Animosity based on colour – apart from team colours – creed, race and religion and anything related have no place in football.
Arriving at Goodison for the Southampton game last weekend, we were greeted by people handing out single page leaflets about the need to combat racism and fascism in society.
It seems a group has formed – the Democratic Football Lads Alliance – determined to stir up bigotry around the country. And the DFLA are apparently aiming to use football as a conduit to spread their bigotry and stir up division.
My first thoughts took me back to the days when the first black players really began to make their mark around the Football League. Some of the abuse they were subjected to was absolutely outrageous. Horrendously-worded chanting, banana throwing, monkey imitations… and I can’t honestly think of a ground where this didn’t take place.
Sadly, it still occurs in international games but, thankfully, such abhorrent behaviour has largely been eradicated here in the UK.
My second thought took me back more recently, to 2012, when I was living and working in Khartoum, capital of Sudan.
Footie in the sun
Khartoum is a huge city with a population of over five million and not surprisingly, it has more than one football club. The Blue and White Nile rivers meet in Khartoum, dividing the metropolis into three main areas.
Bahri or Khartoum North lies north of the Blue Nile; Khartoum itself lies south of the Blue and east of the White Nile, while the sprawling Omdurman lies to the west of the White Nile.
The smaller Al Khartoum and Al Ahli clubs share the Khartoum Stadium, not far from the city centre in the Al Mogran district. This stadium only holds 23,000, massively different to that of the two main clubs.
They are the Al Merreikh and Al Hilal clubs whose home grounds are both across the White Nile in Omdurman. Between them, they’ve won 42 Sudanese league titles and 21 cups. They’re way out in front as the two biggest clubs in Sudan.
Imagine the proximity of Goodison Park to Anfield and fairly intense rivalry between Everton and Liverpool, half a mile apart across Stanley Park.
The home stadia of Al Merreikh and Al Hilal stand less than 750 metres apart as the crow flies; literally either side of Al Ardha Street with only two university facilities separating them.
Castles and devils
The Al Merreikh Stadium, the Red Castle, holds 43,000, while the re-developed Al Hilal stadium hosts 62,000, both mostly standing.
My first game was a friendly in March 2012 when Al Merreikh hosted a touring Brazilian club. Al Merriekh – the Red Devils – had a Brazilian coach, Heron Ricardo Ferreira, and he’d obviously helped in arranging the friendly. Sadly I cannot recall who the tourists were. There was no matchday programme to refer to but suffice to say, they weren’t Santos or a major club side.
I’d been invited by one of the Sudanese directors of the company I was working for and as my wife and youngest daughter were visiting at the time, they too came along.
Even in March, the evening weather was hot. The sun set at 7 PM as it does almost year round, but the daytime heat lingers on. The temperature was in the high 70s as we crossed the White Nile heading for the Red Castle.
Alla, our Sudanese host, dressed in a traditional jalabiya while I wore an Everton polo shirt. My wife and daughter wore long skirts, respectful of the local Islamic dress code for non-Muslim females.
Approaching the turnstiles, we drew some looks and welcoming smiles from locals queuing to get in, nothing untoward at all. Inside the ground, we took our seats – Alla had wisely taken us into the Main Stand. Having purchased soft drinks to keep us hydrated, we enjoyed the pleasant evening.
The ground was about half full, with the singing section on the opposite side of the ground. As the teams emerged onto the pitch, loud cheers went up and the inevitable red and yellow flares billowed smoke.
When Al Merreikh scored an early goal, the crowd were happy and all around us, people high-fived. We were offered more peanuts and water – they realised the white folks were maybe overheating.
Down on the touchline, the coach of the visiting team was a sight to behold. Talk about animated; this guy was a St.Vitus dancer on steroids and highly entertaining.
We laughed and those sat around us wondered why. Alla explained to them in Arabic and they quickly cottoned on. The visitors’ coach was duly targeted for Sudanese footie banter. By half-time though, the visitors had equalised and taken the lead. The visitors’ coach and the crowd banter both calmed down.
The half-time interval coincided with the PA system of the local mosque calling the faithful to prayer.
As the Imam wailed ‘Allahu Akhbar’ and the rest of the call, all around us, people removed their sandals. On the terracing and even the police on the pitchside running track, people turned to the east, knelt and prayed. We’d never seen anything like this at a football match before.
We sat there quietly and then asked Alla if they would have prayed for the team. He replied that they’d probably prayed for their young star striker to make an appearance off the substitutes bench. We laughed with him at that.
More water and orange juice came from the friendly folk around us and the second half began. The visitors had the better of the play and were coping with the well-grassed, but apparently bone hard pitch.
As the chanting from the crowd opposite increased in frustration – Alla was translating – the crowd favourite came off the bench. The cheering and support increased markedly, with flares returning too. When he laid on the equaliser with ten minutes to play, the Red Devils fans exulted. Their prayers had been answered.
The visitors’ coach returned to doing his whirling dervish impersonations, and the crowd responded hilariously. Even the dignitaries in the posh seats including the Mayor of Omdurman joined in the heckling.
Leaving the ground after the 2-2 draw, once again, the sight of three white people raised the odd eyebrow. But not one word of abuse came in our direction. The famed friendliness and hospitality of the Sudanese people was there in abundance.
Proper, serious footie
The following month, another of the local guys invited me to go to see Al Hilal play. I gladly accepted. Abubakr Gafar, Bakri for short, lived in Bahri, north of the Blue Mile. After work, he drove home to change and then back to Amarat near the airport to pick me up. Then we drove through the city to cross the White Nile to Omdurman. He really went out of his way.
The match was a CAF (Confederation of African Football) Champions League second round tie. The first leg saw ASO Chiefs of Algeria as the visitors, and Bakri said a good crowd was expected.
The streets around the ground were crawling with cars and fans, with blue flags abundant everywhere. We parked down a side street and walked to the ground. Again the sight of a white man drawing glances and friendly smiles… I had a blue Everton polo shirt on.
Bakri had sorted tickets towards the back of the Main Stand just to the right of the director’s box and media area. There we met his father and uncles, all rabid Blue Wave supporters.
Introductions done, soft drinks and peanuts bought, we chatted while people walked around the terracing handing out complimentary blue flags. The game was televised and the Al Hilal hierarchy obviously wanted to make an impression for the watching millions.
One of the flag distributors spotted me and made a huge effort to attract my attention. He launched a flag in my direction. Someone caught it and the thrower went nuts. He animatedly yelled something in Arabic and I caught the word ‘khawaja’ – foreigner, or more colloquially, white man.
The catcher took his verbal tongue lashing well and passed the flag back to me. I happily thanked them by waving it.
The ground was filling up. The redevelopment that subsequently took the capacity to 62,000 hadn’t taken place, but I estimated over 30,000 packed in that day. It was another very warm evening, the mercury well into the 80s.
As with their neighbours Al Merreikh, the Al Hilal ultras were on the opposite side of the ground. The noise was loud, to say the least. Flares were lit, scarves and flags waved enthusiastically; this was a proper football atmosphere.
Barely ten minutes in and El Tahir opened the scoring for the home side. The Al Hilal stadium went absolutely mental… more flares, more flag-waving. To say the least, the Blue Wave fans were happy. But they couldn’t add to their lead and one nil up at half-time, Bakri said they’d lost their chance.
He was right. Less than ten minutes after the restart, Ali Hadji levelled with a twenty-yard screamer into the top corner. It was no less than the Chiefs deserved; they’d been the better team.
The Algerians dominated and it took some stout defending and no shortage of luck for the game to end level. However, the final ten minutes saw the atmosphere around the director’s box get very hairy. Police in riot gear surrounded the home dugout and the directors’ seating. Bakri advised that many supporters were unhappy with the French manager Diego Garritto, his tactics and the board.
We left right on the final whistle. Bakri wanted a quick getaway to get me back to Amarat and himself back to Khartoum North before midnight. Leaving the ground and in the streets, the ‘khawaja’ again drew looks, but no adverse comments or observations.
The following day in work, someone asked if I’d enjoyed the match. Assuming Bakri had told them, it was amusing to learn I’d been spotted on TV when the cameras had panned around the crowd.
I never got the chance to witness an Omdurman ‘derby’. Both Alla and Bakri told me those games are not for the faint-hearted, and tickets are always at a premium.
The somewhat obtuse point of relating these memories is to illustrate it is possible to go to football without encountering racism.
Mafi mushkila – no problem
When I was in Sudan, a closed country you can only enter by invitation, I was the immigrant. I was the infidel, the “khawaja” taking a job that maybe could have been filled by a local. In my 18 months in Khartoum, I never felt unwelcome. Never vilified for my skin colour. Never vilified for not being a Muslim.
My wife and daughter thoroughly enjoyed their visits to Khartoum and their night at the footie. There was never a mushkila (problem) never mind a mushkila kabeera (major problem).
We have to hope that the unwanted appearance and actions of groups like the DFLA are quickly denounced. We have to hope that they themselves grow up and accept the modern multi-cultured world we live in. And we have to hope that the days of racial discrimination and abuse everywhere, will soon be behind us.