Wrestling and Football in Dakar, Senegal

18 January, 2015 by Mark Hann

Wrestling and Football in Dakar, Senegal

Two tribes?

In Senegal, as across the rest of Africa, association football enjoys immense popularity. Young men wear Real Madrid or Barcelona jerseys as they go about their daily business, impromptu games can be witnessed on every street corner, and it is said that the only time to avoid Dakar’s grinding traffic jams is during an important Champions League match. However, whereas football’s position as the dominant sporting pastime is virtually unchallenged throughout most of the continent, in Senegal it jostles for pole position with lamb ji or Senegalese wrestling, a cultural and commercial phenomenon which has grown exponentially in recent decades. Wrestling events sell out huge stadia, the so-called VIP wrestlers are bigger stars than their footballing equivalents, and thousands of young boys dream of a lucrative career in the ring. Indeed, it is often said that wrestling has overtaken football in popularity and status – and while such statements are hard to verify, they reveal much about the way in which these two sports often occupy the same imaginary space. University professors, upon learning that I intend to do fieldwork on football academies, will instantly and without prompting urge me to visit the wrestling écuries in order to gain a deeper understanding of sport in the country. Young men at the gym will laugh and say “but I’m a footballer, not a wrestler” in response to teasing remarks about a supposed lack of definition in a particular muscle group. Even male fashion may be divided along the lines of these sporting tribes: ‘footballers’ will dress simply in jeans and a t-shirt, whereas men wearing tight, muscle-revealing clothes, designer baseball caps, animal prints and gold chains might be identified as ‘wrestlers’ (mbeur). Any attempt to identify distinct and opposing categories based on sporting affiliation, however, is undermined by the reality that most young men are in fact deeply passionate about both sports. In the following, I will recount a few observations and anecdotes from my embryonic fieldwork among practitioners and fans of football and wrestling. By doing so, I aim to interrogate the complex, dialectical relationship between the two sports, the cultural meanings and beliefs bestowed upon and attributed to them, and their capacity to reflect and engender wider social relations in the region.

On the beach

Approaching Cambérène beach at 6:30 am, the initial impression is one of calm and tranquility – a welcome relief from the usual hustle of the Senegalese capital and its surrounding areas. As I catch a first glimpse of the ocean, it appears that this vast stretch of sand is totally empty; the only people in sight are the brave fishermen whose brightly coloured pirogues crash through the waves on the horizon. Upon reaching the top of the dune, however, a different picture emerges. Down on the beach below, as far as the eye can see, are hundreds of young men engaged in a variety of physical exercises. I have come here for some light jogging before the heat gets too unbearable, but it is also the perfect place to observe aspiring footballers and wrestlers going through their daily exercises. While I will plod my way painstakingly through the deep sand for half an hour or so, a large proportion of these boys and young men will stay here for several hours, dilligently going through their routines. Many will depart to work or study, only to return to the beach in the evening to continue their training. Others will stay for the whole day, shuffling backwards up the dune, doing squats or push ups, or simply running back and forth by the water. Here, wrestling and football inhabit the same physical space – but it is usually not difficult to tell the practitioners of the sports apart. Whilst wrestlers come in many shapes and sizes, they unsurprisingly tend to be noticeably more muscled than football players, especially from the late teens onwards (younger wrestlers are often fairly slim). The footballers, while more lithe and agile, are nonetheless impressively built compared to most amateur footballers I’ve played with in Europe. As well as the bodies, the exercises are also different: footballers will usually perform simple aerobic routines prior to ball training, whereas wrestlers will go through more targeted exercises aimed at increasing balance and stability as well as building specific muscle groups. The beach is a shared space, in which athletes of both sports and of all levels prepare themselves individually. The atmosphere is one of silence, concentration and discipline; even the unusual presence of a toubab (white person) is barely registered. Unlike almost every other public space I have experienced in Senegal, there is very little interaction, conversation or laughter here. There is an almost religious solemnity to the whole scene – quite literally, since the athletes will occasionally interrupt their workout for prayer.

Wrestling and Football in Dakar, Senegal

I have described a typical scene at the beach in the morning, and much the same can be observed in the evening as the wrestlers and footballers continue to trace their circles in the sand until long after sunset. During the day, however, and especially during weekends, the beach becomes a lively, social space. It is here that I take my first steps as a wrestler, and it is also here that I am first able to test my football skills against the local competition. On one of my first weekends in Dakar, I go to the touristy beach Ngor with a group of around eight boys and two girls. While they lie on the sand or paddle in the shallow water, I swim from the shore to the nearby island Ngor and back. Since none of the others can swim, this physical feat brings me a degree of respect which may or may not offset my comparative weakness in most other departments. One of my companions is an aspiring professional wrestler, who has been wrestling competitively for two years. Another is a semi-professional football players, a squad member of a first division team. I ask some of the boys to show me a few moves, and they duly oblige. It is here that the immense technical complexity of Senegalese wrestling first becomes clear to me, as even the most basic holds are beyond me at this stage. (This should come as no surprise, as lamb ji in its current guise has incorporated a range of techniques from numerous global sports, notably judo, boxing and Greco-Roman wrestling. Later, when I speak to one of Senegalese wrestling’s biggest stars, Garga Mbossé, he tells me that his wrestling apprenticeship included extensive study of each of those disciplines). I content myself with watching the others engage in good-natured yet serious bouts, with the professional wrestler D. usually – but not always – coming out on top, despite being smaller in size than some of the others. Each combat ends with laughter and banter – and a protest of mitigating circumstances by the defeated party. The excuses vary from ripped shorts to slipping on a rock, but by far the most convincing is T.’s laughing assertion that “je suis pas un lutteur, moi; je suis footballeur!” (I am not a wrestler, I’m a footballer).

Academies and écuries

When discussing the respective position of football and wrestling in Senegalese society, I often hear statements to the effect that wrestling is the sport of the popular classes, whereas football occupies a loftier position among the educated elite. My own observations show that such statements are highly generalized, and indicate more about the perception and identity of those within the sports than about any socioeconomic realities. However, the contrast in the organization and presentation of the two sports does lend some credence to the popular opposition of the traditional sport arising from the villages and suburbs versus the global, international sport handed down from the colonial authorities. For a start, all television coverage of football is in French, whereas for wrestling it is mostly in Wolof. I am told that this is because most wrestlers don’t speak French (a key indicator of class background and education), as well as reflecting the self-consciously national character of the sport. Although I have met several wrestlers who speak excellent French (and even English), as well as footballers who do not, the respective organizational structure found within the two sports appears to lie at the heart of this perceived difference. Football is increasingly organized through academies geared towards preparing young players for a career abroad. While professional ambitions are at the forefront of these projects, there is a strong and rigorously enforced focus on education. Based on the awareness that the majority of candidates will not achieve their goal of a career overseas, players are required to attend school or a professional training course in order to participate. This model was introduced to Senegal by Diambars, which operates as a hybrid between a youth academy, professional club and registered charity. Diambars is considered a shining example of football development in the region, and more and more academies are adopting similar methods – to the point where successful migration as a football player is increasingly rare (though not unheard of) without formal qualifications. The academy at which I have conducted much of my research so far is a good example of how this works in practice. Thanks to a partnership with an academy in the United States, a number of its players are able to travel there to train and study. Selection is based primarily on footballing talent – but the ability to make the transition to the US education system is a prerequisite.

Wrestling and Football in Dakar, Senegal

Wrestling, meanwhile, does not have an equivalent structure – indeed, it does not even have a centralized federation. Instead, the sport is organized through the efforts of individual promoters and sponsors. Training and development subsequently takes place in comparatively informal écuries or stables, which are often established under the aegis of an existing champion. The écurie thus provides a space for prominent wrestlers to prepare for fights, while young hopefuls can train and learn alongside them. The écurie will usually consist of a couple of fitness rooms arranged around a sandy courtyard, and training will often be attended by members of the local community. The wrestlers will work on strength and technique with their coaches, and small boys will practice their moves and mimic their heroes right next to them. Membership and participation is based solely on dedication, merit and social relations; in the absence of a regulating body, no formal registration is required. Once you are good enough to participate in sponsored matches, you are effectively a professional wrestler. This, according to my interlocutors, gives rise to the possibility of a rags-to-riches trajectory in which raw strength and ability alone can quickly lead to fame and success in the arena. Dropping out of school to focus on wrestling is no rarity, I’m told – and this type of pathway goes some way to explaining why wrestling is often seen as a volatile space, threatening to explode at any minute. The sport’s immense surge in popularity coupled with the lack of formal structures has essentially created an army of physically strong young men skilled at fighting, yet lacking employment prospects – a powder keg in the eyes of local politics.

Complicating the narrative

Together with my friends C. (a former football player who harboured ambitions of playing in Europe), A. (aspiring professional wrestler) and B. (amateur wrestler), I attend a football match at Dakar’s Leopold Senghor Stadium. The match itself is a relatively uneventful 0-0 draw; it is what happens afterwards that sticks in my memory. Driving home in C.’s car, we are accosted by two drunk men who hit the wing mirror, threaten to break the vehicle, and apparently insult our mothers. Needless to say, they have chosen the wrong car to pick on: my companions immediately disembark and hand out a fairly emphatic physical punishment to the inebriated men. The two young wrestlers lead the attack; C. is older and wiser, and doesn’t get involved until a large rock is thrown at B.’s head by the would-be agressors, narrowly missing. I am worried at the level of violence, and relieved when the others get back in the car to continue our journey back out to the suburbs. There are only minor injuries on our side, and spirits are high. I am told that the two younger men ‘needed’ the thrill of the street fight, as it had been a long time since they had been involved in such a brawl. Indeed, their eagerness to start a fight at the slightest provocation was noticeable, and it wasn’t even the first time that evening that they had been on the verge of a physical scuffle. I wonder if, as wrestlers, their regular training sessions didn’t provide enough of an adrenaline rush. The response is predictable: the contact training is highly controlled, with most punches and all kicks forbidden. The no-holds-barred street fight, I am told, allows them to fulfill the basic masculine need of unregulated violence. On the surface, this explanation appears to support the frequently evoked narrative of wrestling as an explosive world of bored, angry young men with poor role models, few employment prospects and a propensity for mindless violence. Under closer examination, however, it becomes more complex: the incident took place after a football match, one of the protagonists was a footballer, and the two wrestlers involved are polite, well-adjusted young men who have since asked me to give them English lessons. Add to this the fact that I have witnessed similar brawls both on and off the field at football matches, and it becomes evident that these popular narratives must be subjected to further scrutiny.

When I reveal that my research project includes a comparison of football and wrestling, my interlocutors – be they athletes, coaches, academics or simply fans – are generally quick to sketch out a general picture of what separates the two sports. The story runs roughly as follows: wrestling is (as mentioned above) the chaotic sport of unruly suburban youth, its practitioners are poorly educated, violent and superstitious. At the same time, it is a rich repository of national heritage, a noble ancestral tradition which fills Senegalese of all socio-economic backgrounds with pride. Meanwhile, I am told, football is a modern, thoroughly professionalized field which, while much loved, remains simply a sport. Football academies are said to favour the elites, with the opportunity to take part in trials abroad more readily offered to those who can grease the necessary palms, or who have the right connections. In comparison to the rebellious wrestlers, footballers are said to be disciplined, focused and well-educated. In certain ways, the expectations are met: the football players at the academy are ordered to shave their heads and wear the prescribed kit, whereas many wrestlers have fashionable, ostentatious hairstyles and wear whatever they want to training; the footballers are punctual and may train early in the morning, whereas wrestlers start up to an hour later than planned; the football training is strict and regimented, leading my friend to comment that it reminds him of the army, whereas the wrestlers train at their own pace in the absence of any formal coach; the footballers have all attained a certain degree of schooling and speak good French, whereas many wrestlers cannot even answer simple questions in the language; the wrestlers wear religious and mystical paraphernalia while training, whereas the footballers are ordered not to observe the fast of Ramadan for health reasons. These and many other markers serve to support the idea that these two sports are fundamentally opposing, and offer two wholly diverging trajectories to young men seeking to earn a living through their physical performance. It is convenient to think of them as opposites: football as modern, outwardly oriented, secular, elite, urban; wrestling as traditional, inward-facing, religious, lower class, suburban/rural. However, I would suggest that this division is only a reality in the popular discourse and imagination around the two sports. I am told that wrestlers lack education and language skills – yet the amateur wrestler who tells me this does so in flawless English, as he is studying for a PhD. The young footballer who informs me that football is the sport of the elite lives in humble surroundings in one of the most distant and poorest suburbs. Wrestling is the opium of the masses, used by politicians to control and curry favour with the impoverished suburban population – I am told by a university professor, who then admits that he himself is a passionate fan who attends all the major fights at the Demba Diop stadium. Although these and other similarly contradictory statements are presented as being exceptions to the rule, it gradually becomes clear that the exceptions are the rule. The neat separation between the two sports works only in theory; the reality suggests that the two largely coexist in a shared social and physical space.

While at this early stage in my fieldwork I am hesitant to draw any grand conclusions, these initial observations have at least opened up a new avenue of questioning. Rather than simply asking how and why these two sports may offer contrasting aspirations and career trajectories to young men, I would extend the enquiry to ask why the discourse surrounding the sports is so intent on presenting them as total opposites, when the reality is far more blurred. What does the construction of narratives around football and wrestling tell us about broader social phenomena, such as attitudes towards migration and employment? How do the myths which emerge around the two sports reflect the contemporary meaning of categories such as ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’, ‘local’ and ‘global’? And finally, how do the stories surrounding wrestling and football evoke ideas about what it means to be a man – a successful, desirable man – in this part of the world? I would like to emphasize that I have so far only dipped my toe into the complex worlds of football and wrestling in Senegal, and I am gradually becoming aware that each of the sports alone could provide enough material for several dissertations. There is much that I have neglected to discuss – for instance, the mystical and religious practices within each sport could take up entire volumes. It should also be added that the evidence presented here draws largely on fieldwork at one specific football academy, and one specific wrestling ècurie, and I am aware that these locations may not necessarily be representative of the sports at large. However, I hope that the anecdotal material provided at least hints at the way in which a comparative focus on the major sports within a specific society may be a fruitful line of enquiry, rather than simply focusing on one particular sport as a closed system.

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