At the time of writing I am currently settled in my second year of life in Lima, Peru, a country that has failed to impress on the footballing stage for 30 odd years. Stating this fact is not something I feel will see me left for dead half way up the Pan-Americana with presently Peru languishing bottom of the South American World Cup qualifying group.
I merely state this fact to show the experience I have obtained in seeing football throughout the world. Before Peru, I resided in Cairo, Egypt for 4 years and saw them life the African Cup of Nations in 2006 on home soil, although I missed them repeat the trick two years later in Ghana.
Now I realise this may start sounded ridiculous but the year previous to moving to Cairo I had spent a year, or nine months to be exact, in Malaysia and of course the first twelve years of my life in England. Honestly I am not taking the mick and I see how this is beginning to sound like an autobiography but I have seen in my eighteen (and a half) years of my life football on four continents, in four countries, with four different languages and four very different cultures.
In all four countries football is massive and I mean massive. Obviously in England that is to be expected, we did invent the modern game after all, but in Malaysia this was not quite so expected. Even so, walking down the street in an England shirt would bring the inevitable cries of ‘Beckham’ and ‘Owen’ from across the street.
It is now well known that English football in South East Asia is huge and far outweighs that of its Malaysian counterpart. More people would sit in a bar and watch any Premier League match than walk down the street to see Pehak FA play Johor FC. Even so, this nation made up of people of all religions, loved the game and though the Malaysian national team, whose highest Fifa ranking was 75 in August 1993, I saw for the first time football outside of Britain and just how big of an impact it could have.
It seemed to me that Malaysia was a country to prepare me for football elsewhere; I was moved just slightly out of my security of the Premier League and saw glimpses of another nation’s game. Egypt was a step further out of my sanctuary. Though English football is very big and Premier League football shirts can be seen around the capital, as usual the top four plus Tottenham Hotspur once Mido joined the North London outfit, nothing I had experienced before could have prepared me for the Al-Ahly versus Zamalek derby, named by the Confederation of African Football, the top two African teams of the twentieth century.
Now would probably be a good time to point out that I support Reading FC and would explain my virginity, for lack of a better word, of proper football derbies. Anyone that has seen this derby will understand what I mean when I say it is so similar to major derbies back in Britain in the passion, hatred and utter desire to beat the other team. The quality of football lacks what I had grown used to, moments of brilliance coming from Mohamed Abou-Trika of Al Ahly, a player that could have settled in Europe, but now approaching 30, has probably seen his chance come and go.
In Egypt, there was a lot more emphasis on the national league and the national team than there was is Malaysia. I recall one point during the 2006 African Cup of Nations when Mido was substituted by coach Hassan Shehata for Amr Zaki, the very same that is now with Wigan Athletic. Mido, the prodigal son of Egyptian football, recently returning from international football exile, threw a tantrum and as he and the coach has a shouting match there on the touchline, the crowd rose to the defence of their coach. The resulting chanting coming from the crowd were, well let’s say they had something to say about a particular part of Mido’s motherls body.
But getting back on track, the game in Egypt showed me, first hand what passion was, outside of what I had grown up with in England and I was suitably impressed. I would certainly recommend the Al Ahly versus Zamalek derby to anybody but would also stress that caution should be taken definitely do not get involved in any sort of dispute that you do not have to. Egypt firmly stands by the fact that as a foreigner, if you hit somebody with a car, it would not have happened if you were not there, while if you are hit with a car, you would have been ok if you were not there. Either way it is hard to win with that logic going against you so beware.
Meanwhile, despite the fact I was younger, I was more than happy to watch football in Egypt, including the derby match, but this is not a fact I can state for Peru. I did see the Peru — Paraguay match that ended nil-nil at the start of the qualifiers but I have never had the guts to see the biggest league derby in Peru, Alianza Lima versus Universitario de Deportes, known as La ‘U’.
As in the rest of South America, the ‘Superclásico Peruano’ pits the team of the working class against that of the middle and upper classes. Violence is a common occurrence and La ‘U’ have been unable to play Alianza at their home ground due to an incident six years ago when homes close to the ground were broken into and vandalised. Though the atmosphere is one I would love to sample, it would be very dangerous and provide a massive risk, besides if I was to go and come home to tell the tale, my mum would then kill me anyway. Manly I know, but she runs the house and honestly I am more afraid of her than anything else. That is not to say anyone should be jumping on the plane and booking tickets to the next match, without being able to speak good Spanish and if you are particularly white, it is your life in danger.
Also there is a different interpretation to foreigners in Peru as there was in Egypt. Foreign football shirts are far less prominent, massive expectations are placed on the national team and the press batters anything to do with the national ‘selección’. Sound like somewhere you know. The similarity between the Peruvian presses relationship with their national team and the English with ours is uncanny. Praise is massive when there is victory while the fallout of a loss can be devastating.
Young players too are built up to large expectations. Carlos Zambrano, currently of Schalke 04 in Germany, looks like he has the potential of a very good player while PSV Eindhoven have seen Reimond Manco as the successor to Jefferson Farfan, strengthened when he was given the number 17 shirt that Farfan had recently vacated. Though the extremes are somewhat more drastic, Wilmer Acasiete, who plays in Spain for Almeria, Jefferson Farfan and captain Claudio Pizzaro along with Andres Mendoza were suspended from the national team for an incident at a hotel involving several females before Peru’s disappointing 5-1 loss to Ecuador. Paolo Guerrero was also involved in a court case with a celebrity gossip columnist, who claimed he was not taking his role in the team seriously when he was pictured in Chilli’s restaurant, the night before a match. She is set to serve a jail sentence of 5 months.
But Peruvians also brought another aspect forward for me to see for the first time. Many of the people I have spoken to have claimed, quite honestly, that they believe the standard of football to be of high quality. This is something that I had not expected nor had happen in Malaysia or Egypt. There, people accepted that their own domestic leagues were not of the highest quality but in Peru it is what they believe. On several occasions I have been forced to hold my tongue when I hear claims that La ‘U’ could perform in the Premier League and survive. I have also found it difficult to explain that Reading will not be able to just jump back to the Premiership without breaking a sweat.
Simply, there interpretation of their league is one very different from mine, but as Tom Vickery, South American columnist for BBC Sport, stated recently ‘football is a universal language that we all speak with different accents.’ I honestly could not agree with this statement more and I have seen football in four countries and four very different accents being spoken, but to be able to understand football on a global scale, which is what needs to be done these days, you must be able to converse in as many different accents as possible and I recommend learning them, apart from anything, it is a lot of fun.
Written by Shaun Henderson
This article is a submission for the Soccerlens 2008 Writing Competition; to participate, please read the details here. The competition is sponsored by Subside Sports (premier online store for football shirts) and Icons (official signed football jerseys).