Joyeux Noel from Senegal! It’s my first Christmas away from the North East but, to dispel SenegalAone of the popular festive songs, it’s not beginning to look a lot like Christmas. The weather’s bright and warm at 25C during the days, although the majority of locals are starting their morning salutations with exclamations of ‘deffa sedd’ (“It’s cold” in Wolof). There’s the occasional shop draped in red and green fairy lights or a festive message but I’m finding spending December in this fairly traditionalist Muslim context a refreshing alternative to the saturation of television ‘specials’, Now That’s What I Call Christmas Music 7 and endless adverts that reflect the increased distortion of this holiday in Britain by rampant commercialisation. It’s only the really important feature of Christmas, spending time with my family and friends, that I am missing at this year.

Following the football and writing this blog is a nice connection between the two worlds and, like you, I’ve been immensely impressed by the recent results and performances of the lads. The performance at Palace was polished and professional, the kind of away display I’ve watched the likes of Arsenal and Man United give in the past and mutter ‘why can’t we ever do that…’ The craic coming out of the club and even opposition managers is that ‘you can see how much the Europa League affected Newcastle last year’. In fact, what should be being said is ‘you can see how Newcastle posses a squad only equipped to challenge on one front and failed to invest sufficiently for the Europa League last year’. But that’s probably a whinge for another time when everything isn’t as rosy (on-the-pitch at least) in the SJP garden. If you can’t enjoy your football when Newcastle are 6 points off top spot approaching the Christmas fixture list then when can you?

The big news football-wise over here is the return of the domestic football season on Saturday 14th December. The Senegalese Ligue 1 is composed of 14 sides, many of which come from the capital. However, with Dakar only having two or three stadiums/ surfaces equipped to host a professional match, 4 of the opening 7 ties were played not far from my work in Stade Demba Diop. The stadium is situated in a quartier called Liberte which, for anyone who knows Dublin, resembles what I imagine the old ‘Liberties’ must have been like – corrugated metal shoeboxes that house numerous families and narrow streets jam-packed with a variety of traders. The stadium itself is decrepit but retains a rugged romanticism, with it being one of the oldest in Senegal. It was built in 1963 and named after an assassinated Minister for Sport in the newly-formed Republic. In terms of size and shape it actually reminded me of a shrunken, primitive Nou Camp, with one roof running alongside one side of the pitch and the rest of the stadium’s oval bowl overlooking it’s equally run-down neighbouring residencies and basking in the Saturday afternoon sunlight. In terms of capacity it varies between 5, 15 and 30-thousand, depending on who you ask, as is often the way here! My attempts at investigative journalism were not helped by my taxi driver agreeing with every prediction I made to him up to the tune of 30k when he changed the conversation. To be fair, it’s also used for other sporting events, which may add to the confusion.

There were certainly no more than a couple of thousand people there for the opening ties of the season. I was sold a ‘VIP ticket’ for the princely sum of 1000CFA (roughly £1.30), double the price in the ‘cheap seats’, where the only difference really is that you are under a roof and your view not quite as interrupted by passing peanut, coffee and fataya sellers, normally women, impressively carrying their wares in boxes on their head or clamped to their hips by only one arm, using the other to jingle change to attract customers. In terms of atmosphere, it improved as the double-header progressed, led by a set of lads on their djembes, accompanying the matches with a high-tempo beat that the poor quality of football only matched in infrequent spurts. As you have probably worked out, Stade Demba Diop is a municipal stadium that doesn’t ‘belong’ to one club, rather hosts a host of Dakarois clubs during their league campaigns. That probably adds to the fairly transient atmosphere that accompanies the matches here. Nevertheless I’m looking forward to this giving me an opportunity to see a variety of different clubs, fans, kits and players over the course of the next few months. The first match was contested between two Dakar sides, Yeggo and Olympique NGor, tipped by Stades as relegation candidates or mid-table at best. This was proven correct on the pitch as Yeggo squeezed past their opponents 1-0 with both sides being dire.

The second match was billed as a much tastier affair between two ambitious sides: Niarry-Tally (Dakar) and La Linguere (St Louis). My first stay in Senegal was in St Louis, a beautiful northern town whose defining postcard image is its impressive bridge (Pont Faidherbe). You can draw the parallels for yourself but safe to say I was rooting for La Linguere to grab an away win in the capital. Sitting next to me was a group of like-minded local lads who all migrated from St Louis to Dakar in search of work and their remonstrations at their team’s failings reminded me of many a London away game I attended while at Uni following a frustrating, underperforming Newcastle United.

Stades paper has described La Linguere as ‘Samba boys’ beforehand, but this was a moniker presumably given because they play in yellow or because of their re-signature of captain Samba Gueye. It certainly couldn’t have been in reference to their style of play, which was about as Brazilian as a December afternoon in Pennywell.  Having been given the kiss of death that is my support, the St Louisians managed to lose 2-1 despite playing against ten men for 45 minutes. Nevertheless it was decent to see some live matches and I look forward to seeing the season unfold. (As an aside, Samba is actually an incredibly popular name here, so much so that a young lad once pointed to my Adidas trainers and asked me how much it cost to get my name printed on!)

Whilst there has been no change to the Papiss Cisse goalscoring situation that I looked into in the last blog, he has been making some positive news away from the football pitch in Dakar. The full article from is on my twitter for any Francophiles but basically Papiss has recently put some of his salary towards paying for 100 scholarships of Senegalese students taking a three-year English course at the British Business School of Dakar. Fair play to Cisse! It’s good to see him investing in the education of his compatriots and a nice reminder of how he seems to be a class act off the pitch: now for him to find his form on it. Let’s hope that that is a topic covered in the first blog of 2014. All the best to all reading this and everyone at true faith for the upcoming holidays: have a canny Christmas and a mint New Year.