Published on February 8, 2013 | by David Drake

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Africa opened my eyes to a new footballing culture

The opening ceremony at this year’s Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa [Flickr: Government ZA]

The year 2013 marks the 29th Africa Cup of Nations, the tournament held every two years for the countries of Africa to compete against each other for the prestigious accolade of becoming the champions of this vast and diverse continent.

With the final of the competition taking place on Sunday, I wanted to divulge in my own experiences of Africa to attest to why this tournament is so special.

Since it was established back in 1957 there have been 37 countries in contention, of which 18 teams have won the tournament at least once. If the fierce competition doesn’t grab you then maybe the colour, the coming together of the so many different cultures, the energy and passion of the spectators chanting and cheering.

The pure simplicity of the game is why football is so widespread, anything can be used as a football whether it is plastic bags secured with string or crumpled newspaper specifically engineered and crafted to the shape of a ball.

My experience of football in Africa first and foremost was just the youngsters’ sheer ability to just keep on running, keep on performing, staying constantly alert and on their toes in what was simply a sauna. The mercury rarely leaving 40°C and the energy-sapping 80 per cent tropical humidity was just immense.

As an overseas volunteer I would take football coaching sessions before and after school, midway through the second week the younger kids (12-16 years old) had their mid-term break. After morning practise I asked one of the lads what his plans were for the rest of the day. His response was startling; he would go home and work on his parent’s fields, cultivating crops by hand after two hours of football practice and prior to a two-hour evening session.

This brought a number of thoughts to mind, one being the fact that football practice would go on every day and only school and work would change in their routine – football it seems was first priority at the start of the day and football would concluded the day. What came after was only important after football.

The other was brought to mind at the evening practice session as the sweat had painted the often replica Manchester United or Chelsea shirts to the players’ muscularly athletic bodies, every muscle group flexed and contracted under each motion like molten metal.

That was it! – Fitness. These guys were off the scale and not a million miles away from the fine-tuned professional players back home. They would train and complete football drills, honing their skills, cardio fitness and conditioning work, which would take place in finely equipped gyms for the pro’s over here, which the fields and farms would offer in the form of manual work.

So life clearly revolved around the game, the lifestyle they lead ensured they were in good shape for the game. But the location of where the football practice took place was also thought provoking.  Football practice would be on a pitch that was surrounded by a school. Instantly, positioning football as the central focus of attention, from every classroom in the school one could look out onto the pitch.

As the classrooms were just empty shells with no windows and doors, it provided a shelter from the harsh African sun for any spectators or subs almost like a stand. By day the buildings would lay dormant but come evening or weekend they would echo cheers and shouts from the budding spectators – it is transformed into an amphitheatre.

But football was to do more than provide exercise, teach the importance of team building, offer communication skills and in its simplest form provide a past time. For the prisoners of the infamous Robben Island, an off-shore prison for political criminals in South Africa, football had become a passionate and combined symbol of resistance against apartheid.

“We needed football. Without it there would have been so much depression. It made you feel free in an unfree status,” explained former Robben Island prisoner, ‘Terror’ Lekota, in Tom Eaton’s book, More Than Just a Game.

From this appetite of the beautiful game stemmed one the only organised leagues ever to be seen in a prison – Makana FA, consisting of three leagues of nine teams adhering to the official FIFA rulebook Laws of the Game which was found in the prison library and became one of the most popular books amongst inmates.

The Africa Cup of Nations looks as promising this year as ever before, as football is once again returning to South Africa since hosting the 2010 World Cup. Unfortunately, the times in which the games are televised I feel will hinder the viewing figures as well as the fact that the Premier League, FA and Capital One Cup are still on-going, the African tournament could be overshadowed by more mainstream football.

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