Football as Unifier

On Sunday, we attended yet another football match. The crowds were greater in number this time around as the football on offer was far more attractive than our previous outing to the Stade Cotonou II. Benin was playing Ghana (The Squirrels vs. the Black Stars). There was also a lot riding on this match for Benin as a loss would almost certainly derail their hopes for a spot in the African Cup of Nations.

Getting into the stadium was an experience in itself. Our previous visit taught us that more tickets get sold than there is room in the stadium, so we made sure to arrive early. Not early enough, it seemed. We joined one of several queues leading to our gate of choice and stood praying for about an hour. Every now and then, the gate would open, everyone would instantly push to get in, the guards would get angry, assault a few people, and then slam the doors shut again; as if to punish us. But we remained hopeful and slowly inched towards the threshold.

About fifteen minutes before the kick-off, and after the doors had remained shut for a relative eternity, four muscly guards ambled up, their shiny batons proudly displayed. "At last," I thought, "these men will bring order to the chaos." And that they did. Two of them immediately started swinging violently. People scattered. We remained awkwardly squashed together amid the turmoil. Once things had settled, we discovered that the guards had created something that many would call a rarity in Africa: an orderly line of people. Fortunately, we found ourselves in the line, while the masses that surrounded us a few brief seconds ago were seething at the back of it.

But then the next problem presented itself. The doors were locked from the inside and the guards - who I now admired and respected - could not manage to convince their colleagues on the other side that order had been restored. The tension was mounting. With the kick-off approaching, the civility wouldn't last much longer.

Finally, the iron clanged and a guard peeked out from behind the barrier. The other guards shouted at everyone in French to be calm and proceed single file. We held our tickets in the air and squashed through into the brink of football delight; the past behind us and instantly forgotten.

We found seats with ease. Our vantage point was brilliant; offering a clear view of the length of the field, just off centre of the half-way line. Prayers were answered. We proceeded to enjoy 90-minutes of a goalless match, the highlight for me being the sublime yet subdued performance of Chelsea midfileder Michael Essien.

But then, in the dying seconds of extra-time, when we thought all was over, Benin somehow managed to scramble the ball into the back of the Ghana net. Rapture! Applause! Screaming! Whistling! Water! Loud noises! The eruption was profound. The final whistle was blown, the Benin players ran a victory lap, and the fans surrounding us insisted on getting photos of us celebrating.

Seeing that the precious minutes of athleticism and ball-control had been spent, the value of the interior was now broke and everyone wanted to get outside to celebrate in the streets. This happened quickly and peacefully, of course.

The drive home was memorable. I held the Benin flag aloft out the window as we passed hundreds of jubilant, celebrating Beninese citizens. Sport has the amazing ability to unify any and all people, provided the circumstance is victory. We sped through the streets cheering and whistling as every person we passed replied in like fashion.

You might question my pride for a nation that is not my own. Well, after nine-months, this country has, in a sense, become my home. Benin has given me only fond memories. Having invested so much time and energy into building relationships with a few once-suffering individuals, I feel I have the right to support this peaceful country; a country that my own South Africa could learn many lessons from.

Oooooh. Video.