Some weeks ago, we discussed how English, the international language, was making its way to Vondrozo, Madagascar. That may be true—especially with the help of Erica, Peace Corps’newest education volunteer on site—but if so, English has been long preceded by another international language—that of football.
I can’t say enough about how happy I am that I spent my entire adolescence playing a sport of such international renown. Soccer is a language that everyone loves and understands—the youth of Vondrozo, Madagascar not excepted.
As I mentioned previously, I bought a soccer ball over a month ago in Tana, and it has turned out to be the best investment I have made, thus far, in Madagascar. Bright yellow and Nike, it is a high-quality product the likes of which is rarely seen in these remote southwestern environs where most children content themselves with strips of cloth balled up together with rubber bands. When I pass it around town, young boys stop to pick it up and inspect its stitching before handing it back to me. “Tsara,” they whisper. Beautiful.
We decide that it is time to integrate with the community and make a few more Malagasy friends. We group together for a mitsangatsangana, and I carry the yellow ball in hand. I juggle it from time to time as we wander the streets, and its flashy brightness attracts attention. We meander our way to the soccer pitch, and gradually, a crowd amasses to follow. They hang back hesitantly at first, then join us on the field. I start to kick the ball around, and soon, others are kicking, too. “Milalao?”asks one boy, gesturing to the goals. Play? “Eka,”I say. “Yes, let’s play.”
The boys that we play with look like they might be fifteen or sixteen, but they are probably nineteen or twenty in actuality. Deprived of our diet of western sugars and fats, everyone here looks younger than you think. It is true that Vondrozo just opened a women’s soccer league, but Erica tells me that their play reminds her somewhat of her little sister’s teams around age nine or ten—I guess Madagascar has a ways to go before it starts producing the likes of Mia Hamm and Kristine Lily. Our games, so far, anyway, have just been me and the boys.
The rest of our Explorers are not much into soccer, but I convince Sergio to join the pitch with me. Spain may have just won the World Cup, but Sergio the swimmer admits that I am demolishing his orgullo on the football field. I also just removed my ninth parasy from my feet, so we are now equal in those counts, too. He’s just going to have to start wandering around barefoot if he wants to beat me...
Our Malagasy friends are surprised at first that I seem to know what I am doing. “Mahay?”asks one boy. You know? “Eka,” I reply. If I know one thing in life, it is soccer...
The boys themselves play well but their style is different than what I am used to. In fact, they play a little bit like girls, especially of the Central Marin Magic variety. The goals they lay out are little over a foot in diameter, and the boys seem more intent on juking each other one-on-one with their fancy footwork than accomplishing some sort of superfluous team goal like scoring. Their touches are quick and expert, the result of years spent juggling undersized cloth balls on smooth dirt terrain, so different from the massive size fives and long, luxurious grass I grew up with. They don’t push or shove or slide at each other like the boys I know, but maybe that is out of concern for those on the field without adequate footwear. Some of the players sport cleats, others tennis shoes, others flipflops, and others no shoes at all. One boy plays with a cleat on his right foot, while his left foot is bare.
Once they realize I am competent with a soccer ball, the Malagasy boys have no qualms about involving me in their game as an equal. In co-ed games at home, I find that it is sometimes hard to convince the boys to pass, but that is not a problem here. Maybe because I am a vazaha, or maybe because the ball belongs to me, but they seem to forget I am a girl, and quickly, I am immersed in the game.
It is amazing how we all speak the same language on the soccer pitch. I don’t know the words for “open” or “wide”or “cross”or “turn”or “man-on” in Malagasy, but it hardly matters. I see my teammates, I see the gaps on the field, and I know where to go and what to do. And they know the same things. We are lost in the international language of football, and we are having the time of our lives.
Our afternoon football sessions become a daily event, and 4pm finds us down on the soccer pitch with regularity. The boys ask to borrow my ball earlier in the day, but they always bring it back, and I don’t mind sharing in the slightest. When we arrive the second day, their game is already well underway, and I see that they are playing shirts versus skins. “I think I’ll play on the shirts team,” I say with a laugh as we walk on the field. “Well then,”says Sergio, “I guess that makes me a skin.”And he rips off his shirt. Classic. The next day, of course, Sergio suggests we switch teams, but I politely decline. I doubt vazaha liberty goes that far.
The Malagasy boys are delighted when either of us scores a goal—“Tsara be!”they cry, and they are especially entertained by the western phenomenon of the high five. One of them, called Augustin, speaks passable English, and he is heartbroken to hear that we are leaving Vondrozo yet again this weekend. We’re on the road for the next month, though still in contact for the week ahead, but I assure him the soccer ball will make its way back to Vondrozo when we return in December. We are sure to have friends waiting for us upon our return, eager to converse in the international language of football.