Monthly Archives: May 2012

Orange Smoke

In the hinterlands of Cary, North Carolina — itself largely a vast hinterland between Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, a place once featured in National Geographic as the ultimate suburb — sits the Wake Med Soccer Complex. There’s a slight chance you may have seen it at some point on TV — the ACC soccer tournament is played here, along with an exhibition game by the U.S. Women’s team — and an even slighter chance you have been there yourself. But it was precisely the place to be last night. It is the home stadium to the NASL Carolina Railhawks, who last night hosted the LA Galaxy in the third round of the U.S. Open Cup — our little-known equivalent to the FA Cup or the French Cup. Like these other tournaments, the competition is important because of the way it democratizes professional soccer: in the face of the capital-driven franchise model of the MLS, it offers lower-division teams a sliver of a chance to make a mark. Which is what, throughout the country last night, they did — defeating 7 out of 14 MLS teams in various games played largely in small stadia like Wake-Med.

We got there shortly before kick-off, and settled in on the spanking new north end of the pitch — literally spanking new, in that it has been rushed to be opened to accommodate the sudden surge of fans who wanted to come see Railhawks vs. Galaxy. It was a record-setting night at the stadium: almost 8,000 spectators, the largest crowd ever. Towering above the stadium, meanwhile, is an unfinished section — which to my mind will simply have to be dubbed “the Hawk’s nest” once it opens — that will provide a wonderfully precipitous view of the pitch when it’s opened later this year. The Railhawks are a good team — they won the NASL Championship in 2011, and have a roster of exciting players largely from the U.S. but also from Togo and South Africa. They’ve got a devoted group of “ultras,” the Triangle Soccer Fanatics, who created a great atmosphere last night — complete with smoke-bombs, vuvuzelas, streamers, clever chants, and behavior that got them a (very light) chiding from the sympathetic security guards.

North Carolina can honestly claim it’s place among the heartlands of U.S. soccer, thanks largely to the deep history of UNC’s women’s soccer program, but also to the strength of UNC and Duke’s men’s teams and a rich and lively amateur soccer scene throughout the year. But it’s not that often we get bigger professional or international games played around here. As of last year, the Gold Cup starting having some games in Charlotte — drawing large crowds of fans of the Mexican and Salvadorean teams, but flying almost entirely under the radar of local sports coverage, as the Gold Cup often tends to. (The evening also provided an opportunity for the defection of Cuban players, in the wake of a 5-0 clobbering by Mexico that night). But there’s a lingering sentiment that, given the local passion for the sport, we might deserve a bit more.

So it was that when the Railhawks made it into the 3rd round of the U.S. Open Cup to face the LA Galaxy, a buzz spread through the Triangle soccer community. A tiny sequel to what Grant Wahl has termed “The Beckham Experiment” played itself out here, as people rushed to buy tickets for the game hoping to see a few stars on our modest local pitch. As it turned out, there would be no Beckham, or Donovan, or Keane — all of them either unfit or called up for international friendly matches — but rather a team of Galaxy reserves. But Beckham did his part, in the end, getting fans there and mobilized for what turned out to be an exciting match that peaked in the second half with two dazzling, goal-producing runs by the talented Ty Shipalane. David Fellerath provides a nice annotation and video of the match here. They earned a place against Chivas USA (one of the MLS teams to survive challenges last night) next week, again at Wake-Med Stadium. And so — even though we won against an already sagging Galaxy team, and it’s reserve team at that — there was plenty of joy in those stands last night.

If you wanted to watch from afar, you had to content yourself with streaming video — what Maxi Rodriguez jokingly described as “the rarely used Sports Shaky Cam.” But last night left me feeling, once again, that we might actually content ourselves at the margins of U.S. sports culture. Though the Open Cup barely registers as a media event here, last night was a terrific evening of soccer and fandom, an intimate occasion in which the crowd and Railhawks players could build off one another, and generally enjoy the sight of the ball sailing up into the open night sky, with both very little and very much at stake.


“Didier Drogba delivered a long and passionate eulogy to the European Cup as Chelsea finally secured their holy grail.”The Sun, 21 May 2012

The Champions League final between Chelsea and Bayern was written, it seems now, purely to allow Didier Drogba a form of poetic catharsis worthy of fiction or film. The fact that Chelsea won was itself a kind of oddity, for throughout the game it seemed the most unlikely of outcomes. But as he had against Barcelona, Drogba became the master of the unruly and the absurd: none of what the other team did, not of the great passing and possession and continual shots on goal, mattered in the end. Just Drogba did, his head and then his foot.

I’m not a Chelsea fan, and watched the game with a fervent Chelsea-hater (learning that there is a tight kinship, down to color-coordination, between that and our local North Carolina tradition of deep, bilious Duke-hating). But I’ve got a soft spot for Drogba — his goals, and his goal celebrations, and the moments like this one where he performed a few steps from the “Drogbacité” dance (given the accent on the end, this would translate into English as “Drogbacity”) on this video (posted and commented on by Sean Jacobs at Africa is a Country).(For the full musical experience, watch the video of the song by Shazaku Yakuza)

But I am a fan of spontaneous, charismatic, oration — or at least of the idea of it. So it was that reading about Drogba’s post-victory performance suddenly redeemed the whole thing for me. After all, if a money-soaked, increasingly corrupt, time-devouring, and often seriously disappointing football culture should do anything, it should produce moments like this one:

Drogba, draped in an Ivory Coast flag, danced around the trophy on the pitch. But it was in the locker-room afterwards that he celebrated by transforming the trophy into an interlocutor, and his teammates into rapt, shouting, spectators.

As the Daily Mirror reported: “Why have you avoided us, eluded us, for so long? Why have you punished us so much?” asked Drogba… “For all these years you have flirted with us, tempted us, then run away. We thought you would come to us at Anfield twice, but you did not listen. Then in Moscow, you made us believe you were ours but turned your back, refused to let us touch you. Against Barcelona, again, you tortured us, made us want you even more, made it even harder. And even tonight, you hurt us first. Made us suffer. Made us fear it would be the same again, the late goal, the penalty kick, until the end. And now, at last, you belong to us.”

Though he had spoken at first to the trophy like a long-sought after lover, in the end, Drogba turned it into a religious object. As The Sun reported, he ended “his amazing 15-minute performance by bowing down to the cup and offering a prayer of thanks.”

The Guardian offered this summary: “The improvised eulogy touched upon everything from previous near-misses to a theatrical chronology of the evening’s events: from unexpected European debuts to defensive resilience, late headed goals to penalty heroics. The testimony was interspersed with a regular refrain that implored, with knees bent in mock worship of the silverware: ‘Why did you elude us for so long?’ ‘He was dancing on the table, praying to the cup,’ said the chairman, Bruce Buck. ‘It was almost a religious experience.’

We need, clearly, to call an emergency symposium of specialists in public oration — gathering Classicists who can speak to us about ancient Greeks and war with Ethnomusicologists who have studied West African griots — to write a proper analysis of this performance. (So far, perhaps the best description of the match, and Drogba’s role in it, has been written precisely in an ancient epic register.) For now, let’s just content ourselves with wishing that we had been there to see that brief sanctification.

This journey began in Abidjan, but much of it took place somewhere else — in, or on the edges of, French society. Drogba was sent by his family to life with his uncle, professional footballer Michel Goba, when he was five years old. His family eventually migrated to France in the midst of the austerity and political turmoil of the 1990s. As Adekeye Adebajo has written in a review of books on Drogba, his time in France was one of isolation. In speaking about his adolescence, Drogba referred to the Guinean novelist Camara Laye’s story of the painful exile of a student in France in the 1950s. His father, who had managed a bank back home, took menial jobs and the family lived in a cramped banlieue apartment in an area with many other African immigrants. “Didier’s teenage years in France were cold, lonely, and largely friendless,” writes Adebajo, defined by a sense of “sociocultural dislocation” for which football provided “some solace.”

Drogba’s followed his uncle’s path into professional football, playing in the 2nd division for several years before battling his way to Olympique de Marseille, and from there to Chelsea. He had — and still has — many ardent fans in France’s banlieue neighborhoods, where people remember his story. In a horrifying 2008 video shot in the banlieue of Montfermeuil, the  journalist collective Rue 89 documented a police beating of Abdoulaye Fofana. It took place during a France-Tunisia football match, which was being played not far away in the Stade de France. Fofana was watching the game when the police burst into his apartment, claiming he had thrown a fire-cracker at a passing patrol. They dragged him down the stairs, beating him all the way. As the video ends with an interview of his shocked family, you can see that his living room was covered with posters of soccer starts, including Zidane and, prominently behind the television, Drogba.

Many of the legendary French players in recent years shared Drogba’s experiences growing up in the French banlieue, notably Zidane, Makelele, Thuram, and Henry. But among those in his generation who came up through the French system, Drogba was one of the few of his calibre to opt not to play for France. Though his did play on a national French youth squad at one point, he ultimately chose the Ivory Coast as his national team. We can briefly imagine what might have been had he chosen to play for France instead — imagine the 2006 World Cup final with Drogba on the pitch (for better or worse)! “Ils auraient pu jouer en équipe de France,” — “They could have played in the French national team,” laments one website sporting a photograph of Drogba. But Drogba has expressed pride in his choice: This past February, when his team lost to Zambia in the African Cup of Nations Final — in part because of a missed penalty by Drogba — he commented that when the team returned to the Ivory Coast they were hailed and celebrated despite their loss. We weren’t really expecting that. This country is different — they always come to see us even when they lose. I had the luck to play for the French team when I was young. But I don’t think that if I played at the senior level I would have ever gotten this kind of reception.” And of course one of Drogba’s most legendary moments came when, in 2007, he intervened into politics by using a football match to try and put an end to the civil war in the Ivory Coast.

He might have been thinking of what happened to his former Chelsea teammate Nicholas Anelka during the 2010 World Cup, when he was kicked off the team and excoriated in the press for a locker-room outburst against Raymond Domenech. Drogba spoke up for Anelka then, and soon after the Champion’s League final news broke that the next step in his journey will be to join his friend at Shanghai Shenhua in China. If that ends up happening, it will be a fascinating twist in a story that has stretched from Abidjan to Dunkirk to Marseille to London and now Shanghai.

Will Drogba ever give another speech quite as good as the one he gave in Bayern the other night? Only if the occasion arises. As one reader pointed out in response to an earlier version of this post, that occasion might be just one year away: if Ivory Coast manages to clinch the African Cup of Nations, as they weren’t able to this year. What a speech Drogba might then give to that long and painfully sought after trophy? A long and winding tale, with a long evocation of the beautiful and moving game they lost against Zambia. And what if — we can dream! — they were to go on, full of confidence, and win the World Cup in Brazil in 2014? If either of those victories happen, let’s hope someone will be prepared with a video camera in the locker-room this time — to capture Drogba hassling and adoring another trophy. It would be worth seeing the Ivory Coast win just to see that, no?