How to survive a soccer match in West Africa

Sheer luck.  That’s really what it boils down to.  I attended an African Cup qualifying match last weekend and the only reason I got in the game, sat down, and made it back out without being trampled, jumped on, or gashing something open, was really sheer luck.

It all began earlier in the day, when we sent someone to go buy our group tickets in advance.  Much too late, we realized that was folly.  We got medium-priced tickets and had a taxi pick us up an hour and a half before start time, to ensure that we got good seats together.  The stadium in Ouaga is huge, and as soon as we pulled onto the paved road leading to parking and the entrance, we were immediately swamped by people blowing horns, waving flags, and uttering really any type of noise to convey their excitement.

We entered the park easily enough, and then went to find our seating.  This is where we should have first realized that things would not go smoothly.  Now, West Africa in general is not known for its lines; rather, a more mashed-potato approach is taken, wherein everyone rushes the same small aperture and gradually one or two of the more tenacious fighters will pop through at a time.  So, when we arrived outside the gate to our seating, we were surprised to discover lines; even more confusing was that two lines had been constructed leading up to the security check, and for some (still) unknown reason, they zigzagged to form a perfect square with one another.  I’ve never stood in a square line before, but that’s really the only way to describe it.

We waited in our square line until we reached the security guards, who were performing pat-downs on every person that entered.  Except us.  The guard still had his head down by my knees from finishing his last check when he likely noticed the blinding white color emanating from between my sandal straps and backed away like I had just set off a radiation detector.  He waved us each through in succession and we climbed the stairs to our entrance gate, where another line had formed.

The line stopped moving right about as we arrived; after about five or ten minutes, we heard angry voices and scuffling near the front.  Mind you, there were two entrances to our seating, and as we looked across the balcony to the other we watched fans literally running up the stairs and through the gate.  But we were stuck.  Apparently, people were trying to get in using old or fake tickets, so the police had simply locked the doors and refused to let us through.  When it became apparent they weren’t budging any time soon, most of us ran down our set of steps and through the parking lot to the other entrance that, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, we got locked out of right about as we reached the stairs.  We crept up to the front of the line in the hopes of just melding into the crowd, but we got yelled at by waiting fans and shoved aside by the riot police rushing past us.  Now, if I’m being frank, I don’t think a country can really pick and choose when it wants to use lines, that’s just not fair.  If lines are a thing within your borders, by all means, protect and cherish them; however, if the custom is to rush the entrance like a baker trying to cram a pound of flour down a cup-size funnel, then clamoring about people trying to butt into some fantasy line of yours is, really, quite rude.

On the landing above us we saw more fans rushing through an opening.  It led to a section with cheaper seats than we had paid for, but at that point we were desperate to simply get into the stadium, so we took off.  I think we barely made it in before they closed the doors there as well; they certainly didn’t have room for anyone else.  (By the way, if you were thinking they were actually checking tickets at any of these entrances, you would be extremely mistaken).

We pushed and shoved our way through a crowd on the stairs until we made our way to the seating, which was completely full.  However, being white and generally prone to attracting attention and standing out in a crowd, some seats miraculously opened up for us right up near the railing.  During the entire game, a standing crowd filled the stairway we had just walked up.

One section of the stadium was dedicated to the Central African Republic fans.  Their team scored first, but then Burkina came back with a very pretty goal, followed by a score on a penalty kick, and capped off with a third in the last minute of the game.  The fans went berserk.  I’m talking losing-regard-for-your-own-body-and-those-of-the-people-around-you type of crazy.  I nearly missed being elbowed in the face and jumped on to form some kind of human triple-decker hug, but my neighbor was not so lucky and had her toe split open by the jumpers.

As the referee blew his final whistle, fans screamed wildly, shouting and cheering for their team and their favorite players, and began jumping the railing and rushing out onto the field.  What I hadn’t realized until this point was that I had just witnessed a qualifying match, and Burkina had just made it into the top 16 to play in this year’s African Cup.  Quickly, the pitch filled with Burkina fans, running, jumping, doing cartwheels and handstands, climbing onto goal posts.  They mobbed their favorite players (i.e. I watched the goalie disappear beneath a congratulatory pat on the head from 100 people), and for the sake of their own safety, riot guards (who had taken the field at the same time) forced the losing team to stay on their bench as Burkina fans formed a semi-circle around the downtrodden crew and taunted them via songs, chants, and dances.

This continued for at least 10 or 15 minutes.  At first we watched in amazement, and then because we were told it would be safer for us to wait before trying to exit.  Eventually the riot guards grew tired of the celebrations and spread out to form a line the length of the field; then they slowly walked the width, sweeping off celebrators as they went, batting and swinging their batons at anyone who didn’t listen or came back for seconds.  The fans were so avid, I even saw one pass out on the field of his own sheer exhaustion and dehydration.  All in all, though, the celebrations were really exciting to see, the kind of fabled tales you hear about from people who have attended Super Bowls, the World Series, or any soccer game held outside of the United States.

We finally made our way out and found our ride.  Everyone was in the parking lot and streets shouting, honking car horns and blowing whistles, and it continued our whole ride home, with people who had just watched the game on TV or heard about it from a friend pouring out into downtown and the main streets to celebrate.  Burkina isn’t usually a very winning team, and in tournaments people here usually end up supporting their formidable neighbor to the southwest, Côte d’Ivoire.  In this case, it was great to get to see everyone have a chance to celebrate their home team.

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3 Responses to How to survive a soccer match in West Africa

  1. deped1541 says:

    so I guess…thank goodness your legs are so white? haha go Burkina!

  2. Russ Mills says:

    Sounds like going to an Eagles game. Quite an adventure and experience.

  3. Jim says:

    This reminds of a Salif Keita concert that I attended in Bamako in 1992, his first after the revolution that ended the military dictatorship. The national stadium full, manic crowd, security used tear gas to chase everyone out after the encore — I’ll never forget it, but I will also never do it again.

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