Angola Aside from the Cup: A Different Soccer Story

During my brief six months working in Angola between 2002 and 2003, a favorite pastime of mine when driving around Luanda was to try to identify the replica team shirts worn by ubiquitous street soccer teams playing in any available space.  Brazil’s canary yellow was the most popular, but the range was impressive; I saw complete teams kitted out in the reds of Manchester United, the burgundy of Portugal, the green stripes of Sporting Lisbon, the yellow/orange/black on white design of Germany, even the all whites of Real Madrid—a hopelessly futile choice in the face of the city’s red dirt and grimy haze.  I never could quite figure out how Angolan street teams, of both children and adults, managed to procure so many dazzling kits.  But it was clearly important—a small, symbolic, daily attempt to claim membership in the community of a global game.

On Friday, as most fans of the game now well know, a much grander Angolan attempt at that membership went tragically wrong.  The heartbreaking attack on the Togo team bus in rural Cabinda, an Angolan territory geographically separated from the rest of the nation, on the eve of the 2010 African Nations Cup upset me deeply.  Foremost, I’m upset about the dead and wounded; I’m upset that the vile geo-political mix of oil, land, terrorism, and inequality claimed innocent lives and injured the travelling party of a soccer team that was interested in nothing more than a game.  But I’m also upset about the potential for the ambush to detract from what should be a great year for African soccer—and to further distort perceptions of Africa.

As I noted in a comment on one of Tom’s posts regarding the Cabinda tragedy here on Pitch Invasion, Africa is a big, complicated place.  And Cabinda is a small, complicated place (by wilson santiago).  It is well worth trying to understand the politics of it all, and trying to figure out how to apportion responsibility and consider the implications of the bus ambush.  It seems plausible to me that the Cup of Nations organizers, the Angolan government, and the Togolese federation all have serious questions to answer—to say nothing of the sickness of terrorists willing to massacre innocents for publicity.  But I have no special access or expertise regarding those matters.

What I do have is some personal experience in Angola and an abiding interest in the way soccer can help us understand places, lives, and ways of being.  It now seems as though the Cup of Nations still has a chance to succeed, Angola’s wild tie with Mali in the opener brought a different energy to things, but I still can’t stomach the idea that the only story soccer fans might hear about Angola outside of its stadiums would be about a machine gun ambush in rural Cabinda.  That is only about Angola in the way that a US military doctor’s murdering innocents on a Texas army base is about America.

By way of context, I understand the fears regarding Africa being expressed around the world after the Cabinda bus ambush.  Even though I had spent a few years in another part of Africa before going to Angola, and though I knew to be careful of stereotypes about the continent’s lurking dangers, I was wary when flying into Luanda in 2002.  The country was just emerging from its 27 year civil war (though the somewhat distinct conflict in Cabinda was ongoing) and I had read much about disgruntled ex-combatants, easily available weapons, and the desperation of gaping economic inequality.  But as we drove away from the airport that first day, the Canadian NGO worker who picked me up casually rolled down his windows and we chatted about the coming week-end as if I’d never left Chicago.

The author and friends after an impromptu match in Angola

I did try to be careful when in Angola (where I was primarily working on a piece of my dissertation research), and heard a good few horror stories from other ex-pats, but in six months in and around Luanda I never personally had any problems or perceived any serious threat other than long days without running water.  And on the other side of the ledger, I had several opportunities to experience the sort of luxury an American graduate student usually only dreams of—expeditions to secluded beaches where locals would catch and cook fresh lobster while we had a kick-about on glorious white sand.  This was a long way from rural Cabinda, but actually quite close to where Angola’s Black Antelopes played Mali on Sunday.

In some discussions of the 2010 Cup of Nations I’ve seen Angola described as a poor country—but like all things related to these events that claim too is complicated.  Probably a more accurate description comes from the title of an interesting article in the British version of GQ magazine: “The World’s Richest Poor Country.”  There are pockets of immense wealth in Angola, particularly in and around Cabinda and Luanda where multi-national oil companies maintain gleaming corporate towers and heavily guarded luxury housing compounds.  In Luanda several of these buildings are just off Avenida Lenin and Rua Commandante Che Guevara—hollow tributes to Angola’s dalliance with communism during the cold war.

But while Angola’s rich are indeed very rich, the poor are also very poor.  Less than ten years ago, Angola was ranked by the United Nations Children’s Fund as “the worst place in the world to be a child.”  The combination of landmines, a decimated infrastructure, the unavailability of education, and the rarity of decent health care made for a dismal statistical reality.  But for me as a researcher and aspiring developmental psychologist part of what was fascinating about Angola was the way those decimated external conditions did not necessarily decimate people’s internal experience.  The Angolans I met were often justifiably angry about the conditions of their lives, but they maintained a vitality and a willfulness that is sometimes surprising yet somehow human.  And peace, along with Angola’s wealth of natural resources, had brought hope that the external conditions would improve.

Although I have not been back to Angola since 2003, my sense is that in many parts of the country the external conditions of life have gotten better.  There have been accusations of massive corruption, but at least some investment does seem to be going towards repairing and creating a real infrastructure.  Angola has serious problems and challenges, but there are some good stories and I feel compelled to indulge in at least one that has very little to do with the politics of Cabinda or the glamour of millionaire footballers—but it does have something to say about the place and the game.

My favorite Angola story is about a seven year old soccer fan I’ll call “Diego” who I met through my research in a hard luck refugee camp on the deep outskirts of Luanda.  Diego had spent his whole life in the camp, a dusty set of semi-permanent huts where his family had years ago taken refuge from heavy fighting near their home in rural Angola.  Their hut was among the most haggard in a collection of several hundred that made up one section of camp.  It was sticks, mud, and brightly hued scraps of plastic sheeting printed sporadically with various insignias: the white symbol of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, a dark cartoon “jumbo” on a bag from a store 20 miles distant, an illustrated corn husk on a former sack of food aid from the US Agency for International Development, faded red and white stripes from a cheap mass produced plastic grocery sack.

In the space where Diego slept, a sleeping area shared by several members of the family but no bigger than a department store changing room, yellowing newspapers hung on the wall.  The pages listed the players on Benfica and Sporting Lisbon a few years earlier.  I have no idea how he got those newspapers, but I do know that like most boys in the camp, Diego loved the game.  Unlike most boys in the camp, the muscles of Diego’s legs did not function.

Diego’s legs had been deformed since birth.  When I cautiously inquired as to the cause, the adults I asked were neither sure nor particularly interested (though polio seems like a reasonable guess).  The reality was that his peasant refugee family had no access to high technology hospital care, prosthetics, or wheelchairs.  So Diego had learned to move around the camp by walking with his arms, dragging his thin legs like hinged tent poles while using the thickly scabbed knots of skin on his knees as points on which to rest.

I had seen Diego around the camp at various points during my first few months in Angola, but he had hardly registered with me amidst much that was unfamiliar: the languidness of people whose daily routines involved much waiting, the chattering mix of Portuguese, French, Swahili, Bakongo, among other dialects, the dramatic variety of facial expressions ranging from giddy to sober.  I only started to know Diego personally during a period of weeks when I was administering surveys to children.

To do my research one day I borrowed a school room, a wall-less polished concrete floor covered by dull tin sheets propped up by adobe posts, interviewing children two at a time.  When Diego emerged from a crowd of curious children and sat down to do a survey I became a little nervous.  Among my many questions were several about participation in sport and play activities, and I was anxious to not embarrass Diego.  My instinct was to assume such questions would make him feel badly about not having functional legs, and presumably being unable to participate in the ubiquitous pick-up soccer games among boys his age.  When Diego sat down with me on a concrete step I decided, for the sake of standardizing my research protocol, to ask anyway.

“So, how often do you play sports and games with other kids?” I blurted in rote Portuguese.  “Every day, about three or four days a week, about once or twice a week, or never.  And it’s no problem if you say ‘never.’”

Diego looked at me with puzzlement, and a tinge of pity.

Todos os dias” he said.

“Every day?”

Diego paused, unsure about me.  We sat briefly in a confused silence.

“Well,” he qualified himself, “there were a few days where I was a little sick and couldn’t play.  So almost every day.”

As with almost all the boys in the refugee camp, Diego played soccer nearly every day.  Diego just used his hands to “kick” the ball when others would use their feet, batting it sharply with his calloused fist.  There were no adults that set up special rules for the game, no adapted equipment, and no major modifications of the rules—I was the only one that seemed to find the whole thing interesting.  When asked, some boys explained that they occasionally debated what should happen when the ball hit Diego’s non-functioning legs: should that be the same as a handball for the rest of the players?  While different kids seemed to have different opinions, none seemed to worry much.  Mostly they just played.

The trajectory of Diego’s future life as a disabled refuge in rural Angola was not good, and I do not mean to minimize the problems of Angola—nor the seriousness of what happened in Cabinda last week.  But I do mean to try and offer one small reminder that there are other stories to tell about Angola.  No matter what happens from now with the Cup of Nations, it seems important to me for all of us to keep in mind the small, symbolic, daily ways we claim membership in the community of a global game.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at)

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