Madagascar, football and viewing the triumph from far away

Fort Dauphin is a town in the southeast of Madagascar. Home to the best part of 40,000 people, it is a town that, from the capital Antananarivo, essentially is only reachable by air, for those of us with disposable income and familiar with the decadency of Western lifestyle at least. This is unless you fancy a three day journey in a big lorry on some very questionable roads, as is the reality for the majority of the Malagasy population who wish to travel between these two places to visit family or get a decent standard of medical care. The coastal location of Fort Dauphin means the soil across much of the southern coastline is a silty, sandy and unproductive, so much of the town’s produce jiggles along in such lorries from the capital.

Along with the tiny airport, with its daily, overpriced flight route to Antananarivo monopolised by the state-run airline, the only other bit of notable infrastructure is a port, joint-funded by mining company Rio Tinto and the World Bank, so they could ship out the minerals that sit underneath the littoral forest surrounding Fort Dauphin, and wipe out all the indigenous species and vital community resources that rural populations rely upon. 

The south of Madagascar is a forgotten region within a country that itself has been forgotten about. A country more famous for being a Dreamworks production than it is a sovereign state, social media’s reaction to Madagascar’s expectation-defying performance at African Cup of Nations 2019 is in itself an adequate representation of the struggle the country faces for people to take the needs of its people seriously. 

Tired “I like to move it, move it” gags and bird-based “penguins beat the Super Eagles” memes (after the even more tragic ‘Penguins of Madagascar’ spin-off film franchise) after their 2-0 victory over Nigeria prove that public perception of Madagascar is almost entirely based on these movies, which itself is based on David Attenborough documentaries. 

I will happily admit that I didn’t know if people lived or not when I saw a job advertised there, prior to living there for just over a year in 2015/16. This is a country of 20 million people who have managed to be wiped off the map, because white people think its incredible levels of biodiversity and cuddly lemurs are more interesting than the demonised locals, who – on the rare occasion they are acknowledged to exist – are only portrayed as nature-destroying, slash-and-burn savages; as if having firewood to keep warm and cook food is a bad thing. 

Whilst all this is happening, the south of Madagascar endures recurring, climate breakdown-induced drought and famine. Malnutrition levels are incredibly high, particularly west of Fort Dauphin in the deep-South, where the dryness and the sand are even more pervasive. However, this does not fit very conveniently with the white people, nature-wonderland narrative, so we all conveniently ignore it. Unless there’s some tasty resources to be had under a lemur’s home of course, in which case it’s a fair sacrifice. 

One could see the mining company’s port from the house I lived in Fort Dauphin. In my beautiful little one-up one-down house, I would lay in bed, my white, British body on the brink of self-destruction in the sweltering heat, with the door to the balcony flung open, in a desperate attempt to cool down. Unable to sleep due to heat and my appalling mental health, I would watch five lights flash from the port. They were red, yellow and green, and would flash all night, every night; the order in which they flashed showing no obvious pattern – something of great confusion for my dehydrated, depressed brain. There were rumours that these flashed all the time because no one knew how to turn them off. 

Whilst I stared with agitation at this multinational monstrosity that symbolised everything I loathed about the colonial way corporations treated the resources in developing countries, I could hear the waves crashing down onto the beach below. Around 200m from the beach, the large, rough waves that manifested on Ankoba beach were the soundtrack to my night. 

It was on this beach where football was played most frequently. In a town surrounded by curvaceous bays, Ankoba provided the best stretch of straight, flat coastline that was not an open defecation site (not until you got further along the beach, anyway). Here, mass gathering of 20-a-side would take place, where young men would try and dribble past their mates and the ball would be punted from one end to the other, occasionally drifting into the shallows of the sea. On the odd occasion where the ball came anywhere near me, my legs would struggle to deal with the unfamiliar surface, before spaffing a terrible pass that didn’t make it 50% towards a teammate, caught up in the sand. It was, in the very literalist of senses, sandals for goalposts. 

The same beach was the scene of arguably my greatest footballing triumph – or at least the only one where I’d won some sort of prize. Entering an official beach soccer tournament, myself and some other English from the charity we all worked for formed a team, recruiting some other locals we met playing on the beach who were far more used to it all. And the conditions were in our favour. 

A storm occurred the night before, causing massive waves to come far further up the beach that they would normally. The result of this was a flattening of the surface to which made it much less tiring to play on, as the water lingered on top of the sand. Playing teams from different neighbourhoods of the town, we won two games (1-1 (p), 4-1) and ended up in the final, to be played the following day. 

Unfortunately the storm water has filtered through overnight, so the ground was more akin to a regular beach by then. Combined with the tiredness we incurred from giving it full whack across two games the previous day, we were comprehensively beaten in the final (4-2, I think)

Our runner-up prize? A live goat, which we named Grant. Rather than cook and eat him as is expected, Grant had a nice few months with his new friend Graham (another goat I had to buy to keep Grant company) on the grassy patch outside my house, before eating a dodgy plant and dying. The winners also won a goat, though their goat was arguably nicer (you become a good judge of goats living in Fort Dauphin). Either way, the prize combined with the hundreds of spectators means it will be easily the most well-attended game I’ll ever play in. 

I don’t suppose much of this will come as a surprise. Communities around the world, especially in developing countries, pounce on football as an activity that is easy to access and fun. It is this very principle that has driven its popularity to such outrageous, gluttonous levels. Football is not just a game to play, but permeates all levels of every day society.

Easily the most popular item of clothing for men and boys in town was the Chelsea shirt, shortly followed by the t-shirts distributed during the 2013 election with the President’s face on it. Inexplicably always green or red (never blue) and always with Ramires on the back, people wore these day to day in every community I ever visited within a 40 mile radius. Urban and rural. If there was any doubt of the game’s global reach, then a visit to Fort Dauphin would quash such doubts.

However, football as a spectacle was far less prevalent. The national football structure in Madagascar is basically non-existent, made up of regional championships before the winners all reconvene in Antananarivo for a round-robin tournament played over a couple of months.

We never found out where Fort Dauphin’s games happened, even though they definitely reached the national stage whilst I lived there. The stadium in Fort Dauphin was derelict. A collapsing concrete monstrosity was on one side of the stone-ridden ‘pitch’. The only use I ever saw of it was for a concert, in which we watched from the concrete stand on one side as people hopped about to the music. The highlight was one particularly ambitious man getting in his van and slowly drove through the crowd to get to the front. He was going slow enough that no one was ever going to get hurt, but it was quite a feat. 

Accessing live football on the television was a weekly chore, as we scoured around the different hotels, bars and restaurants in an attempt to catch which Sunday clash was on that weekend. Largely relying on French Canal+ TV subscriptions, the limited number of tourists who would stay in these hotels (tourism in Fort Dauphin collapsed after the presidential coup in 2009, and suffered before that from the mining company taking up all the hotel rooms) meant that access sports packages would fluctuate wildly. 

Regardless, watching Danny Welbeck score the equalising header for Arsenal vs Leicester in a bar that was rumoured to be run by a convict on the run is one of my happier football memories of recent years. The season in which Leicester eventually won the league, the alcoholic Frenchman who was briefly my neighbour looking greatly alarmed by my banchee-like dream when Dat Guy nodded in, during Arsenal’s ultimately fruitless title tilt. 

Of the Malagasy staff that I worked with, there appeared to be little interest in football, beyond a vague awareness of Messi, Ronaldo, etc. No one appeared to have a team or much interest in watching the matches; possibly a function of the above challenges in accessing televised football. 

Indeed, I am referring to all football here – both domestic and European. There appeared to be limited awareness of the fortunes of the local team (though, admittedly I probably didn’t run in the right circles to learn this sort of information, such was my shameful failure to forge any meaningful friendship with any Fort Dauphin locals). The market flooding of off-colour Chelsea shirts made European football visible, but to say there was an interest would be inaccurate. Domestic football has been sidelined for the European game in so many African nations, but in this corner of Madagascar not even that had caught on. 

Which makes me wonder: how are people engaging with the national team right now? Les Zebus reaching Egypt 2019 in any capacity would be a worthy watch, but their achievement of topping the group one would assume has caused great waves across the country; even the bits that aren’t so easy to reach. 

In Equatorial Guinea, you could see a formerly disinterested, disenfranchised group of people ride the wave of nationalism as their team stumbled their way through to the semi-finals, one Javier Balboa free-kick and questionable refereeing decision at a time. The Estadio de Bata was a boiling cauldron of passion and excitement during that quarter-final against Tunisia – simply the most intense atmosphere I’ve ever experienced – the Nzalang fans losing their minds every time the aforementioned Balboa did an ineffective stepover or young goalkeeper Felipe Ovono plucked a basic cross out the air and collapsed to the ground to waste time. 

The caveat to this is the location (Bata, Equatorial Guinea’s biggest city) and the way the people are almost obliged to show irrational levels of support for their country, due to the highly oppressive regime of strongman dictator Teodoro Obiang. These conditions are likely to foster a sudden interest in football, and not especially comparable to Madagascar or Fort Dauphin. However, it does show you how the national team can capture the imagination of their people on the continental stage.

I suppose the tragedy of all of this is that I simply don’t know how people are reacting to it in Fort Dauphin. Here I am in London, getting my friends who used to live there and have since gone onto to fill jobs in the capital’s NGO world to cram into my overpriced flat and gather round a 14-inch laptop, cheering the country we’ve all developed a strong affiliation for. 

But even then, I feel like most people see this as ‘just football’. And they’re probably correct. But for me, I’m willing this team on as a form of pathetic personal rebellion. I feel like these lads, with their unpronounceable names that they’ve shortened on the back of their shirts to make them more commentator friendly, can put Madagascar on the map. 

For whatever reason, I see this as a chance for them to change perceptions, as ridiculous as that sounds. Ridiculous, as if success in a relatively insignificant tournament within the football world, and the very fact it is just football. But regardless, in my mind, I’m sticking two fingers up at the rest of the world when Carolus Andriamatsinoro’s weird shrivelled up old body wheels away in celebration. 

I tweet about how exciting it is, as if I have any justifiable claim to speak for the people of Madagascar. I obsess about whether me speaking about this is appropriate at all, because I really hope people don’t think I’m trying to ‘speak for’ Madagascar here. I just feel a weird sense of pride. But what I really want, is to see is a live stream of a television screen somewhere in Fort Dauphin, and watch that beautiful peninsula rock. 

While I have seen videos of wild celebrations of people in other parts of the country, my connection to my previous home has been all but removed. Other than a spate of Malagasy Facebook friends in Fort Dauphin, I have one person who I had any sort of strong relationship. 

He assures me it’s all great. But I want to know more. How are they watching the games? Do the hotels have the right television packages? Have people been dancing in the streets and celebrating in the bars? Exactly how many bottles of Dzama rum and Three Horses beer have been consumed in the past two weeks? Are people enjoying themselves? God, I hope so.

by Sam Crocker

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