cup of nations words: massaër ndiayephotography: gustavo di mario “You’re from Senegal? Here to taste the best Jollof rice in the world, or to celebrate the ‘Black Stars’ winning it all?”That's how the loud customs agent greeted me at Accra’s Kotoka International Airport when I arrived in January of 2008 for the African Cup of Nations, laughing thunderously as he stamped my passport. He wished me a pleasant time in Ghana. and I smiled back, too bashful, and too exhausted from the long flight to inform my uniformed host that I didn’t have the slightest idea what “Jollof Rice'' was. Growing up in Dakar, Senegal, I had no idea that our national dish, Thieboudiene, had been co-opted, bastardized, and re-baptized throughout West Africa as “Jollof Rice”—an homage to one of Senegal’s most famous regions. Countries from Nigeria to Ghana to The Gambia claimed supremacy over who makes the finest Jollof, evidently leaving the originator, Saint-Louis native Penda Mbaye, rolling in her grave, and Senegalese citizens the world over baffled by their sheer audacity Ghana has always held a dear place in my heart when it came to football. When I was seven, the 1992 African Cup of Nations held in Senegal decided my football allegiances forever. My beloved Lions managed to get knocked out of our tournament—extremely early—by the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon (gigantic eye roll). This left me no choice but to root for the country with the closest flag and team jerseys, the Black Stars of Ghana. My uncle, an international referee at the time, snuck me into their semifinal victory over Nigeria and even managed to get me Nii Lamptey’s jersey. Ghana lost to Côte d’Ivoire in the finale. After a 0-0 draw, a legendary penalty shootout ended up 11-10 thanks to Alain Gouaméné—the Elephants’ goalkeeper managed to remain unscored upon in regulation matches throughout the tournament. Rooting for Abedi “Pelé,” named best player even though he missed the final, led me to become a die-hard Olympique de Marseille supporter, from then on. I landed a few days prior to the kick-off of the 2008 African Cup of Nations, full of dreams and about to embark on a life-changing, month-long adventure that would see me get a glimpse into the lifestyle of some of my childhood heroes. The city was buzzing, busy with last-minute changes to a metropolis that hadn’t yet received the dividends from then-freshly discovered offshore oil and gas reserves. Sure, it was January, but the weather was already in the mid-90s in Accra, Kumasi, Tamale, and the other townships and fishermen’s villages we drove by, trying to capture the essence of the African game. Our team of writers, photographers, image makers, and hustlers was let loose in the middle of Africa’s most watched sports competition. On a recon mission for a sportswear brand, we were tasked with bringing back a snapshot of what the upcoming 2010 World Cup in South Africa could taste, sound, and feel like. They wanted street music, painted walls and bodies, on-and-off pitch theatrics, ecstasy of victory, agony of defeat, and everything in between. We came back with something much deeper than a collective travel journal from tourists slumming it up in Africa for a paycheck. We were invited (and mostly we invited ourselves), within the inner sanctum of African football royalty. Our bootleg, photoshopped, laminated, and lanyarded AFCON passes were somehow more powerful than the real credentials, which were many days delayed anyway. IIThe hotel staff sang a rendition of Sean Kingston's then-megahit “Beautiful Girls” in unison to cheekily welcome me. My round face made us distant relatives, apparently. I barely had any time to check into my room, before we jumped into our van and were quickly introduced to the home team’s captain, John Mensah. A hulking figure and a veteran strongman in the Ghanaian defense. At the time, the Stade Rennais player had been thrown into the crippling position of having to lead his nation to victory while replacing arguably one of the most popular African players of all time, “Ghetto Star“ Stephen Appiah. An Accra native and near-mythical figure, Appiah was playing for Turkish giants Fenerbahçe after serving different Italian clubs for a decade. Plagued with knee issues, he still showed up to cheer from the sidelines.Mensah was a quiet, almost shy presence in the locker room and at the team headquarters. When we first met him, he was watching his soap operas in Italian on an outdated laptop he would graciously give a cousin a few days later when we accompanied him on one of their rare days off to meet his family in Obuasi. His bedside table was stacked with Bibles—which he perused throughout our encounter. As we started the conversation, “The Rock of Gibraltar” talked about growing up in Ghana and the enormous opportunity football constitutes for any young player born on the Continent. Mensah was quickly interrupted by one of the Black Stars’ staff members to get ready to meet a famous pastor, John Bright Quarshie, who had been invited by a minister of the government to come and pray with—and for—the team. “We are the black stars of Ghana,” Quarshie calls and the team responds, “Amen!” We shall win this match in the name of Jesus.” “Amen!” “Say: It is possible!” “It is possible!”The Black Stars were all there, regardless of their religions. Michael Essien, Asamoah “Baby Jet” Gyan, his brother Baffour Gyan, the late legend Junior Agogo, Sulley Muntari, Olympique de Marseille’s midfielder, and Abedi Pelé’s son, André Ayew. After the team was prayed up, we withdrew ourselves and our cameras to let them eat and prepare. The following day, we saw on TV that the president of Ghana, John Kufuor, joined them late in the evening to transmit the message of the people—and the political party he wanted to win the election—“Bring it home.” That’s the singularity of growing up in the Third World, where sports have a much higher significance than they do in the Western world. We’re talking about religious and political leaders coming to offer their support to national heroes because they know how much the country, any country, would benefit from a victory in an international competition. IIIThat's why African football players receive welcomes usually reserved for dignitaries and heads of state. Why souvenirs included Eto’o branded flip-flops, commemorative fabrics, ad campaigns, Drogba-faced watches, rough oil portraits on canvases hawked by street artists, wall murals, and even the names of babies yet to be born. Every single one of the practices we attended was full of fans, young and old, hoping for a smile, a wink, or a wave from their favorite Europe-based footballer. Most players are fully aware of their importance but humble. Some overplay their hand, though. The most disturbing scene we witnessed was young Egyptian star Mohamed Zidan—one of the rare players on Hassan Shehata’s championship team not to play at home—interrupted his practice to throw children candy and chocolate bars over a barbed-wire fence. That non-spontaneous, ill-conceived initiative created a mêlée that could have had far more severe consequences than a few crying kids. The Hamburg striker wasn’t a favorite of the fans or his legendary coach. Zidan had to fight for his playing time in the finale, and nabbed (some might say stole) his glory, by bum-rushing Cameroon legend Rigobert Song, knocking him over and passing it to Al Ahly’s Aboutrika, who deposited the game’s only goal, sealing Egypt’s sixth Continental trophy.Standing up to Zidan and his compatriots that day was, arguably, the biggest African football star of all time, Samuel Eto’o Fils. Living larger than life and dominating La Liga and European defenses from the very front of the attack of Barcelona, Samuel Eto’o shared the limelight with Messi, Henry, Iniesta, Xavi, Piqué and countless legends in what is still argued today was the greatest squad of all time. A near-mythical figure, Eto’o was secretly injured the entire tournament, yet still managed to lead his side to the final. As intimidating a figure as he was, Eto’o was a slight man, fit and strong but lean like a fiddle, nothing extra, just pure technical prowess and efficiency. If Abedi Pelé was a poet, Eto’o was a three-card monte player. He would slice and dice your favorite defender while you were still marveling at Leo Messi’s tricks. And, like any self-respecting hustler, he would do it with the smile of a petulant child. In Europe, Eto’o was an exceptional player. But just a player. Back home, he was much more than anything we could imagine. A CEO and business mogul to some, he was every politician’s dream, a potential head of state, a man of power by all accounts. He wielded his influence with ease, jumping in and out of his duties to play life-defining matches with his teammates with no immunity against the fury of disappointed expectations. While he was leading the team at the AFCON, he was bankrolling other sports federations in Cameroon, including Volleyball, themselves trying to make it to a world championship. All of that, silently. “I am here for my country,” he told us in the tiny hotel room he welcomed us into. A multi-millionaire in flip flops, eating cashews and not seeing his sacrifices as such, but as his duty. “And I will give it all. I will do it all for my country. Don’t ask me to die because my children would not have a father then, but know that everything I do, everything we do, is for our countries.” IV And that’s the difference between an African player and the others. It is clear to him that everything he does must somehow improve the lives of his people: "We are the children of this continent," Eto’o tells us. “We love our continent that much. We want it to evolve. It may take time, but it must change. And we’ll play our role.” When asked if he was doing it for his own legacy or what his reasons were, he was very clear: “My story is a dream that has become a reality. Imagine a young African kid who leaves the sidewalks of Douala and finds himself playing football with the most talented players in the world. And who tries to make a difference. It doesn't happen every day. This is why the children of Africa thank us. For the dreams… VOn the plane back from Accra to Paris, I couldn’t process everything I had seen then, but I was sure of one thing, living an event of that magnitude from up close had changed my life forever. I had to wait 14 more years to witness my home country, Senegal, win it all in Cameroon last winter. It was divine poetry that Samuel Eto’o Fils, now the President of the Cameroon Football Federation, was there to hand the African Cup of Nations to Sadio Mané, Senegal’s talisman player and arguably Eto’o’s heir at the very top of world football. The beauty was not lost on me, as I bawled my eyes out on a cold Sunday night in Paris, headed to celebrate with thousands of my fellow countrymen on The Champs-Elysées. share this story If you liked this story consider purchasing Victory Journal 20 where it was first printed.