Let's pretend it is (over). And that widespread famine is not just around the Sahara corner. Google Earth Africa West Mali Bamako or any village in the whole darned area and you will SEE football pitches beautifully marked out as if sent down from the Gods above to ensure beautiful pasture. Last night, nudging curfew, on the bank of the River Niger, I saw the greatest game imaginable. Shades of those afernoon-into-evening games of one's youth, mother calling you ín for tea'- shades of Walt Disney - shades of something peculiarly ecstatically African or even MALI-an.
And that is why we came here, I guess.
Badala in Bamako is on the bend of the river. The usual scene : people washing their clothes, washing themselves, collecting water to irrigate their crops. Beauty and scruffy and natural and artificial and water-carried and human-discarded are all along this river bank. There, here, where I am fortunate, there are two goals, with crossbars, bound together by twine.
At 5pm EVERY night (there is no abandonment or postponement conceivable) (and the weather is much the same: hot or hotter or really hot or hot with thunderclaps as God says THATS QUITE ENOUGH HEAT) the young men of the area filter out from alleys and work places - some are gardeners - on mopeds, scooters, bikes and on foot to greet each other and then argue the team selection and the toss. A man, an elder nowadays, in a turquoise cape, wags his finger and utters lavish much-loved nonsense, mostly to the smaller boys who actually try and listen to him.
Another man, with a club foot, who casts himself out of team selection, bangs the ground with a spare goalpost. Perhaps the Gods are being summoned ...if you see what I am about to see, you would surely agree that they must be here.
Beyond the haze is the other bank of the River Niger (3rd biggest in Africa) plus a tallish building (tallest in West Africa) plus the first of several bridges always day or night or twilight humanised by us ants in the greater scheme of things.
Imamohammedine will miss the game. Because of the conflict our humble hotel's faithful gardener and occasional security guard is having to workovertime. He is unhappy at this, only. (He NEVER misses a match).
The stage is set. The daily washing removed.
The pitch is 50 metres of bumps, big humps, hollows and pools of River Niger overspill flanked on the near side by prickly bushes and a few spectators. No dogs. One team are made to go bare-chested andone player is still untangling his vest wrapped over his head when a player nutmegs him. The game is underway and it's a passing game...with some dribbling, then an uncalled for bicycle kick,then a clutch of players jumping for ...a shoe, the ball is elsewhere.
The powerful skins team are 2-0 up with barely a blink of the eye. Arguments-cum-discussions abound just as, as per always, a smallest boy is summoned to get in the water, in this case the lilac pond, to recover the ball. He is lectured about keeping his head up. And to get on with it, by a ring of Skins eager to get a third goal. A family arrives and Papa on learning that the team his end are 2-0 down urges his wife and toddlers 'to go look at the River'. He rolls up his sleeves and starts reorganising HIS team from the goalmouth going forward.
The second smallest boy, perhaps fearing that go-get-the-ball-out-of-the-water service will soon be upon him, commits a series of fantastically badly-timed tackles sending the stars and giants of the game crashing, looking up at him. Even his own captain. Had there been a referee this small boy would have walked.
Another incident - a high-speed slip on donkey dung sends the player of the most fanciful footwork and the best-dressed, clean, airborne into a murky pool. His illuminous vest is not so eye-catching now. The fight back however is on. The scores are level. Another small boy, in goals, saves a thunderous shot in his 'midrift' and with tears in his eyes completes a second reflex save. But not a third. Random t-shirts abound and when the crumpled boy eventually stands up his reveals "Tell Santa not to speak to my teacher".
Meanwhile "One Love" sets off on a dazzling run, sidestepping and skipping over all challenges, donkey dung, pieces of hose, plastic bottles, fishing nets, lost shoes, crocs (Bamako means crocodile)...to pass twice and score. 3-3. High fives. The tooth-less witch-doctor in the turquoise cape is beside himself, storming on to the pitch finger-pointing. There is so much laughter all around about everything, he won't be heard.
Now the ball is in the bramble-bushes and five players with cuts and bleeding are hacking it out mercilessly. One turns to remonstrating the idea of 'a throw-ín'. Taken quickly. Leaving behind the four fighting the bush.
This turns into an exquisite move - the throw to foot, a chip, a passing header and a cannonball of a volley with complete follow-through takes the net clean off (had there been one).
The light is fading, the teeth and eyes are smiling and, somewhere, mothers are silently willing their boys home not-too-long-into curfew, in joy and peace, their life-forces intact.
Stuart's core belief is that football is a better way than war - and often replaces it.
Suddenly in a country which has been ALL smiles so far, war and football are to be brought sideby side before our own eyes.
Just as a hell is allowed to break out - and the army seize rape pillage the Presidential Palace and go against the civil police (including our AS Police chief with half an arm - shot off in a like conflict a decade before) we come across 'a game' to defy proper explanation.
In a heap of a place between fancy houses - some being built, and flanked by bountiful green trees affording some canopy, and flanked also by the River Niger of which this is flood-plain...
...11 or so young men looked on by goats and a small crowd some with watering-cans, BANG CRASH WALLOP SLIDE TACKLE OUTMANOUEVRE - in essence they amaze. Somehow avoiding breeze blocks, broken glass, building-joists, mounds of spoil and detritus. Not even the heaps of sand can slow them. They will NEVER any one of them play for the shirts they wear: Chelsea, Milan, Real Madrid, Barcelona - and they will probably never even make Djoliba trials.
But doubtless they will be back on this spoil time and time again as they probably have already been for dusk-end of days and days and years on end. Perfecting their craft. Their style. Their version of 'the game'. Somehow plodding home almost completely spent, without serious injury.
Djoliba AC is like the Manchester team of Malian club football.
We have lived our day in the sun. Us two young photographers. Our visit is to end here at Djoliba (or so we think - more of this later) where our Malian football 'road-trip' begun.
Not everyone however knows where it is - our taxi driver takes us north over the River to a stadium that is not Djoliba. "We shall not be moved out of this taxi" our demand. He then stalks the sidewalk for another person to pick up to make the trip cost effective. Some taxis run out of petrol before they've even completed the fare.
Wrong informations Day: Djoliba are NOT at home, not even to play in a friendly (as we believed) against our favourites Onze Creators. In fact the senior team has flown out of the country to compete in the African Champions League. We are left with the not so seniors on a training session.
This is a place for some degree of perfection.
Players are picked for six-a-sides depending in their ability and their tactical position. THOSE LATE are relagted to the not-nearly-so-seniors game.
Scooters and bikes, plus a few family members are in attendance. Plus the water-carrier women. And girls.
Despite there being a healthy two hundred players amassed in various groupings, a great many have apparently not made it "beacuse of the troubles in town".
One of these young street-wise men goes on to be a semi-professional Malian Premier League footballer on Malian semi-professional footballer wages.
The footballer’s big sister’s little girl...dressed in Drogba.
The professional photographer from Europe visits the home of the semi-professional footballer from Mali. It’s not a luxury apartment.
The footballer’s strict training regime.
Watching the local match.
The Scooter crowd could scoot off and away, but choose to stay.
Bend it Like Beckham
We went to THE BEACH. Mali is land-locked however. And the market-monkey was in a bad mood. He scratched or bit Lucinda. So we rushed her bum to the hospital where the doctor was having a lie-down.
The goat was kept waiting for kick-off as no-one turned up for the village kick-around in the searing heat.
Dusk. It would have to be decided on penalties...
Was a Sunday. We are on our way to Mali's 2nd city, for a match. Every village you pass through it's the same - Malians trying to sell you something, or simply impress on you their faith in human nature.
Besides fruit of every colour, every village and community has a football pitch. Or three.
We've been almost locked out ourselves, more than once, so when we had the chance to let someone in, we did.
Never one to get on her high chair, Lucinda stalks the tunnel area.
The Stadium was used in 2002 for the Cup of African Nations finals. It's a bit dusty now.