MALAWI: April 2018

I have a T-shirt from the 2010 World Cup held in South Africa that states: “Football is life”. For many people around the world this is certainly the case – and Africa is no exception.

Africans are obsessed with the game. Not so much with their own teams but with overseas leagues – the English Premier League, in particular; their allegiances often influenced by African footballing exports. They are fiercely proud of their achievements and there are no borders as far as wanting to see any African footballer be successful in the foreign leagues.

Strolling through a market in Lilongwe I spy a smiley curio seller bedecked in a Chelsea shirt. We have an immediate affinity – the language of football has no barriers.

Charles (for that is his name) shows me his wealth of woodcarvings – statues, masks, bowls, you name it – all handcrafted by his own bare hands, he assures me.

Vibrantly coloured chitenje (sarongs) hang from a clothesline strung across his pitch.

“Why Chelsea?” I ask, already having an inkling of what his answer will be.

“Didier Drogba [Ivory Coast], Michael Essien [Ghana], Jon Obi Mikel [Nigeria], Demba Ba [Senegal], Samuel Eto’o [Cameroon],” he answers, reeling off a list of Chelsea’s African acquisitions over the years. “But now my favourite player is Willian.”

But he’s Brazilian. I wonder at this sudden change in nationality track; mind you, he does sport a very impressive Afro.

“What about Victor Moses?” I suggest.

“Ach, yes. Moses. Nigeria,” grins Charles.

Football everywhere

In Nkhotakota, I order a beer from Lucas Samson, a barman at Tongole Wilderness Lodge, and the talk quickly turns to the beautiful game.

Lucas is an exception to the rule – he doesn’t follow English football, preferring the Spanish offering.

“Barca,” he announces, when I ask who he supports.

Lucas’s colleague Gilbert chips in: “Liverpool,” he exclaims, reverting to type with regard Africa’s love of the English game. No prizes for guessing why: Egypt’s Mohamed Salah is pulling up trees for the Scousers this season, Senegal’s Sadio Mané is having a stellar year and Guinea’s Naby Keïta is set to join in the summer.

“Do you play?” I ask Gilbert. Don’t ask me why, but he has the look of a footballer about him.

“Yes, I play mid,” he smiles, telling me that he turns out for a team in a local league. Tongole also has its own competition: teams being selected from the lodge’s 24 or so employees and played on a pitch a couple of kilometres away in the forest.

As you travel around Malawi, and indeed any African country, in every village you will more than likely find two goals fashioned from branches at either end of a piece of waste ground (I’ve even played on a ploughed field in Zimbabwe, which was interesting to say the least); kids and adults alike kicking a ball around at any given opportunity.

“Do you support a team in Malawi?” I ask Lucas.

“Nyasa Big Bullets,” he answers proudly, almost shouting the name.

I love the team names here: as well as Big Bullets – the country’s most-decorated team – Malawi’s Super League is home to the Mighty Wanderers, the Silver Strikers, the Red Lions, the Blue Eagles and my personal favourite, Be Forward Wanderers, among others.

Good business

Catching a cab in Lilongwe to Harry’s Bar to watch some football (obviously) –the Champions League semi-final between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, in case you are wondering – and to enjoy some local beers in a local pub, I note that the taxi is a gleaming new model.

“Business good?” I ask the driver, as I get in. Why do we always ask cab drivers that?

“Oh, yes,” he replies, extolling the virtues of his new motor. “It’s just six weeks old,” he informs me, puffing out his chest metaphorically.

No prizes for guessing my next question: “Do you like football?” I ask.

“Football?” he replies. “I love it!”

Dumi tells me he has been a Manchester United fan since he was a boy, like his father before him. Indoctrinated by his dad, just like my son is with Chelsea and as are countless others around the world.

His favourite player is Man United’s Paul Pogba, a global superstar whose weekly wage (somewhere in excess of £200,000) is far beyond my comprehension let alone that of someone struggling on the Malawian breadline.

But this is inconsequential to the joy felt around the world watching these artists ply their trade.

Incidentally, Malawi’s highest paid footballer earns the equivalent of £400 a month.

“Do you support a team in Malawi?”

“Mighty Wanderers – top of the league,” he chuckles. I’m sure he even gives a little fist pump.

“Who’s the most famous Malawian player?”

He thinks for a moment. “We have one who calls himself ‘Pogba’,” he replies.

“Like Paul Pogba?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says. “Many players like to name themselves after famous players.”

A bit of Internet research turns up one Paul Pogba Chikalema, who plays in midfield (like his namesake) for the Lilongwe-based Silver Strikers.

So, next time you are in Malawi’s capital city why not pop along to the 20,000-seater Silver Stadium to see Paul Pogba in action. It will only cost you about K1500 – less than a couple of quid.

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