The sun was tumbling down beneath the squat skyline of Lusaka, Zambia’s largest and capital city, leaving long shadows across the half-sand half-dirt expanse segmented by meandering lines of onlookers. Perhaps a thousand people bookended the four football pitches that had been carved with lines in the ground and crowned with tattered old goals. On one corner, a small boy had somehow scampered to the top of the goal for an open-air hospitality box overlooking the stadium.
The home team were a group of lithe, athletic Zambian men who all looked like they were taking the challenge quite seriously. I stood with the away team, a bunch of muzungu’s, pale-faced foreigners donning blue kits after a day spent volunteering at a local school. We were here with Baraka Community Partnerships, a small English charity who epitomise a hands-on approach. Our leader wore two hats, the co-founder of the charity and a long standing Exodus guide.
The FIFA World Cup looks nothing like this. The floor was littered with, well, litter – and shoes were few and far between, let alone designer strips or merchandising. I freely confess a complete nonplus for professional footballers and the game in general. It’s an industry rather than a sport, and I’ve never enjoyed a single second of Match of the Day in 24 years. But after forty minutes watching ochre dust dancing in flurries around tired old trainers, some spectacular missed kicks and an awful lot of excited jumping from the bystanders whenever the ball neared the goal, I found myself traitorously enjoying myself. Something about the way the wobbly line of children quivered and surged with excitement every time the ball changed possession was infectious.
I was a little worried about how much I was enjoying the match. I did at one awkward moment find myself yelling “Come on boys!” as though I cared about the outcome. So I turned away from the seven aside match, towards what would have been the stands, but here was just a patch of dry earth with a few wisps of straw-like grass. Between discarded plastic bottles and sugar cane husks, two girls in their early teens were having a kick about, wearing their new ‘kit’ – matching green t-shirts with the Exodus ‘Get Involved’ logo proudly emblazoned on the back. In a country where habitual violence against women is vocally and openly supported by politicians, two girls were out playing a man’s sport in the afternoon sun. The pride with which they carried themselves in their new strips said all you needed to know about whether or not a bunch of muzungu’s going to inner city Lusaka to play football made a difference.
The main match finished with a respectable hard-fought one-all draw. I’m not about to call it “The Beautiful Game” any time soon. But it’s a little less ugly than it used to be.
Taking You There: Zambia Volunteer