While Americans spent the week debating deflated footballs and stocking up on food and drink for Super Bowl Sunday, African sports fans in New York City have been closely following the African Cup of Nations. Every two years AFCON, as it’s known, gathers 16 of Africa’s best soccer teams. All of Africa’s 56 national football federations (except for the host federation) play in qualifiers for the right to enter this tournament and a chance to be crowned kings of the continent.
In restaurants and bars across the city, fans of African soccer gather to watch the games on TV monitors and engage in mostly friendly rivalry. With New York’s many African immigrant communities, I saw this as a chance to explore some of the continent’s footballing cultures, and perhaps an opportunity to try new food drink.
You might have heard of AFCON because last year, like almost anything related to Africa, it was linked to Ebola. It was originally scheduled to be played in Morocco, but the country withdrew, excusing themselves on the allegedly high chances of the virus spreading with the traveling fans. Eventually, the small nation of Equatorial Guinea, which had co-hosted with Gabon two tournaments ago, took on the challenge of organizing this year’s games.
Internationally-famous African players take leaves of absence from their European clubs to take part in the tournament. On Saturday, Ivory Coast’s and Manchester City’s Yaya Touré and Wilfred Bony missed one of the English Premier League’s biggest matchups of the season, as their club faced Chelsea FC in a clash for the top of the standings.
Many European coaches complain about the scheduling of the tournament conflicting with club season. But African players keep coming because they, like their countrymen, understand what a high honor it is to be crowned champions of a whole continent, especially one where football is such a big deal.
Much like the tournament (which is being played this year in Equatorial Guinea), my game-watching around New York has had its up and downs. It started pretty well, and I was lucky enough to find seating on two different occasions at La Savane, an Ivorian-Guinean restaurant in Harlem, for Ivory Coast games.
The first one was a 1-1 tie against Mali, played on a Saturday at 11 AM. The game itself was dull, but the odd hours allowed me and a friend to immerse ourselves in the atmosphere of the truly fanatic fans of West African Francophone football. The crowd was comprised mostly of cab drivers who lived around the area and, like the neighborhood’s population, was divided across national lines between Ivorians, Malians and Guineans. They chanted, they cheered and they celebrated.
The game didn’t offer much, but the staff was welcoming. Since the kitchen hadn’t opened yet, we were invited to stay and watch the game, even if we didn’t buy anything. Yet, I had a taste of their ginger juice and I don’t want to drink anything else ever again.
The second game was a Wednesday match played at 2 PM, lunch time, and the place was packed. It was a most decisive game. As in most international soccer tournaments, the first stage of the African Cup of Nations is known as “Group Stage”: the teams are divided into groups of four each. Every team plays every other team in their group once. Teams are awarded three points for a win, one point for a draw, and no points for a loss. At the end the two best-placed teams in each group advance to the “Knockout Stage.” It just so happened that in this group (Group D), every team had already played two games and all of those games had finished 1-1, meaning that all of the teams (Ivory Coast, Mali, Guinea and Cameroon) were tied in points (2), goals scored (2), and goals allowed (2).
In the group decider, Mali had to face Guinea, while at the same time Ivory Coast played against their bitter rivals Cameroon, who they hadn’t defeated in eight years. For any of the four teams, a victory meant sure qualification, a defeat meant elimination, and a draw meant speculation about what had happened in the other game. La Savane was showing the Ivory Coast game and its first half was tense and goalless. Some of the tension was dispersed by the dishes of grilled fish and mafe (a Senegalese lamb stew) flying by, and by the taunting in French of Eric, the lone Cameroonian fan who had decided to find out what was it like to see the game across enemy lines.
Some happiness came when the broadcast announced that Guinea had scored in the other game, but the best was yet to come. With 36 minutes played in the first half, when nothing relevant was happening, an Ivorian fan at the restaurant decided to stand up and lead the crowd in a chant in French, which I understood to mean “We are going to score now!” Five seconds later, Max-Alain Gradel scored the opening and deciding goal of the game. It was the most thrilling burst of joy I have ever witnessed. Unfortunately, I was so delighted, that I forgot to record something. But I do have this, which happened a few minutes afterwards.
During halftime, I met one of the owners, David Dembele, who is from Ivory Coast. Even though his restaurant has been around for just three years, it has established itself as a place for the French-speaking West African community to gather. Indeed, the restaurant has become such a focal point, that political and immigrant associations from Guinea and Mali had left flyers there.
I also met one of the regulars, Malik, who was born in Ivory Coast, but had grown up in Harlem. He explained to me that the community gathered there and in other nearby businesses not only for football matches, but also to watch the news, debate politics, or just have a chat. But he also said that matches like this one could bring together Ivorians from all over the city.
The second half was all about chanting, and when it became clear that Ivory Coast would be the victors and would qualify to the Quarter Finals, a party erupted.
Not everything has gone so smoothly for me, though. Saturday was the beginning of the Knockout Stage, with an historic match between Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo (the former Zaire). But, this week, despite obsessive internet searches, calls to U.N. diplomatic missions, and emails to everybody I knew remotely related to any of the Congos, I had to accept that there is probably not a big enough Congolese community in New York for them to gather somewhere to watch the game. So I watched at home, marveled at DRC’s comeback, down from 0-2, to the final 4-2, all goals coming in the second half.
Then I headed to Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens, to find a hookah bar to witness Tunisia play against the hosts. It was a bumpy ride. First, at an Egyptian place, a waiter yelled at me and doubted my proficiency in English because apparently we couldn’t agree on the semantic differences between “hookah” and “tea.” Then, at a Moroccan bar, when I snapped a photo of the place, I had a “debate” with some of the other customers about the right to privacy, and I lost an SD card forever. I guess it didn’t help that Equatorial Guinea had tied the game with a shady penalty kick in the last minute of regular time, or that they had won the game in extra time.
Today while American sports pundits were analyzing everything related to the Patriots and the Seahawks, Ghana faced Guinea (who tied the game with Mali and only advanced after a drawing of lots). During the afternoon, as plates of nachos and chicken wings are consumed on couches across America, Algeria will play Ivory Coast. The winners will advance to the semifinals and will face Equatorial Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The later game today will last until around 5 PM, but the celebrations, no matter the winner, will surely go beyond that, most likely even beyond Seattle and New England’s kickoff in Arizona.
Pablo Medina Uribe is a New York based Colombian journalist and writer. He deals with sports, politics and literature. He has published pieces in Spanish, English and Italian. He doesn’t have a middle name.
Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, and the Nicholas B. Ottaway Foundation.