So I thought that with the World Cup being over, soccer would have a much more limited impact on my daily life. Soccer (football) here, though, is more than a series of matches held every four years. Blantyre has the biggest stadium in the country and hosts numerous soccer games every weekend. Even from our apartment miles away, we can hear the cheering crowds every Saturday and Sunday, and the ceaseless hum of the vuvuzelas.
I have a hard time following all of the local leagues, but when Malawi was set to play Chad in a qualifying match for the Africa Cup, a large group of us decided we had to go and cheer them on.
Malawi is not known for their football – at least not yet. There was a surprising win in this year’s Africa Cup against a top ranked team, but in general, Malawi is not thought of as a football powerhouse. Despite this, we braved the heat and the blinding sun, dressed all in red, and piled into the stadium along with tens of thousands of our closest friends.
The stadium is ancient – or at least it looks it. It is a half-circle shape around a startlingly green pitch (which looks especially bright in the brown/grey/green dry season when we feel like we’re living in faded jungle army camouflage). The seats are all facing the sun, which was setting slowly and made us all feel pink and sunburned. As a group of seven azungu, we stuck out amazingly well in the crowd. Several of us called our Malawian friends to tell them where we were sitting, but they all said “um, yeah, I see you.”
On a recent visit to the stadium, FIFA (International Football Federation) decided that the top half of the seats were structurally unsound, and that no one should be allowed to sit there. There were policemen stationed all around the top level trying to keep the crowd out of those top seat, hoping to avoid sending the stadium crashing to the ground. One of the most entertaining parts of the afternoon was to watch the policemen be very strict in the beginning, then become more and more complacent, to the end when they were hugging and jumping up and down with fans who were packed into the dangerous top deck.
The atmosphere was electric. That sounds cliche, but the energy was so high, you couldn’t help but smile and get goose bumps. Fellow fans crushed into the seats around us, chanting, waving, singing, and wearing extreme costumes. Watching the crowd was the best part of the day, especially when Malawi scored – which they did – SIX times! It was an outstanding victory.
Chad scored twice, but we couldn’t be sure since there was no scoreboard. At most sporting events I’ve attended, there are fans from both teams present at the game, even if one side is only a small contingency. At this match, though, there were no fans for Chad. When Chad scored, there was complete silence. It was as if all of the Malawian fans pretended it never happened.
At one point, Sandy turned to me and teasingly asked where the high-def jumbo-tron was. A Malawian seated below us turned around and said perfectly seriously, in an effort to be helpful, “we don’t have one of those.”
Another highlight was the vuvuzella-off. A Scottish friend used to play the trumpet and has taken to the vuvuzella quite well. He can even play multiple notes, which is a departure from the usual ‘swarm of bees’ noise the vuvuzella usually projects. A drunken Malawian supporter seemed upset at the Scotsman’s talents and used his vuvuzella to blow loudly into his ear. Not phased, the Scotsman, turned, and without saying a word, drew then drunken man into a vuvuzella -off. The two competed for loudest note, longest note, most unique pattern of notes, until the Scotsman unleashed his killer multiple note talents. Knowing he was beaten, the drunken man sat down, while the whole section cheered on the Scot.
I was also very impressed by the props that fans brought to show their allegiance to the team. I saw a plastic blow-up guitar, a large stuffed pink pony (carried around by a tough looking young Malawian man who did not seem to see the humor). There were also a lot of people who carried around loaves of bread. I’ve heard this is equivalent to telling your opponents that you’ll eat them for dinner, or something like that.
All in all, with the exuberant crowd, the many goals, the vuvuzellas, the stadium not falling down and of course the Malawi win, it was a great afternoon. Hot, but great.