Scratch the Surface and the Beautiful Game is Always There

memories of playing soccer in Côte d’Ivoire

Kwindla Hultman Kramer
12 min readJul 11, 2014

“No one polishes the dust off my heart the way he does.” — Rabih Alameddine on the great Spanish midfielder Andrés Iniesta

Every four years the group-stage games of the FIFA World Cup descend on the ordered fields of my Google Calendar like a cloud of cicadas.

In ordinary life I watch no soccer at all. But I make up for it during the global party that is the World Cup, binging on three fútbol matches a day. The World Cup dusts off not only my heart, but my very rusty French, my even worse Arabic, my almost nonexistent Spanish, and memories of playing foot in Côte d’Ivoire as a teenager with street kids, diplomats’ children, and national team hopefuls.

I grew up in North Carolina where basketball is the secular religion. Everybody played basketball. Wealthy and not, black and white, city, suburb and farm.

There were basketball rims everywhere. In driveways, parking lots, backyards, dirt lots, playgrounds, parks, gyms, community centers, apartment block corners, and tucked away in the spandrels of commercial building complexes. Places to play, and pickup games, were so common that the culture shock I remember most clearly from my first year as a university student in Massachusetts was not the weather or the pervasive and casual disinterest in forms of politeness I took for granted, but the stunning paucity of basketball courts.

But before that, when I was fifteen, my family moved to Côte d’Ivoire for a few months. There weren’t very many basketball courts. There sure were a lot of pickup soccer games, though.

We lived in an apartment building in downtown Abidjan. Abidjan was the economic and cultural capital of francophone West Africa, a city of several million people with a large middle class and a sizable population of expatriate international businessfolk and technocrats.

Six days a week I went to school at Lycée Francaise Blaise Pascal. (French schools have half days on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Only Sunday is a full day off.) And six days a week I came home and played barefoot two-on-two or three-on-three soccer in our apartment building courtyard.

The building’s gardener very grudgingly gave over a small dirt area to this floriculture-incompatible pursuit. We staked out meter-wide goals with bits of palm or bamboo. All of us played, boys and girls, the youngest perhaps five or six years of age, the oldest eighteen.

Fedé and Toto, whose parents were Spanish and French, I think. Fedé the oldest of us, a wizard with the ball at his feet and a gentle protector of the younger children. Solange and Mité, sisters. Part-French, again, and maybe also Indonesian? My brother, often the youngest; we almost always paired ourselves together. Others whose names I don’t remember.

I learned that pickup soccer in a small space is fabulously forgiving of differences in age, size, and experience. With no keeper and goals counting only if the ball stays on the ground, the game is loose and varied, but rewards precision and quick touches. Or failing that, laying yourself out flat on the ground, a stubborn obstacle.

A quarter-century later I can still see Fedé dipping into his favorite move, a turn to deliver a give-and-go with the outside of his left foot. Toto shielding Solange off the ball — she, hopelessly lost to a first crush, happy hanging on to him whether or not she wins possession. Some of us were furiously competive. Others, not so much. But we each had dirt-black feet and callouses thick as rubber erasers.

Alameddine’s beautiful phrase, “no one polishes the dust off my heart the way he does,” points back to Hafiz, the fourteenth-century poet who occupies roughly the same position in the Persian canon that Shakespeare does in the English.

The heart is a mirror. It gets dusty.

Twitter has made it easier than ever before to follow the quadrennial global literary outpouring of love for the world cup. My feed is full of World Cup pieces in The Paris Review, the New York Review of Books, the New Republic. You can have Updike on golf and Roger Angel on baseball. I’ll take Charles Simic.

(Actually, that’s not really true. I don’t want to give up the generous and sublime Roger Angel. But you can definitely have Updike.)

Though the World Cup engenders a lot of wonderful writing, it’s not clear to me that soccer itself is the reason for that. It’s true that I’m not enough of a fan to really know, but there doesn’t seem to be that much great soccer writing about the professional leagues.

My impression is that all the wonderful writing that accompanies the World Cup is actually an outpouring of feeling about the world more than about a sport. Soccer is the medium, but the message is that we’re all in this human thing together. We can root for our own countries, or our favorites, or our favorite players. But we’re all really rooting for drama, for narrative, for fun, for memory and history and cameraderie that crosses national borders. We wear our flags, we put our champions in our national colors, in order to transcend those labels.

I played soccer at school, too, though not every day. Many things about Lycée were unfamiliar. I failed my first math test because I didn’t color and underline the aswers properly. We wore uniforms. We went home for lunch. Idiomatic translations of Guns ‘N Roses lyrics were valuable social currency. There was a snack counter that sold excellent croissants.

But we did have a very familiar gym class. Perhaps gym class is the same everywhere. The only thing I remember about gym is that we played soccer. And this was the rec league soccer I had played in the US as a child: organized, full field, eleven on a side, with a goalkeeper.

There was minimal coaching, but the addictive lineaments of the full game were all there. Creating space with a long run. The two-part foundation of so many individual skill plays, one touch to control and one touch to deliver the ball. Seeing an angle on defense in time to close ground and make the play. Winning the ball with a clean sliding tackle.

And, of course, best of all: the shots on goal that lived in proprioceptive memory for days or weeks or months. The volley from distance. Sending the long cross directly onto the head of a diving teammate. Bending the ball around defenders. (A film is named after that feeling.)

I was not a good enough athlete that any of this happened easily, or very often. Soccer was, for me, a game of running around for an hour in order to grasp the instant sublime one or two times. That was the truth; everything else I thought about the game, and told myself about my own talent and skill, was bluster. It would take me many, many years to learn this lesson — to learn that it applied to basketball as well — and even longer to embrace it. Moments of grace are hard-won. Patience is a virtue, but more than that, it is simply a necessity.

I bought cleats for the games at school. Playing in shoes turned the soles of my feet into a mess of scarps and faults. The callouses peeled away and reformed, a new and hybridized landscape.

With exposure to the school part of soccer culture came an awareness of the European Cup. One of my classmates wore a snazzy white Panasonic Marseille jersey every time we played. Marseille had won three league titles in a row and was marching through the European Cup draw in dynamic fashion.

We had some sort of satellite television service in our apartment building (a novelty for me). So I was able to watch Marseille defeat Dinamo Tirana, Lech Poznań, Milan, and Spartak Moscow on the way to facing Red Star Belgrade in the final. The format was interesting and, at first, confusing. Each “match” was two games — home and away. Goal differential determined the winner. Depending on what happened in the first game a team might play for a draw, or even a narrow loss, in the second game.

The internationalism of the event was a revelation. Despite plenty of knee-jerk American commentary to the contrary, there’s not much that’s substantively different between any of the globally popular sports or the social phenomena of fandom that surround them. Soccer, baseball, football, basketball, cricket — all more similar than not. The exception to this, the one difference that makes a difference, is that soccer feels deeply multi-national and cross-cultural. The players and locations, the fans and media coverage, span national and linguistic borders. American sports feel very hermetically American by contrast.

Marseille’s players were mainly French, but starters included a Brazilian defender and forwards from Ghana and England. The young English right wing, Chris Waddle, made a big impression on me. He was an anglophone star on a francophone team, of course. And also, a character. I’ve just learned from the intertubes that in the seasons before satellite television beamed Waddle into my cerebral cortex, he had a fantastic mullet. I did not know this at the time, but it makes a certain amount of sense in retrospect.

Most days, at some point, somebody would kick the ball over our courtyard wall into the side street bordering our apartment building. Usually, by the time I got outside the gate and around the corner, one of the sidewalk vendors would have rescued the ball from traffic. Often, one guy about my age would have it, and he and I would kick it around a few times before I headed back to the game.

One day he said something along the lines of, “Hey, I know a really good place to play. Do you want to go there?” That sounded okay to me. We made plans to meet the next afternoon.

When I showed up with my shoes and soccer ball he took me down the street to the bus stop. This was new; I hadn’t ridden a city bus in Abidjan and hadn’t ever heard of anyone in my school using the bus lines. Many of my classmates had drivers. Or we used taxis, which were inexpensive. I was happy to take the bus except I didn’t know how it was supposed to work. The buses were always crowded.

My new friend shoved me around to the back door, then shoved me onto the bus like a Tokyo subway conductor working rush hour. We rode for a while, then we got off. “Run,” he said, and took off. I figured he was warming his legs up to play or something. Anway, there wasn’t much to do except follow.

It took three days of this routine before I figured out we were running because we hadn’t paid. After that, I brought change and deposited the fare for both of us. It didn’t seem worth getting in trouble for something as easy (for me) to manage as going in the front door and dropping coins in the box.

My friend had brought me to the Rucker Park of Abidjan, a few acres of dirt lot at the edge of the National Stadium complex. There were a dozen games going on, two laid out between full-size goals, the rest sprawled ad-hoc, an outer-ring conurbation of short-field balletics.

The level of play was very high. Most players didn’t have shoes. Some played in sandles taped to their feet. A very few had cleats. I was the only person in clothes that looked new. I was the only white person. My arrival, with a ball, attracted a lot of attention. My friend made sure it did.

It was clear from just a few minutes of watching that these games were the rough equivalent of week-night basketball on the most competitive courts in North Carolina, soccer played by people serious about playing soccer. At home, the scarce resource was time on a good court. Every gym and playground had a precise system for allocating that resource. The winning team could stay until it lost, or stay only for a certain number of games. Waiting players joined teams first-come, first-served. Or called next and self-assembled. Or shot free throws to get on the court. Or shot three pointers.

At the National Stadium in Abidjan, the scarce resource was a ball. My friend hadn’t taken me under his wing just because he’d thought I might like to play a higher-quality game. Showing up with a ball got him into the rotation.

For a few days, we played in the outer games. Or, more precisely, when we arrived a new outer game formed around the ball we brought.

I had a lot to learn. It helped to think about these games as similar to the best pickup basketball I played at home. I had a lot of practice playing on courts where everyone else was quicker and smarter about the game than me and most were taller and stronger. In Abidjan, size didn’t make much difference. But skill and experience sure did.

After a few days, an older gentleman pulled us out of our game and brought us to one of the two fields close to the Stadium. Still dirt. Still no lines. But full-size goals and a different level of organization. All the players were about the same age, too — perhaps fourteen to seventeen. He asked if we wanted to play with this group, asked what our positions were, and subbed us in. At the end of the day he told us when to come back.

The next day we played again. Eventually. First we ran and did calisthenics for two hours. It was the hardest workout I’d ever had.

On the field I was badly outclassed. I had told the coach I played right wing. Even accounting for the televised influence of Chris Waddle, this was an incomprehensible delusion. I was far too slow to play forward for a team of such quality. And really, a lack of speed was just the most obvious of my deficits. I might barely have kept up as an undistinguished, defense-oriented midfielder. But probably not even that.

What I remember most clearly about the best of these players was their extraordinary field vision and sense of geometry. A great basketball point guard sees passes that aren’t there for anyone else. A great soccer playmaker does the same thing, in larger spaces, for twice as many teammates, with his feet. This is an ability indistinguishable from magic.

Whenever I was where I needed to be in space (or whenever I should have been able to get there, were I a real right wing) my compatriots delivered the ball. I did what I could with it. The coach subbed me in and out with the rotation.

Sometimes we played on the field inside the main stadium. Our team was, as far as I could tell, part of something between a charitable youth league and a national team development program.

I don’t know why the coach let me join his practice roster. He didn’t need my ball. Perhaps he thought it wouldn’t hurt his players to have a little early exposure to a foreigner. Some of them might end up in other countries someday, either through soccer or as immigrant workers.

Perhaps he hoped they’d benefit from access, through me, to the social capital I clearly had in some form. He didn’t talk to me much. Perhaps engaging with my brecciated French was too much trouble. Certainly my teachers at the Lycée covered their mouths and worked hard to avoid laughing at my malapropisms. Or perhaps there just wasn’t much to say. My upside as a player was so obviously limited.

My teammates talked to me a lot, though. They called me Waddle, which sounds better in French than in English, and which I loved. Or blanco, which translates to Wite-Out™, and which I didn’t mind. At home in North Carolina I was often the only white person on the basketball court, so I was used to being identified more or less that way.

If social capital dispersion was part of the plan, though, I failed to live up to my end of the bargain. I was consumed by my private maelstrom of teenage self-absorption. It never crossed my mind that there might be a larger narrative than my own unlikely hunt for dramatic goals. I wish very much that it had.

I wonder what happened to the boys I knew there. Côte d’Ivoire has had a tough time the last fifteen years — political turmoil and two periods of civil war.

I wonder if any of the current Côte d’Ivoire team players might be cousins of the boys I played with. I wonder if Didier Drogba, the great Ivoirian striker, four years younger than I am and now nearing the end of his career, ever played for the coach who pulled me in from the outer games for a few weeks of soccer higher education.

It’s been a long time, and my memories of being fifteen years old tend to get buried under the accretive sediment of daily life. But every four years, when the world goes temporarily crazy for the World Cup, I think about playing soccer with kids who didn’t look like me, or talk like me, or have a passport in common with me, but were happy to let me share their world every afternoon on the dirt lot around the National Stadium in Abidjan.

photo credit: Cedric Lange