward the end zone.  Moss beats the defender for a touchdo!... Whoa!  Penalty on Moss. The defender slowed down, so it doesn't count.  Bring the ball back.

So, we watched several times as the defense actually RAN THE OTHER WAY when it saw the offense and the ball coming.  There's a great concept!  Soccer really needs to work on its marketing plan.

Anyway, Casa Sport tied the game on a penalty kick and their fans went even more wild than could be imagined.  I looked down and hoped my shirt was turning green and white. 

For the next hour or so after that score, nothing happened.  At about this point, the fights started to break out in the stands - even though no alcohol was being served at the game.  I have figured out why fights break out at soccer games: because even the most loyal of fans gets bored stupid sitting for an hour watching grown men play "Keep Away" with a ball.  They need something to do! Except for the sea of green and white, which kept on dancing, singing and moving to their own beat.

With about 5 minutes to play, Casa Sport scored again to take a 2-1 lead and their audience went wild.  The players all ran over to that section of the stadium and - they too! - began doing their "Iggy Shuffle."  I would have done it also, had I not been surrounded by a bunch of dour looking Jaraaf fans.  Casa Sport held on to win the game and their celebration with their faithful lasted for about 30 minutes.  At 10:00 pm, we left the stadium.  It was still 86 degrees outside and the continued beat of drums, harmonic singing and full speed partying by the fans from Casamance - who never once sat in their seats - continued.

Later in the week, I spoke with a high ranking government official in Dakar.  He told me the region of Casamance took an entire week off from work to celebrate the victory.  Imagine what the party would look like if they actually won Independence? 


  1. It may be because my best friend, her S.O., and my 19 year old son are some of the whitest people in Ghana at the moment, but your blog is rapidly becoming exceedingly dear to me. On the other hand, it may be because I find soccer so boring as to be almost painful, an irony for someone who believes as baseball game is best watched with a scorebook in hand. Either way, keep 'em coming.
    Angie at Eat Here

  2. Yes, Yes, Yes! I've said for years that the reason soccer has never had any chance whatsoever of finding a huge North American audience is because of the damned offsides rules. Take those out and you have a real game that people would find exciting. But, NO! Let's all play the game the rest of the world plays - in it's entirely boring version now extant - because we'd beat the crap out of the rest of the world in all of our own sports and we must bend over backwards to be nice because... well, I don't know why, but we must. It's the metric system of sports.