Welcome to the eleventh and final true faith blog from Dakar, Senegal. When I started these in August last year I didn’t know how many there would be but eleven seems a decent number to go out on, it being a number symbolically associated with football. That is, of course, unless you are poor ASC Yeggo, bottom of the Senegalese league, winless since March and, on Monday, reduced to ten-men after only two minutes of their game. They were facing off against Ouakam, my local side, who, true to any team I have ever ‘supported’ or even just willed to win in my life, managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Themselves on a mini-slump, they took the lead, reduced their opponents to ten men and then managed to concede an equaliser and then a penalty after that. True to (lack of) form, Yeggo missed their penalty and a dreadful game between two poor sides fizzled out like both of their seasons.
It’s not all negative on the Ligue Professionel de Foot Senegalais front however as over the past few weeks I’ve had the pleasure of watching the top sides, Jaraaf and Pikine, dismantle Diambars (the former champions) by three and four goals respectively. Jaraaf and Pikine now find themselves first and second with two points separating them before the final couple of games, meaning that the season will go down to the wire just as I prepare to leave the country. My fondest memories of Senegalese football fandom undoubtedly come from the vivid green sway of Casa Sport who, since replacing their manager before Easter, have put together an unbeaten run which has rocketed them from 11th to 3rd. The side seem to have finally been swept up by the fantastic support given to them wherever they play. Last week they came to Dakar and swaggered past Ouakam, enjoying total dominance not only on the pitch but in the stands. Curiously for a team based hundreds of kilometres (and one Gambia!) south of the capital they had hundreds of fans at Stade Demba Diop at 4 o’clock on a Monday afternoon, swaying along in tandem and filling the lull left when their two saxophone wielding supporters had finished wailing.
My ability to keep a finger on the pulse of Senegalese domestic football has been enormously helped by Stades, a local paper produced three times a week and costing the princely sum of 100CFA (20p). In an underdeveloped country without consistent internet connection and regularly updated websites, a print media that keeps you up to speed with all the fixtures, reports and results is a great help. I can remember The Pink from my childhood but never truly leant on it for my footballing mis-a-jour, with the post-match journeys back to Hexham in the ‘90s being filled with five live football phone-ins and the midweek appetite sufficed by ceefax (302 for football, 316 for the in-vision vidiprinter and 391 for regional sport). I get the feeling I’ll be leaving the cheap and cheerful football paper behind for once and for all once I leave here and that’s a shame. I encourage anyone who finds themselves somewhere that has a Stades equivalent to use it while you can – at the very least it doubles up as a cracking seat cover for the sandy concrete steps found in Senegalese stadiums.
For a country that lives, sleeps and breathes football, interestingly the impending World Cup hasn’t monopolised people’s sporting thoughts here, at least not until this week. That’s not because of the country’s lack of involvement; after all, Senegal’s only qualification was the glorious 2002 campaign. In fact, Senegal has a second sporting love: traditional wrestling. Once or twice a year huge bouts take place to decide the current national heavyweight champion and Sunday 8th June saw ‘Bombardier’ from Mbour depose Guediawaye’s-finest ‘Balla Gaye 2’. These fights can last anything from 30 seconds to 30 minutes, with this one being an example of the former. That’s right, after weeks of hype, and 24 hours of intense media coverage the fight was over after 30 seconds with Bombardier rushing Balla Gaye 2, thumping him around the head and tossing him to the floor. To be honest, if it’s sporting prowess you want this isn’t the sport for you. If it’s an insight into indigenous West African sporting traditions that interests you then this would be fascinating. The wrestlers enter the arena an hour or so before the actual fight and spend their time circling the ring with their entourage, powdering themselves in sand and flour and sprinkling all sorts of potions on themselves, the ring, the stadium and even, mischievously, on their opponent. They are adorned with trinkets and other objects designed to give them good luck. Bombardier looked like the air raid warden in Dad’s Army as he took to the ring wearing a calabasse (a bowl usually used to mix rice in the kitchen) on his head to ward off evil spirits. In an act of pre-match showmanship that Vince McMahon would have been proud of, Balla Gaye 2 caused faux-outrage by slamming his foot through the makeshift helmet once it was placed on the floor of the ring. All-in-all it’s an interesting cultural alternative to twenty-two lads chasing after a ball and each other, although I know which one I prefer.
It will happen on the greatest stage of all this week as Brazil face-off against Croatia to get the 2014 World Cup underway. It’s a shame Senegal aren’t present but, as ever, there’s sure to be a team or two that captures the imagination like Metsu’s Lions did in Japan and Korea. All the best to the two bona-fide Geordies there, Shola Ameobi and Fraser Forster, as well as to the two honorary ones, Cheick Tiote and Tim Krul.
I may be returning to the North East soon but, for the moment, I won’t be returning to Newcastle United. I have great friends who remain season ticket holders and I would love to join them at the game and the pub beforehand, in fact it’s the kind of thing you dream of when working away from home. However, I just can’t bring myself to sign-up for what Newcastle United stands for at the moment. What I would like to sign-up for is United supporters taking a pro-active role in shaping our club and community with positivity and dignity. I think the best chance we have of achieving that is with the NUST and so I’ll be joining that and contributing in whatever way I can. There are plenty of recent successful examples of fan-involvement, from Murcia to Manchester, to learn from. It’s better to be the change than wait for one.
That’s all from Senegal and I’d like to end with a quick thank you (dieuradieuf in these parts) to true faith and its readers for giving me the opportunity to report and share what has been a brilliant experience. All the best for the World Cup, the Summer and the season ahead. Keep the faith.
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