I don’t spend too much time following sports. I enjoy watching a baseball game and the San Francisco Giants have been my team since I was a young’n at Candlestick Park, but I’m not gonna memorize their roster. I like to see the 49ers win, but I’m not a big football guy. The Kings broke my heart in the early 2000s and I don’t know if I can trust basketball. And of course, I want UCLA to win in all things, and especially against USC, but sports have never gripped me like that.
All the people who jump online and immediately check out ESPN? I’m not one of them. When sports conversations come up with the guys, I can fake my way through, but it’s not something I can speak to with any degree of authority. When I open an internet browser, it’s Gmail and Facebook, naturally, but it’s also immediately SoundCloud and Pitchfork. It’s IMDb, Apple Trailers and Grantland, where I spend 90% of my time reading on the Hollywood Prospectus side of things.
That’s how it is. I like music and movies and can speak well to them. But here in Tanzania, it’s sports. And by “sports,” plural, I really mean “sport,” singular: football. I’ve been here long enough that I call it that and probably will for a while—sure, we say soccer in America, but dammit, the rest of the world says football.
Early in my service, sitting in a bar in Njombe with a good friend, waiting out the rain, crushing beers and chipsi mayai and absentmindedly watching some football, I decided that to have any kind of “in” with youth during our tenure, we’d need to become football fans. And without any kind of geographic or childhood allegiance to the English Premiere League, we could kind of go with whoever. We ordered another beer to aid in the decision making and started talking it over.
Chelsea and Manchester United were dominating the standings at this point, so they were right out. If you’re brand new to baseball, you can’t just start rooting for the Yankees—that’s too easy. At the same time, you don’t want to pick some garbage team at the bottom of the pile, because to stay invested you’re gonna want to see a couple wins. As we talked through the teams, I mentioned that Liverpool’s motto is “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” My buddy dug this, and after a moment or two of consideration, declared himself for Liverpool.
I was still thinking. I liked the name “Arsenal.” They were a London team. The Gunners is a great mascot. A cannon a great emblem. Martial. Striking. They had a storied past, dominating the league in the late 90s, early 2000s, but had fallen from former glory. They had a legendary, long-term skipper. They were in the hunt and good for a Champions league qualifier, but taking home some silverware would always be a huge deal. I liked it. I became an Arsenal supporter.
It’s instantly a hit with Tanzanian men. You have a way to bond. The proprietor of that very bar we were at, which we frequented quite often over the ensuing couple years, was a longtime Chelsea supporter, which led to a longstanding feud of joking smack talk every weekend a result was posted. The driver of my village bus, also named Paulo, was an Arsenal supporter, too. Combined with our matching shaved heads, this was a big deal. One of my favorite drivers at the Peace Corps office is always there on Monday ready to recap the weekend’s action from the Gunners with me. It’s fantastic.
I’m still not a sports guy sports guy, but I like going to watch matches. There’s great sense of community at the bar when a game is on. There’s stakes on your evening when your team is playing. And it’s a great way to bond with people and a perfect excuse to eat some roast meat and chipsi. So I take some weekend time from my schedule for just that. And while I want to continue, I’ve gotta run around the corner to my local—Arsenal at Chelsea kicks off in 5 minutes, and I want a decent seat!