Eleven Premiership managers gathered at a football stadium in London last week to watch a friendly international match — and it was not England vs Germany. To a man, they rejected the New Wembley game in favour of a trip to the nether-end of south-east London to witness Ghana play Senegal at the Den, the forbidding home of Millwall FC.
These VIPs were joined by a small, but vibrant, crowd on a windy evening as two of the more powerful African football nations squared up to each other in a far-off land.
There is a trend towards such friendlies being played in third or neutral countries — South Africa recently played Egypt at Brentford in London and Ghana took on Brazil in Sweden earlier this year.
These games appear to be played in Europe because so many African (and South American) players ply their trade for clubs in the European leagues.
And partly because the national football federations try to accommodate the concerns of these players and their clubs by dispensing with the need for long trips back home in the middle of the hectic European club season.
Another argument for staging matches in Europe is that administrators and match promoters feel they can generate more revenue by playing these games there.
A less generous assessment is that these matches are just another step towards the complete global commodification of the beautiful game.
If the Ghana-Senegal match was about the money, the organisers would have been sorely disappointed. Only 2Ã‚Â 788 paying spectators made the trek to Coldharbour Lane.
With ticket prices set at Ã‚Â£28 (about R400) each and no concessions for children, this was hardly surprising. There were murmurs of disgruntlement among some fans before the game. Fans confronted television cameramen, wanting to air their grievances about the ticket prices.
It is ironic that this game should be played at the home of Millwall, a club renowned for keeping London’s Metropolitan Police busy on match days. The club attracted hooligans and racists in large measure in the 1970s and 1980s, and racism was rife on the terraces. It was a notoriously hostile and threatening place for ”away” fans to visit in those days.
The club officials and stewards, acknowledging the status that an international match being played at the Den in Coldharbour Lane brings, welcomed the throng of African fans that turned up for the game. Their warm welcome stood in stark contrast to the stadium itself — ”Coldharbour” aptly describes the place.
Stewards mingled happily with the sparse crowd outside the stadium before the game as flags were unfurled and drums and home-made percussion instruments were pounded to engulf the place with the sounds of Africa. Various types of horn (including mini-vuvuzelas) were on sale by roving informal traders, adding to the level of noise generated being disproportionate to the size of the crowd.
Banned at Premiership and English league games, the vuvuzelas were welcomed at the Den, perhaps in the hope that it would infuse some African warmth into the blustery night.
There were only a sprinkling of Senegalese fans among the crowd and even this number had been swelled by some Nigerians keen to support Ghana’s opponents.
The hosts had marked out different sections of the one stand that was open for the game to separate the Ghana and Senegal fans.
Stewards stood somewhat bemused as an elaborately clad Senegalese fan ran and chanted among a large group of Ghanaian fans proudly hoisting his flag aloft.
Their bemusement turned to full-blown confusion when they saw the brotherly response from the Ghanaian fans, all smiles. They are not used to opposing fans mingling down at the Den.
As to the game, Chelsea’s Michael Essien bestrode it like the colossus he is and the Black Stars went in one-nil ahead. El Hadji Diouf, Essien’s Senegalese counterpart, took up the cudgels in the second half and fashioned a neat equaliser. It was a friendly in the full sense with scarcely an ill-timed tackle let alone a deliberate foul, despite Essien hobbling off with a minor niggle.
At the post-match press conference Ghanaian coach Claude Le Roy said he had told Essien in the dressing room after the game that ”he is the best player in the world”, a tag that more people are attaching to this fine, and modest, footballer.
Along with his Ivorian teammate at Stamford Bridge, Didier Drogba, and the likes of Obafeni Martins at Newcastle and our own Benni McCarthy at Blackburn, African footballers are now a major influence on the Premiership.
But with the eyes of the football world turning south towards the 2010 World Cup, surely African football federations owe it to African fans to bring home their stars for the friendly games?
Lawson Naidoo is a director of 3PLAY, an independent film company, whose latest production, Black Stars — which focuses on the 2008 African Cup of Nations – will be screened next year