While the British media were wrapped up in the ongoing feud between Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra last weekend, an event organised by FURD for the final of the African Cup of Nations between Zambia and Ivory Coast provided an opportunity for members of various communities in Sheffield to metaphorically shake hands and enjoy the match together.
The event had two aims: to provide a welcoming environment for new migrants to see their continent’s footballing showpiece and to utilise the global reach of football to bring together different communities.
“The most likely venue for getting together to watch football in this country is the pub. For cultural and economic reasons this is not suitable for many people who find themselves living in the UK. We wanted to offer another option,” said Chris Stone, lead researcher on the Football – A shared sense of belonging? project.
“African football has a far greater recognition in Britain due to the number of players from the continent in the Premiership and other leagues around Europe. What we wanted to do is use this to get people together from different backgrounds.”
Authentic African food provided by Rafiki prior to kick-off appeased the Ghanaian contingent disappointed at not being in the final themselves. They were joined by Ivorians, already so full of confidence they were left bloated by the plentiful portions of chicken stew, rice and tilipia (fish).
The rivalry was good natured but as Ivory Coast captain Didier Drogba stepped up to take a penalty in the second half, it was clear that the more neutral spectatorship made up of young people from the local Somali community, refugees from various backgrounds and a cohort of students from Sheffield University was increasingly shifting their support towards Zambia.
As the final reached its raucous denouement, Ghanaians, English, Americans, Congolese and Somalis were jumping around with delight. Although the Ivorians looked downcast, like the rest of the crowd they left with the feeling of having contributed to an enjoyable evening.
On the success of the event in connecting the different individuals, Chris observed that, “people tended to stay in their own groups with whom they arrived but as the excitement built, because of how we organised the event, the match provided a form of communion that emerged from mutual emotional responses to the drama unfolding on the screen.”
This is what football can do. It can provide a form of togetherness that seems to take place at a sub-conscious level. It may be fairly ephemeral but can become more meaningful with repeated experiences.
Hopefully, this will be the first of many events that bring different supporters together to watch live televised matches. Keep checking back with the FURD website, Facebook and Twitter (@furdday) to find out about the next event.