Football – the universal language

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As this is my first blog I had better introduce myself. My name is Ben, or rather after sneaking through Manchester medical school with a large helping of lady luck, Dr Ben. I have now been at Blue Ventures for 7 weeks on a medical elective from the UK, trying to help with the family planning projects run by the local Malagasy co-ordinator Fanja and also offering a helpful word, bandage or tablet for all the scrapes, groans and moans. As a result you may expect to read a blog full of interesting tropical sores and magical worms but for now you will have to settle for more pressing matters…football

Placed neatly between Coco Beach (staff quarters/restaurant/tourist huts etc) and Half Moon Beach (the wonderful volunteer hub/dive center) is the Blue Ventures football ‘stadium.’ Perfectly banked on one side by a natural gradient (providing a viewing hill capacity of approximately 500), the pitch boundaries are also marked out by mother Earth in the shape of bushes. The gravel/sand/stone/raised grass pitch provides a stern test for even the most nimble of feet. The version of the mentioned sport is football (not s#cc#r – I was told not to swear in the blog). The lack of Astroturf surface and equipment provides a stumbling block to play the American version but not as much as the fact that no-one outside of the States understands (not beyond Playstation John Madden anyway) the rules.

Everyday at approximately 4.30ish, local players arrive and depending on numbers either play a little skills in a circle (I am sure there is a better name but you get the idea), keep ball or a game when enough are present. Clothing ranges from no shirt (depending whether Viviane has given the washing back yet) and no shoes to full kits and football boots in some people’s cases. I had walked past many of these occasions and contemplated joining in. The deciding factor also being that even at 4.30 (usually 5 by the time it starts – Malagasy time) the sun is still shining and in that heat I would be as useful as an underwater bouncy castle. As it happened it wasn’t too long until my theory was put to the test.

Into my 5th week on site, a match was organised between Andavadoaka village and Blue Ventures staff and we were all asked if we fancied playing. I expected a fairly light hearted affair so you can imagine my concern when I arrived to a green shirt (matching kit!) being thrust towards me and a rather healthy squad of 20! This was the least of my concerns. On being told I was starting as striker alongside Thomas, the BV shark and turtle conservationist (lovely guy…. won’t pass) I began to regret restrictive board shorts as my choice of attire, which would clearly only emphasise my blinding lack of pace. Next I find out that in this oversized oven that is the Madagascar sunshine, we were to play 45 minutes each way! However, putting this to one side, as well as the infected left ankle, it wasn’t difficult to remind myself that this was still football… the universal language. Lined up alongside fellow Vazaha Pete (looking wistful on the left wing), with Mr T and Chris not finding it difficult to keep warm on the bench, I was as ready as I would ever be in my worryingly tight green shirt.

Things did not start wonderfully. Much to do the delight of the raucous village supporters – 34 as an approximation that sounds like I looked more carefully than if I had said 50 – Andavadoaka took the lead through a scrappy goal after only two minutes. Defending might not have been the order of the day at that stage for the BV staff but with 87 minutes left we were not about to panic. Roll on 87 minutes and panic had by this stage certainly ensued! Despite several ‘roll-on-roll-off’ substitutes (I am always a little disappointed that this phrase is not taken a little more literally) and superstar performances from the volunteer subs Chris and Mr T as well as Pete on the wing we were unable to break down a resolute village defence. Even the half time refreshment drink bath (imagine drinking water from a very very large kitchen pan) was not enough to spur our boys on. I am not afraid to admit that I was by this stage my competitive edge had taken over and I actually really wanted us to score so I did what every bad loser does and blamed the whistle happy referee!

The game was very tiring, thoroughly exhilarating and enjoyed by all. It also showcased some very good Gasy footballers notably Naina (midfield rock/Coco beach handyman), Beneme (skilful winger/Coco beach chef) and Gildas (BV conservative fishing educator). Whether the sport be football, volleyball or basketball the volunteers and Gasy staff really enjoy playing (daily in the case of volleyball) with or against each other. This exercise helps both parties in learning the others native tongue but more importantly than that, the sport here creates a real sense of community at BV with the players, volunteer cheerleaders and even the villages that often come to watch.

Even though this is only a very small snippet into a single event hopefully the number of people and setting is portrayed (if a little tongue in cheek) as well as the integration between village and Blue Ventures. The wonderful thing about playing these sports in the late afternoon sunshine is the knowledge that come six O’clock, a nice cold beer will be waiting for you with panoramic views of the Velondriake coastline from above the restaurant and you cannot ask for more than that.