From mid-January to mid-February, the eyes of most Malians were glued to the TV (the few that are around) each night as the bi-annual African Cup of Nations was being played in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
One of my good friends at site, a teacher at the local high school, has a TV that he runs using car battery power. Each night that there was a game, I was at his house with a group of friends picking teams at random to root for (usually the underdog).
On the nights when two countries were playing and we were picking “our team” at random, the conversation would usually stray from the TV and the game would merely serve as background noise…until a goal was scored. After the goals, we would turn our attention to the screen and comment on the team’s post-goal celebratory dancing. We would watch the replay of the goal and talk about how good, easy, difficult or poor the shot was. After that, those of us who chose the team that was winning would throw a couple of jokes toward the losing team and then we would return to other conversation.
Although these nights were fun, they were nothing compared to the nights that Mali was playing…a team we could all root for together. And there was no talking during these games. Each pass was critiqued, every fake fall followed by a whistle blow was celebrated, and all aggressions against Malian players deserved a yellow or red card. When the Malians were playing well, everyone was excited and the opposing team was the brunt of every joke. When they weren’t playing well, everyone in the group had an idea of why they were playing poorly and what they should be doing to improve their game. There was as much to watch off the screen as on.
My favorite part of the tournament was when Mali would score a goal or win a game. The explosion of celebration could only be matched by a group of Kentucky basketball fans celebrating a hard-fought victory (I felt at home in this situation, haha!)
As the ball would enter the goal, all ten of the grown men I was watching the game with would rise to their feet and shout “bi!” or “goal!” This would be followed by an exchange of high fives and a rash of one-liners – “Did you see that?” “These guys can play!” “That’s how you win a game!” After we had all settled back into our seats you could still hear the neighbors and people as far away as the small shops on the main road rejoicing.
I was in Bamako the night that Mali beat Guinea in the group stages – a victory they were not supposed to claim. In the cab back to the Peace Corps house there were people in the streets waving Malian flags, chanting and relishing in the win. It was great to see the support that was filling the streets, even for a game in the early stages of the tournament.
Because it is always the most fun to cheer for a team that is winning, I was very happy to see Mali make it to the quarterfinals of the tournament. Although they lost to a traditional rival, Cote d’Ivoire, they went on to take third place by beating Ghana in the playoff game (an extra sweet victory for me, as Ghana booted the United States from the World Cup in 2010).
It was exciting to feel like I was a part of the collective excitement that took over Mali in the early part of 2012, despite the fact that I had never watched, or for that matter even heard of, the African Cup of Nations. Although usually a bi-annual tournament, the Cup will be played again next year in order to offset it from the World Cup, which will take place in 2014. You better believe that I will be checking the CAF Web site for score updates and rooting for the team that hails from the country that has become my second home, Mali.