|Out of Africa ... and kickin' it in Seattle
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist
SEATTLE -- It was 12:30 at night, the surrounding sidewalks were deserted and four long, sleepless hours remained before Senegal's World Cup match with Turkey. Yet there already were fans from six nations sitting inside Afrikando restaurant, watching South Korea beat Spain and waiting for what they hoped would be a historic match for Africa.
"You ask them where they're from," Afrikando's owner, Jacques Sarr, said.
"Ask the next one," Sarr directed.
"And the next one."
"And the next one."
"And the next one."
Well, that person couldn't tell me personally. He was asleep on the couch. But Sarr informed me he was from Senegal, from where he had just flown, accounting for his jet lag.
"We're the African Football Federation," a fan on the crowded couch said.
"I could have watched this at home, but I came here to live it," Ndiol Kayre said. "I wanted to feel the camaraderie. We're all here with the same ideal. It's not just for Senegal, it will be for the whole African people."
I'm not much of a soccer fan. I find the game numbingly slow, particularly at 4:30 in the morning. Last Friday might have been the shortest night of the year, but it certainly didn't seem that way while watching 214 minutes of soccer before seeing a goal scored.
But what I enjoy about the World Cup is watching how seriously other countries take it, how incredibly important it is to them. The World Cup is the only sporting event that makes American fans look absolutely restrained. After Korea's Ahn Jung-hwan scored the deciding goal that knocked Italy out of the tournament, his Italian club team kicked him off the team, calling him a traitor to Italian soccer. We've got spirit, yes we do ... A South Korean fan set himself on fire, vowing to return as an invisible 12th man to lead his country to the World Cup title. We've got spirit, how about you?
Say what you will about soccer, setting yourself on fire for your team certainly puts wearing a Steelers replica jersey into proper perspective.
So after Senegal advanced to the quarterfinals, I knew there could be no better place to watch it than at Afrikando in Seattle's Belltown restaurant district, where Sarr has been holding crowded late-night gatherings throughout the tournament.
Sarr wore a Senegal team jacket while preparing a feast of lamb and chicken. It was the first platter of the night/morning. He would bring out two more platters when Senegal's match started at 4:30 and more than 50 people interrupted their sleep cycle to crowd into his restaurant.
By that point, there would be at least nine African nations represented. There were probably more, but I couldn't talk to everyone.
"It means a lot," said Omollo Gaya, a native of Kenya. "Having lived in the United States for a while, I've adopted some American manners. The first day I came here (to watch the games), I had to wake up and realize I was part of Africa again. I had to adjust. This is a little bit of Africa here."
Americans' knowledge of geography is infamously woeful, as verified by a news item that ran on CNN while we waited for the Senegal game. According to the report, an alarming percentage of American students couldn't place the North Pole, South Pole and Equator on a world map.
If they couldn't identify the North Pole, they had no shot whatsoever with Senegal, a former French colony of about 10 million on the west coast of Africa.
Or at least they didn't before the World Cup began. Then Senegal, making its first ever appearance in the tournament, knocked off defending champion France in the first game.
"Playing them was like a father playing with his son and then the son winning," Kayre said. "They take our best players, and they go play for them in France. But it's like we're learning a lesson from them."
After beating France, Senegal advanced to the round of 16, then beat Sweden to reach the quarterfinals, becoming the second African nation to do so. Another victory and Senegal would advance to the semifinals, the first team from Africa to reach that far. And suddenly, Kayre said, he no longer had to explain to quite as many people where he came from. "Now people recognize Senegal is a country," he said.
If people noticed Senegal here, the impact was much more dramatic in Senegal.
"People are living happy because of soccer. A sport has brought joy to an entire country," Kayre said. "There is nothing more important you can do than that. Only sport can do it. It unifies everyone.
"And not just Senegal, but all of Africa. It's like a cry of unity heard all over the continent. When Senegal scores, it's like I can hear a cry of joy from Africa."
There were no such cries of joy against Turkey. When Senegal appeared to score in the first half, the fans briefly leaped up and hugged one another, but their shouts turned abruptly to grumbles when the goal was disallowed because the player was offsides. Senegal never really seriously threatened again and most of the remaining minutes were spent squirming as Turkey mounted attack after attack. The game was tied 0-0 after regulation, and Turkey finally won on a golden goal in the 94th minute. The World Cup was over for Senegal.
The fans quietly watched the replay, then shared a few hugs and handshakes, and walked from Afrikando into the bright morning sun. They were men and women from different countries, living thousands of miles from their native lands. They were returning to their jobs and homes and separate lives. But for three glorious weeks they had been united as surely as the black and white shapes on a soccer ball.
Those 12 black pentagons and 20 white hexagons are connected by a repeating pattern called tessellation that supposedly only works on spheres. Fortunately, the sphere's size doesn't matter. It can be as large as the earth itself and everything still connects perfectly.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.