Posted by: sean | November 15, 2008

The Beautiful Game

After surviving the Akonalypse you tend to think that you have a certain prowess, a deft ability to navigate poorly managed mass events. 


Hey Sean, we’re buying tickets for the Liberia-Gambia game. Want us to pick you up one?


Sure. How much?


We’re going to buy the $20 VIP seats.


Oooooooo. Weeeeellll. You see, I was thinking about getting the cheap $3 dollar seats.


Really?  We’ve heard that those seats are pretty dangerous….


Yeah, well, you know….  The Akonalypse was pretty dangerous, but I have a certain prowess, a deft ability to navigate poorly managed mass events. You wouldn’t understand…


Ok. Well, we’ll pick one up for you just in case you change your mind.


On June 1st, Liberia and the Gambia were playing in a qualifying match for the African Cup and World Cup.  Why go to a soccer match and sit in an isolated area with a bunch of expats?  Why pay $20 to sit in guilty comfort with lackadaisical fans when you could be packed into the grandstand with the faithful?  At the time I could think of no good answers to these questions.


The day before the match I went to the bank to buy tickets.  When my turn came at the teller window, I laughed aside the teller’s assumption that I would be interested in VIP seats.  My man…the Akonalypse…prowess…give me the cheap seats.  My first inclination that I had made a horrible decision in opting for the cheap seats came as I exited and saw a hoard of young men running toward the bank in what was no doubt a first for a banking institution anywhere.  Still, I was largely oblivious to what lay ahead.  Look at all the young folk interested in these killer interest rates.


The match started at 3pm, so naturally we left at a healthy 9am to make our way to the stadium, a drive that usually took half an hour.  In our taxi was John (also of the Akonalypse), Brenna (an student from Brown who had arrived the day before), Jeremy (a Kennedy School student working with the Ministry of Internal Affairs for the summer), and Abdul (I’m not quite sure who he was, but I feel that he should get his own parenthetical as well).  Due to the traffic, our taxi could only get within a mile of the stadium; we walked the rest of the way. 


Now, I’ve seen crowds before.  I can’t quite describe the scene around the stadium.  The best I can say was that I was suddenly acutely aware that I was in a country that had recently seen war.  And that all around me were people who were used to dealing with the insanity of war – who were able to cope with unspeakable hardships – and I had none of these experiences.  All thoughts that the Akonalypse had somehow prepared me for other stadium events vanished much in the same manner that I was sure my phone soon would. 


But I still really wanted to watch the match.


We stood in a line about seven people wide, pressed together in such a way that if I lifted my legs I would have been suspended between people on all sides.  Up ahead was a gate, manned by UN Peacekeepers who were holding back the mob of ticket holders by whacking them with branches from a nearby tree.  They would periodically open the gate, people would rush in, and then they would close the gate and start whacking people.  As a result, the line moved forward rapidly when the gate was open then pushed back violently when the gate closed and the whacking began…  It was, um, not safe.   


As we neared the gate and it became obvious that if I stayed in line longer there would be no choice: I would be going through that gate one way or another, because of the sheer pressure of the mob.  I thought about what it would feel like to be crushed to death in a soccer mob.  I thought about what it would feel like to be whacked by a branch.  I decided to duck out.  I turned to see which of my friends were around, saw John and said something to the effect of: this is too dangerous, I’m out of here, coming?  He was staying, a decision I mostly attribute to the fact that I’m slightly taller than he is, so he did not have my full vista of gate carnage.  I flailed my way out of the line into the field outside the gates. 


I was now alone in a mob of people and stood out on account of my pasty skin.  I watched people trying to climb the gates as UN Peacekeepers beat them with clubs.  I watched as one of the rails on the stairway on the side of the stadium broke under pressure, and people fell twenty feet to the concrete below.  Then I received the following text from John:



Yeah, sure, I thought, I’ll just go find a doctor and meet up with you inside the stadium by the hotdog stand.  I stopped a police officer who was running around frantically and asked if there was a doctor nearby, out of obligation but with no real hope of success.  There was, of course, no doctor.  The mob outside the stadium was unruly; I watched a group of youths beat what I thought was one of their friends for a ticket.  Keeping a stoic expression, I tried to come up with an escape plan. 


I took out my phone. 


Hey! Saaaaaay, do you still have that extra VIP ticket?  Well, you see, I have a deft prowess for poorly managed MUSICAL events.  Yes, you’re right, maybe I shooooould start a pride-swallowing service, that’s very funny.  Not that there’s any rush, but when will you be here?  


I met up with Chara and Rebecca, holders of the VIP tickets.  They had no qualms about playing the Expat Card.  The Expat Card usually gets you to the front of the line, preferential service, and judging looks from non-Expats.  I would say that the main structural problem in Liberia is the stringent hierarchy that permeates society.  If you’re a ‘Bossman’ you can get away with anything and demand compliance from people ‘below’ you.  Being white automatically puts you in Bossman category, which I don’t like and try to counteract, but sometimes you have to reluctantly shrug your shoulders and let the Bossman Expat Card do its thing.  We walked up to the VIP entrance, which was by this point under siege by non-ticketholders clamoring to get in.  The Indian Peacekeepers (an all female contingent) had created a swinging pick along the gate: they would swing out and beat back the crowd while VIP ticket holders ran in the bubble created between the Peacekeepers and the gate.  As we ran through the gate, I could feel the eyes of all the Liberian fans burning on me.  If I had been black, the Peacekeepers would not have let me run behind their swinging pick.  My VIP ticket was the whiteness of my Expat Card.  (And this is why I had wanted to sit in the grandstand)


There was chaos on the field inside the stadium.  It was packed far above capacity and a fire engine had entered the stadium to cool off the crowd with a water cannon.  Yes, the refreshing, cool mist of…a water cannon.  However, the water cannon soaked the ground and in a matter of minutes the fire engine was stuck in the grass behind the goal.  A tow truck was called to remove the fire engine.  Did it park on the athletic track beyond the field, the athletic track with a firm foundation not made of grass?  No, the tow truck parked on the grass as well.  And then there were two trucks stuck in the mud. 


The match was interesting: the Liberians played a formation that inadvertently harkened back to the bygone era of Total Football…  Liberians know relatively little about their own national team, but can tell you about the eating habits of the English Big Four – and their benches.  The Liberian newspapers follow foreign leagues, but no Liberian teams.  That said, Liberians have a passion mostly for African football players in the European leagues, which is why they almost elected one president.


Following the game, word spread that ten people died at the stadium.  The government launched an inquiry.  Thankfully, that evening when I met up with John I found out that his unnerving text about bringing gauze was only to patch up a cut on Brenna’s knee; she fell entering the gate and neither she nor John can precisely recall how they got past the UN Peacekeepers and the mob.   


Months later I went to another soccer match with my boss, John (different John).  I tried to prepare him for the insanity and made sure we had VIP tickets.  There were tanks outside the stadium this time, an overwhelming police and UN presence – we drove right up to the stadium past the gate, parked right outside the main doors.  Things were so peaceful that we bought our driver a ticket and he came inside to watch the game.  The stadium was nearly empty.  John observed that it was the most well-managed sporting event he had been to.  No deft navigation needed.


Obviously, lessons had been learned.  Also obvious was the fact that by the time of this match Liberia was out of contention for a place in the World and African Cups.  Perhaps this was for the best.


  1. Tanks… a soccer match…..glad you survived the first match…and from now on, please always get the VIP tickets…your brother spent $40 for the last row to watch the Celtics…and no tanks…maybe that is the ticket…charge an ungodly price so only civilized folks will attend….$20 is a small price to pay for a cell phone that does not message ‘bring gauze’!

  2. Sean, I need something to pass some time during the school day. If you could please start writing more frequently that would be greatly appreciated. Hope everythings going well.

  3. Hey Bossman, can you use your clout to get me some free tickets to the Super Bowl. That’s a FOOTBALL game. Your Grandmother really appreciated your call today, it made her day to hear from her world traveler. Take care and use your perks.

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