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Football, Free on the Streets

Andrew Esiebo
Olodi-Apapa, 2006

The sight of people playing football daily in public spaces around the world is visual testimony of how the presence of bodies can turn the commonplace into the marvelous; proof, too, that football is a world game not because of the millions drawn to watch the World Cup, but because of the millions for whom the game is alive every day on the street, tournament or none. Andrew Esiebo’s “Goal Diggers”—an exhibition of photographs on the irrepressible love West Africans have for football—reminds us that the simple desire to chase a ball is one of our commonalities. From Nigeria to Ghana to Sierra Leone to Senegal, groups of resourceful young people play the game on sidewalks, under bridges, in hallways, on narrow streets filled with more obstacles than players, on dusty grounds adorned with ad hoc goalposts, on beaches with no barriers but the horizon.

“In Africa, the beautiful game isn’t confined to the stadium,” Esiebo writes. “From farmland to city roads, from beaches to markets, football belongs everywhere.” His images testify that kinship is found in play, and declare that this game doubles as a diasporic handshake.

Football invites you to lose yourself in other people’s stories; their play becomes yours as you follow the ball and intertwine your enthusiasm with theirs. The ritual of watching bodies at play draws us to them and allows us—our bodies—to join a shared rhythm. Football is therefore not just competition, but is generous, collective participation.

Esiebo is preoccupied with rituals of the everyday—the myriad ways they show creativity, empowerment, and survival. As if in gentle rebuke, he turns his lens to activities that highlight how simple daily experiences carry the shine of magnificence, revealing the significance of the overlooked and the dignity of the excluded.

He focuses on urban environments where there aren’t enough spaces for formalized recreation, where poor urban infrastructure and planning stifle cultural and social life. Players move out of defiance as much as pleasure. In Lagos, young men under a bridge play between makeshift goalposts composed of piles of tires joined at their peaks by a rope made from plastic strings. In Jamestown, Accra, children scamper on a tiny sidewalk around adults selling tomatoes to gain control of a ball; in the same district, another group of children imaginatively turn a narrow corridor into a football field. And whoever said that a small walkway between houses, with people cooking and going about their business, was off-bounds for a game of football? Present, but not in the way, these little ones in Lagos stand before the viewer as evidence that scoring is beside the point—the drama is in the dance: bodies making their way through the world with grace and exuberant glow.

As a kid myself, I never knew my country to be as international as when the World Cup came around. The quadrennial tournament made emigrés of us Jamaicans, and we became competing West Germans and Argentinians and Brazilians. We wore the national colors of our new countries proudly, hoisting flags and raising voices with such fervor that if a consular official saw us they’d grant us visas on sight. This was the great appeal of the recent World Cup for me: one nation becomes many, if even superficially. We jump the fence of sovereignty to cheer alongside fans of other countries, share in their joy. Or anguish. That crowd—away from the stadiums, gathered in living rooms and restaurants and bars, hushed and screaming before television screens—was what pulled me to the World Cup.

And no crowd I know of celebrates like a Jamaican crowd—banging pot covers they’ve converted to madcap cymbals, slamming palms on every flat surface in sight, turning the built environment into a drum kit. I was habituated, then, to believe a game isn’t worth seeing if there’s no pulsating energy around it; there’s no real action at a game if I can’t watch the watchers. The show is in the areas far beyond the stadium.

When I visited Lagos a few months ago, I instinctively looked, as I often do when I’m abroad, for signs of the one Jamaican everyone knows. Sure enough, I spotted more than a few people in Bob Marley T-shirts, and made a new friend, the Afrobeat musician Edaoto Olaolu Agbeniyi, in part because of our shared love for my countryman’s music and his support for pan-African struggle and unity. But as I explored the city’s teeming sidewalks and streets with Edaoto as my guide, I noticed just about everyone rushing by at warp speed. Lagos in a hurry is nothing unusual—the city is so fast-paced that one is reluctant to make any claims about it lest the place revise itself before you finish writing down your observations. But I felt an enthusiastic gale pushing everyone along to the same end.

Edaoto explained that people were quickening their paces to see a football game. With the World Cup approaching, and Nigeria’s beloved national team readying for Russia, I thought the Super Eagles must have had a warm-up match, so I asked whom Nigeria was playing. Edaoto turned to me, with a grin: “It’s not Nigeria. It’s Liverpool and Real Madrid.”

One wonders if his being born and raised in Lagos, and based not far from there, has drawn Esiebo’s eye to the ways people reshape their environment. Lagos is, after all, not merely a city on the move but also one preoccupied with change—self-improvement literature is hawked in the middle of streets overflowing with people intent on reinventing themselves and remaking their environs. It’s a city of constant improvisation. A city that seems made for people who find inventive ways to carve out space for leisure in the face of—really, under the actual shadow of—urban renewal and too-often merciless change.

How do people strengthen their identities by sharing space with strangers? How do they lose themselves with abandon in community, and gain a richer sense of self or personal freedom? How is being black, and part of a community of blacks, a bridge to unity and pathway to variegated expression? Esiebo pursues those questions across West Africa, and ends up in barbershops and hair salons, documenting—in the project Pride (2012)—stories of how strangers who co-exist share intimacies and thereby transform their spaces into places of trust and joy. Traveling around West Africa, he recognizes that football, like barbershops, reveals people’s inclination to reinvent themselves and transform their surroundings.

As attentive to the game as he is to setting, Esiebo fills his frame with the beauty of movement. Bodies are arranged like musical notes on a staff—whether they are playing alongside their reflections in a puddle of rain water in Olodi-Apapa, Lagos, or set in silhouette on a beach in Freetown, Sierra Leone—and bold color imbues them with an otherworldly feel. Sometimes the bodies have the force of symbols, as if poised to become fantasy; the game is both recreation and reverie. You rarely see any player’s face in detail. What you cannot miss, though, are the rich assembly of black bodies—in motion, sublime and alluring in their dips and leans and twists and lunges and runs and pauses, caught in a poetic choreography, at once jubilant and self-possessed.

His perspective rarely betrays the distance of a spectator—he brings us onto the field, inserts us in the game, releases us in its vibrancy, ready to receive or steal the ball from the player headed our way. I found myself running alongside the players, cheering them on from up close. (All the more so when I stood in Rele Gallery, in Lagos, surrounded by the large-scale photographs printed on Hahnemühle Museum Etching paper, which has a natural, non-glossy, texture and sometimes resembles a watercolor print. Alongside these prints is a video installation of a montage of football games where we see players chasing a ball that has been digitally removed, leaving us to focus on the game as a movement of bodies; one is reminded of the touching, heartbreaking, funny scene from Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu (2014), where a group of young men play a match with an invisible football, an act of spirited resistance after the game is banned by jihadists.) In the photographs, I experienced football as a communal activity, and was happy to abandon my role as a bystander. These images insist that we not be a spectator of spectators. They demand, too, that we see football as a diasporic language: the vocabulary might change from place to place, but the grammar remains the same. 

With this last World Cup over, and the accompanying global fever evaporating, the bars and cafés and restaurants and living rooms have emptied out. But the energy of football, abundant and unfading, has returned to its true locus, away from the stadiums. After the spectacle has gone, there are still the many who are often overlooked—some displaced from their homes by stadiums built for previous World Cup tournaments—playing the game that Andrew Esiebo lovingly portrays. They’ll come for what many have come for since the game began eons ago: the beauty of community; the inventive spirit of strangers and neighbors who readily turn whatever is under their feet into a playground; the joy of seeing bodies in motion, in relation to each other; the pleasure of being alive. Football is a shared beauty, a reminder that we find our better selves in company. And perhaps our best selves are our playful selves.


Andrew Esiebo’s “Goal Diggers” is on view at Rele Gallery in Lagos through August 3, and is part of his larger ongoing project on football called “Love of It.”