The Magazine of Ethiopian Airlines

For Love of the Game

The passion of pickup football, wherever it may be found.

When the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations kicks off on January 19th, there will be celebration and pomp, heroes and fans, manicured pitches and fluid play. This is the show, the grand stage.

But the football played on TV screens across the world is only one part of a much larger story. Away from the stadiums, the stars, the multimillion dollar contracts and the media hype, there’s another side of the game.

All over the world, when the workday is over and the sun is soft, people show up at the field. Sometimes the field is grass and sometimes it’s dirt and sometimes it’s not a field at all but a back alley or a hallway or a parking lot, anywhere there is space. Goals are constructed out of whatever’s on hand — traffic cones, bicycles, empty juice bottles, flip flops, driftwood.

In Cairo, Egypt, you can find players scrabbling in the dust in front of the pyramids. At an asphalt court in Paris, France, you can stand in one goal and see the Eiffel Tower through the posts of the other. And in Cape Town, South Africa, the men who constructed the stadium that would host the continent’s first World Cup played on their lunch break, using their helmets as goals.

Travel anywhere in the world — the Amazon, a tiny island in the Pacific, the dead center of a metropolis — and chances are good that you’ll find a flock of people chasing a ball.

So what is it about the game that holds us in thrall? I spent three years trying to find out, traveling to 25 countries and experiencing all varieties of informal football.

Everywhere, there is an element of communion — a physical interaction, often without words, that can feel more honest and open than any other part of the day. This occurs whether the game is a small, casual experience or a big public affair.

In Mafi Sasekpe, a village of straw-thatched homes in the Volta region of Ghana, the two neighboring villages travel to a field beside the abandoned elementary school for the monthly championship. Women wave batik-printed sarongs, kids shoo away roosters and teenagers sell candy along the sidelines.

In Szentbekkalla, Hungary, the tradition is the same: Three villages meet at the field, having played together weekly for the past 30 years. So often, the field is the heart of a community.

In Mathare Valley, a large slum outside Nairobi, kids race across a bumpy orange clay space known as Austin’s Field. The area used to be a garbage dump until a man named Austin orchestrated the cleanup. “The kids needed somewhere to go,” Austin says. “They needed something to love.”

On weekends, the adults take to the same field, each player putting in 20 shillings for an all-day tournament, where the winning team takes home the prize. Hundreds throng around the sidelines.

While Drogba and Eto’o and the other continental stars make millions, here, on a converted garbage dump, the prize is a plastic bag of coins.

Football also carries significant personal meaning — as different from person to person as the game’s geographic expressions.

For the young, football is a chance. In Niterói, Brazil, we met a 14-year-old girl with so much energy and style that the neighborhood boys nicknamed her “Ronaldinha,” after the Brazilian two-time FIFA World Player of the Year, Ronaldinho. (“She plays like him and she looks like him,” her brother explained. “She’s only missing the big teeth.”)

“Football,” the teenage girl says, “will give me a future.”

For others, football is pride. “Every-body thinks you’re just another drunkard,” says James, a man who often gives up a day’s wages brewing moonshine in order to join a game at Austin’s Field. “But then when you get to the field, people are saying, ‘Oh, that person can play.’”

Football is identity, football is freedom, football is escape. In San Pedro Prison in La Paz, Bolivia, the inmates play to forget, to lose track of the hours. “Here we have nothing,” an inmate confided. “Our life is to play.”

And in Tokyo, Japan, businessmen who work 12-hour days end their day by playing on the top of a skyscraper, a pocket of quiet where the rush of the city is but a distant blur below. “I work from 9 to 9 — this is the only time I’ve got,” one man says. “This is my relief.”

Maybe these layers of meaning boil down to only one. In London, when I asked an Iraqi immigrant who spends all day working in construction how he can find energy to come to the field, he shrugged and articulated what may be true for all of us: “This is my happiness.”

Gwendolyn Oxenham is the author of Finding the Game, a sports and travel memoir about her experience searching for pickup football around the world, playing with anyone from 70-year-olds in Brazil to women who play while wearing hijab in Iran. Her adventure also became the basis for the documentary Pelada.

Finding the Game is available through Amazon and Barnes & NoblePelada can be found on Amazon, Amazon Prime Streaming, and iTunes .