Jesse Banks-Hudson - Soccer in Togo
Whilst Ghana’s Black Stars gave Africa a deafening Vuvuzela cry at the 2010 World Cup, the continent can also be very proud of its budding young pretenders miles away in Togo. On my arrival in the busy, dusty streets of Lomé my task was put to me clearly and simply – train a school football team to play the ‘English’ way. "I want to play like Rooney, like Gerrard" my players would say. However, that quickly changed as England woefully bowed out of the competition whilst Ghana as Africa’s proud child united a continent in support.
Africa boasts a great footballing tradition and an even more exciting future. Ghana was the youngest team at the World Cup and more than 50 African players regularly turn out in the English Premier League alone. However, it wasn’t until actually coming to Africa and seeing children kicking footballs of all shapes, sizes and materials at every street corner, and seeing Togo erupt as neighbours Ghana defeated the US to become only the third African team to reach a quarter-final, that I began to understand what football means to Africa. Togo is obsessed by it, the country’s superstar Emmanuel Adebayor is hailed by most as a deity.
My work in Lomé entailed coaching a school football team of 20 or so 16 year old boys – FC Papillon – from CEG Djidjolé School. Work started straight away with a series of fitness and technical tests so I could establish my starting XI for the next 7 weeks. In all honesty I have never seen a fitter or more compliant group of young footballers in my life – they really became a joy to coach.
But the journey I went on wasn’t complete without some stumbling blocks along the way. Togo is blessed with lots of sandy open spaces to play football, but the country is so football-crazed that pitches are almost always taken, a problem that I and my team had to overcome with sheer patience.
Another issue is the materials the players have – or rather don’t have. My boys would play wearing odd football boots (that is if they owned anything that came close to resembling a football style shoe) often with large holes and soles so worn down they might have been better off barefoot. Frequently I feared for their safety knowing that none of them had any form of shin or ankle protection. Quite often I would undertake training sessions with just 2 footballs between the team of 20 – quite a test of my coaching skills!
Any form of aid would be so gratefully received and appreciated, I’ve seen at close hand how the players are developing with meagre facilities and equipment and can only imagine how they’ll improve if the basics could also improve. I’ve made it my own task to find some backing from a professional football club in England to send the team a matching kit, something they don’t currently have, and an embarrassment that I shared with the team as the boys had no alternative but to compete bare-chested.
Yet, the pros of a football placement in West Africa (and Togo especially) by far outweigh the cons. Taking full responsibility for a team, for training and matches, really became a challenge I strived to succeed at, and it gave me many experiences I will never forget – such as the team bonding party the night before a game complete with local Akbaja dancing to Zouck music, and the final awards ceremony to commemorate the end of my stay. Nothing however quite matched the feeling of seeing Papillon win our first game, and seeing the joy it brought my boys!
In my opinion the future of football resides with my boys of FC Papillon, and it resides in Africa. I am now determined to use my skills and contacts to seek some material support for these wonderful boys.
I am indebted to my team for their kindness, spirit and unquestionable faith they put in me. It’s helped me to appreciate and understand the adversities that young people growing up in Africa face, and to see how football can bring light and unity to their lives. So thank you Papillon, and thank you Projects Abroad. We became more than just a football team. We became Africa United!