There are days in your life where you wake up and say today will be special: first day of school, the beginning of big trips, graduation day, your wedding day, the birth of a child (the latter two are only something I imagine and have taken from hearsay but I feel pretty confident that it is true.) There are other days still where you wake up not expecting much but go to bed thinking, I was super successful today. Greater than any of these days are the days where life surprises you with something bigger and better than expected. I had one of those days…
As I woke from a daze, I began my daily routine of slowly planning out my day, certain things needed to be done before I left for the football match, others could be put off. Shower, brush teeth, charge my camera battery just in case, find extra memory cards, check Facebook, see who won the hockey game last night, don’t forget cash, breakfast. Quickly I was awake and late. As I rushed around the house excited to get downtown and see all the Ugandan fans blowing their vuvuzelas I realized I needed to hustle.
1:35 After buying a Red Bull, bottle of water and a Mars bar (breakfast of champions), my Boda driver and I race through the crowded streets of Kampala. There is a buzz in the air already and the game is still hours away. Horns, flags, are everywhere as zip through traffic. I am stuffing the last half of the mars bar in my mouth with one hand, texting with the other and clenching the bottle of water between my legs hoping there are no quick swerves or bumps in the road. As we pull up to the taxi stand I rip open the bottle of water and guzzle it back; it’s cloudy but still hot. I have no small bills, “Solomon, I will pay you tonight, I will pay you extra….”, he smiles and replies “Okay, GO CRANES”. He zips away through the gridlock of motor cycles, police officers and ‘taxis’ (Matatus in Kenya, Dallah Dallahs in Tanzania, Mini-buses in Canada).
2:00 As we board the taxi, it fills with a mix of commuters and football fans alike. Several fans are wearing jerseys and have flags ready to go, others are just trying to get home through the madness. Despite the near constant noise coming from the streets outside the taxi the two woman next to me fall asleep almost instantly. “Clearly not Cranes fans” I think to myself. As we wind down the road through the markets and past the slums, the smells of Kampala waft through the open windows as a light rain began to fall. As we got closer to the stadium the smell of popcorn (a cheap and very common snack in Uganda) mixed with burning trash, and fish from the market created an interesting and intense aroma. We finally arrived and ran up the hill.
2:30 Due to some miscommunication (my fault) we realized that we were without tickets. Quickly we located one of the many men selling tickets outside, for a slight ($1) markup for mzungus. No market for OttawaHockeyGuys here. As we go to enter the stadium grounds it is clear that there are too many people in a small area, we extract ourselves to the sides as best as possible as three military guards shove the gate closed, pushing people forward, and back almost simultaneously. As one can imagine the security at an event such as this is a mix between heavily armed military police in riot gear, mixed with civilian police, and general venue employees. As such the security was much different from the week before when I saw Liberia play. Last week, no water bottles and all bags were searched, this week a mere pat down and I was allowed to enter with my jug of now warm water. Oh well!
3:00 As we have all now made it into the grounds, we begin to look for the media accreditation office. Really we were looking for a guy who had the power to let us in somewhere where we would otherwise not get into. Using the back story that my friend Liz was working for Kampala Magazine (completely true) we were able to secure seats in the main VIP section, next to the radio announcer. He was doing amazing play-by-play on his phone throughout the game. I decided to explore, I had seen a door open to the pitch as we passed through the VIP area and figured I might be able to sneak a few shots from field level before kickoff. A very timely tip from my photographer uncle Bill, gave me the confidence to “Bring a big lens, and walk quickly,” right onto the field. At this point the stadium is filling up, the most dedicated of fans have been there for over an hour. As I look up, and around, my hands begin to shake and my body is instantly covered in goosebumps. Having played soccer as a teen, and being a somewhat (read: overly) competitive person, there is always that place in the back of your mind that dreams of walking out in front of 40,000 people. “Quick take your camera out and pretend like you belong” I said to myself.
3:50 As the teams had retreated to their dressing rooms, the anticipation grew, the feeling inside the bowl of the stadium was one of excitement, and passion. The noise was loud, but not nearly as loud as it would get. The buzz of vuvuzelas roared through the stadium as if a giant killer bee was trying to sneak up from behind you. I approached one of the other photographers who had obtained a green bib for shooting during game action. Asking him where he got it, he pointed to a gentleman sitting just in the stands. I approached him with my driver’s licence in hand, yelling as loud as I could just to be heard. He handed me a sheet of paper to write my name and handed my a bib! TO THE FIELD WE GO.
4:00 As the teams are introduced I stand with the horde of photographers trying to get “the shot”. Today the Prime Minister has come to welcome the teams and wish them good luck. With all the pomp and circumstance that comes dignitaries, national anthems and FIFA’s own protocols I found myself running from one side to the next, still in the back of my mind thinking, “is this really happening?” As the teams took their places for kick off, I quickly ran behind the Angolan goal, I was not going to miss the opportunity to get up close to a Ugandan goal celebration (my one and only goal for the day!)
4:30 The game had started well, there was action at both ends, and the refereeing had been quite good. The Angolan coach had been warned twice to stop harassing the linesman, the Angolan and Ugandan captains had been told to cool their teams down after a yellow card had been given for an ugly tackle. I had become more comfortable in my position. No one had kicked me out yet, so what were the chances it would happen? I figured it was time to take my seat for a while, and be social with the friends who had joined me for the game.
4:59 The half time whistle had gone, the teams departed the field, the crowd had quieted and I was off to find a couple of beers and use the “bathroom” (read: wall in a dark room with 1000 men trying to get as close as possible). After obtaining some cold $2 beers and returning to the my seat just in time for the second half, it was time to make a plan. We knew we wanted to be on the field at the end of the game, and knew the likelihood that 3 of us would make it down the stairs past the security guards right at the end of the game was very unlikely. Liz would go first with the photographers bib, then Jenn and I would follow the rest of our equipment 10 mins later.
5:20 Liz had just left to go to the field, the atmosphere was tense because Uganda had yet to score and the game felt like it was slipping away. Within minutes of Liz hitting the field, Angola scored a beautiful slicing goal from just outside the box. 1-nill. As the bottles flew over our heads, I realized this was certainly not a good spot to be if the final score ended in a loss for the home team.
5:30 As we go to got out of our seats to make our way to my favourite Ugandan Military Solider Guarding the stairs, Uganda scored a freak goal! The crowd erupts! The noise coming from the 40,000 people (minus 250 Angolan supporters) was so loud that you couldn’t have heard the person next to you scream. People were jumping, pushing and hugging in a fury of happiness. The day seemed to be saved. Once the crowd had settled (but not quieted in the least) and the ball was back in play, Jenn and I moved down the aisle (accidentally kicking some woman’s leg… sorry mystery woman, but you’re language and attempt at striking me was maybe a bit over the top don’t you think?) “MEDIA!” I yell… the gate opens. As we walk down the stairs into the bowl of the stadium the noise incomprehensibly
became louder. You can feel the sounds through your chest as if someone was standing in front of you with a bull horn.
5:39 We are standing in the corner of the Angolan end, one eye watching the game, one eye watching the crowd for flying water bottles. Since the goal Uganda has been controlling the play, and Angola is clearly holding on for dear life. A free kick is awarded and an Angolan player is sent off. 18.5 yards from goal, this is Uganda’s best chance to take the lead. As the ref begins to sort out the wall, and the players argue over the merits of such a call in the 37th minute of a tie game, one Ugandan player (near and dear to my heart) starts playing mind games with the Angolan keeper. Standing directly in front of him 6 yards from goal, he is yelling something (I couldn’t hear, and probably couldn’t understand). I run over with my camera to capture the moment, thinking in the back of my mind “I would never have this composure, I would have confronted the striker after about 10 secs”. This, among other performance based reasons is why I am not the keeper of the Canadian National Soccer team. The teams line up for the set piece…. the ball zips over the bar. A wasted chance.
5:41 The final whistle is near and it seems like Uganda might run out of time. They are controlling the left side of the pitch and are getting chance after chance but just can’t finish. I am now watching the crowd more than I am watching the game. The faces, the sounds, the smells are all so intense. There is a sense that nothing else in the world matters in this moment to each and every one of the people in attendance. As I turn my eyes to the field, I see the ball hit the netting. The roar from the crowd was like a wave hitting me in the back of the head. I watch as the striker streaks by me to the edge of the stadium, hands reaching to heaven. Mobbed by his teammates, his countrymen and a number of police officials the glory that is felt is indescribable. Liz runs behind him as he continues to celebrate. I think to myself, “Dave, Jay and Charles would want me to streak across the field here…. my family may not understand why I got deported.”
5:45 The final whistle goes. The crowd somehow gets louder still. Every time it felt as if it had become louder than the time before it would only become more intense, more screams, more vuvuzelas, more happiness. People are pushing forward trying to get as close to the players as possible. As I looked up at the crowd, hundreds of water and pop bottles come raining down. In any other circumstance I would expect a riot to start, but not here, not now. These were happy water bottles. After taking in the sights for what must have only been seconds, we run onto the field where several Ugandan players had fallen to the grass crying in celebration. Others hugged each other. As the Angolan keeper walked past, I shook his hand. You couldn’t help but feel sorry for the guy. The music began to blare. All the songs I have heard hundreds of times playing at 3 am from the bar next door somehow seemed less annoying. The sight of seeing the sheer joy on the players and coaches, faces made the experiences of the whole day unforgettable. We walked around to every corner of the pitch following different players as they celebrated with different sections of the arena. I had my picture taken with the game ball as the crowd roared in the background. Unbelievable. No other emotion could express how I felt during these moments.
6:15 As we jumped on the back of Boda’s we were quickly swarmed by thousands of fans leaving the stadium and just celebrating on the street. During the 25 min ride back to town we passed thousands more who had come out of their houses, and bars to celebrate on the street. Speakers were set up every half kilometre with people dancing everywhere. The sight of a muzungo driving through the crowds with a Uganda jersey on, resulted in hundreds of high fives, fist bumps and cheers.
9:00 As I sat on my balcony looking out over the empty street, the ice-cold Nile Special flowing smoothly, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. Trying to recall every intricacy of the day was impossible, but somehow it felt like I needed to commit every sound, sight and smell to memory.