With 4 billion fans, soccer is the most popular sport in the world and with two major tournaments going on during my time in Africa, it’s been incredible to see how sports fandom is expressed the world over.
In Senegal wrestling is more popular than soccer, and more popular than rugby but they have national teams for all three. Senegal is in the Africa Cup of Nations, which is a tournament held every two years. There are 24 teams playing in Egypt for the $4.5 million in prize money. Senegal’s team is the Lions and when the national team plays, everyone watches. The hostel staff in Dakar pushed back he start of dinner to watch the Lions win against Tanzania. People on N’gor island shouted and ran around the bar when their team scored. Men in the street walk around selling green jerseys with the team’s official logo and no matter who’s playing, the Africa Cup is on the TV, talked about in person and reported on the news. While we were in Casamance, a house with a big screen TV drew seemingly the whole village. People crowded around the door and windows to watch the tournament. Senegal is doing very well having beat Kenya, Uganda, Benin and Algeria to make it to the final round of the tournament.
Morocco and Egypt are the Cup of Nations as well and as our tour guide in Rabat told us when we asked about the sports popularity, “football is life.” It’s a big dream in Senegal as well as in Morocco to play professional soccer and especially to make it onto a European team where both the pay and the prestige is greater.
Soccer still lags in popularity in the United States, ranking 4th behind American football, basketball and baseball. I’ll admit to not being a huge soccer fan myself even as the US Women’s team takes the World Cup by storm beating Spain, France, England and finally the Netherlands t claim their 4th world championship, the most wins by any FIFA team in the tournament’s history.
Children everywhere play soccer in bare feet and in flip flops. They play in sand on the beach with sticks demarcating the goals. They play with deflated basketballs, with volleyballs and with tattered soccer balls that are hardly recognizable. Walking through the narrow, winding pedestrian paths of the Fez medina we saw goals spray painted on opposite walls in a square. Driving through the desserts of Morocco we saw soccer field after soccer field with metal goals sans nets and raked dirt piches.
The French woman who runs the Casamance NGO tourism company we used said all of France is now rooting for the USA even though they beat France. Megan Rapinoe has a purple pixie cut and plays forward for the US. She’s become a mouth piece for equal pay for women’s sports and a vocal proponent of equality across the board. She’s been kneeling for the national anthem during the World Cup in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. She’s questioned why FIFA would allow the Africa Cup and the Women’s World Cup to be at the same time siphoning viewers away from the women. The protesting prone French, love her, which eases the sting of the loss.
The women’s final was on our last day in Senegal. We watched the end of the game with the hostel staff where we stored our bags for the day. The game ended with 7 minutes of overtime for a penalty. All of the players looked exhausted. The staff told me I looked like forward Alex Morgan. I don’t look like her. She and I are both white women. We both have brown hair. But that’s about where the similarities end. I remember when I first started teaching on the south side of Chicago and struggled to tell my male students apart. Perhaps it’s the same in reverse with Senegalese men and American women?
We’ll arrive in Egypt the day after the Africa Cup finals. We’re still cheering for Senegal, who have managed to come so far even though they’re not favored to win. The US women’s team will make their rounds in America. Rapinoe says she’ll refuse to visit Trump’s Whitehouse. In the meantime we’ll keep an eye on the score by popping our head into coffee shops where men (always men and only men) gather to drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and watch the game.