Africa Cup of Nations unites locals with native countries

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Kazeem Lawal (back row) with his core staff at Island Ice, Lagos, Nigeria

By Timothy Gillis

Nigeria beat Burkina Faso, 1-0, in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations tournament in Johannesburg, South Africa, this past Sunday. Mali beat Ghana Saturday in the third-place game.

For most Americans, soccer is something they take their kids to and cheer on with the dual fears of injury and the cost of participation. But several local soccer fans with ties to their native countries in Africa feel more fully the power and passion of the world’s most popular sport.

During the three-week tournament, three fans – from Morocco, Mali, and Nigeria – spoke about the sport’s importance in their country, their move to America, and how they were able to bring their love of the game to the United States with them.

Hafid Lalaoui was born in Marrakesh, Morocco, and moved to the United States in 1980.

“I came to art school here in New York City, and majored in photography,” he said, adding that the reason he came here may end up being the same reason he leaves. Lalaoui is known around Portland as the “master plaster” for his dry wall work, but photography has always been his true love.

“You can’t make a living here with photography like you can in Europe,” he said. “I had a dark room when I was living in Casablanca, then New York City, and then Portland. Digital made life easier, saving on all the chemistry, and is faster, but still the quality of silverprint… you cannot compare. The problem with photography as an art form is that it’s expensive. It’s not like writers who need just paper and pen. Painter needs a canvas, musician needs an instrument. Photographer needs a camera, equipment, and paper for prints, frames.”

Lalaoui was discussing photography while watching Morocco play against Cape Verde Islands. He said he played soccer growing up.

“I was a striker as a kid, then I start to smoke and that’s it,” he said. “We’d play in these empty fields, in barefoot. We were used to playing with other organized teams. Soccer is a poor man’s sport. You don’t need much – a ball and that’s it, and a field.”

Lalaoui was one of seven kids growing up, “in those days the normal thing to have,” he said. He loves Portland and the city’s culture, but not all of his compatriots feel the same way.

“In Maine, ten years ago there was a bit of a Moroccan community,” he said, “but one by one they all moved to the south. They didn’t like the winters here.” He didn’t think there was much by way of Moroccan restaurants in Portland, so he counts on the market to get his couscous, tagine, and shish kebab.

In some ways, a country’s soccer reflects their culture, and Lalaoui says that’s true of Morocco, which he describes as having a very open-minded people, especially when contrasted with other Muslim countries in Africa.

Their open play on the field, however, leads to a counter-attack, and Cape Verde’s Platini scores to go up, 1-0.

The announcer says there will be repercussions for the Morocco coach and players if they lose, and as if on prompt, El Arabi scores on a precise passing play in the 78th minute to tie the game. The announcer sees it as a “winning tie” for Cape Verde, the tiniest country in the tournament, playing against the “mighty Morocco.”

“It’s better to tie than be tied,” Lalaoui says. Unfortunately for Morocco, their two other group games also end deadlocked, and it’s not enough for them to advance to the knockout stage of the tournament.

Much better luck is with Mali, as they make it to the semi-finals before losing to powerful Nigeria, 4-1. Their war-torn country has good news during the three-week tournament as well, as France helps liberate the north from al-Qaeda.

Modibo Some, who was born in Bamako, Mali, moved to the United States in 1993, with an American woman he met in his native country.

Some is the custodial supervisor at Frank I. Brown Elementary School in South Portland. An avid soccer fan, he watched Mali win the bronze medal for the second year in a row. (The Africa Cup of Nations, usually every two years, was held again this year to avoid a clash with the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.)

Some says he stays in touch with friends and family in Mali two or three times a week.

“I Skype, or phone or sometimes email,” he said. “Everybody’s proud and excited about our team. We did a great job this year again.”

In 2002, Mali hosted the African Cup of Nations. “After the tournament, the population became more diverse,” Some said. “Older people moved to Mali to make it their home, and people migrated there. That’s the power of the tournament: more interest in economic development.”

He said this year’s narrative of his home country being liberated during the tournament was a wonderful story, and that the people there are thankful for the assistance they received.

“For now, we need French help, but they want to turn it over when Mali’s strong enough to take over,” he said. “Americans don’t like soccer. They like football or baseball. But it’s a big event in Mali. Maybe compared to an Obama inauguration. When the Mali team goes home, the (Mali) president will go to meet them.”

Some said the Mali capital of Bamako has more people (4 million) than Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont combined, and that his hometown streets must have been packed for the final games.

Despite the loss in the semis, Mali secured third place and a success that accentuated its military and political victory.

Kazeem Lawal was born in San Mateo, California, but was raised in Lagos, Nigeria, from age 8 to 18. After high school in Nigeria, he returned to the United States, where he attended the New Jersey Institute of Technology, studying electrical engineering. He received his MBA from Rutgers University, and then returned to Nigeria to start an ice cube factory.

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Kazeem Lawal at Portland Trading Co.

Lawal is a passionate soccer fan, and supports Arsenal as a club, as well as his beloved Super Eagles of Nigeria.

He watched the final against Burkina Faso from the Portland Trading Co., his Middle Street shop, doing his level best to attend to customers while keeping one eye on the game. The store offers an eclectic mix of high-end fashion items and quality handmade products from New England. The store’s mantra is: “Beyond Retail” which Lawal says means “Accessibility, Community, and Love.”

Nigeria’s Sunday Mba scores a wondergoal on the stroke of halftime, first juggling over a player with his right foot and then thundering home a volley with his left.

Lawal instagrams a photo of the celebration on his iPad and prepares a quick Facebook post.

Lawal returned to Maine after the ice cube factory business wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. He said he’s glad for the setback, however, since without it, he wouldn’t be in Maine.

Fairpoint Communications called him in February of 2008 and offered him a job. He handed over operations of the ice cube factory, and flew back to America. When Fairpoint filed for bankruptcy, he was laid off. “Since I’d tasted being independent before that, it wasn’t hard thinking of me opening my own shop,” he said.

On this day, he was all smiles as the lone goal stood up to beat Burkina Faso and land Nigeria their third title.

Like the other fans before him, Lawal compares American sports to soccer.

“People think of (American) football as like a big deal,” he said. “In Africa, this is as big as it gets. I can’t even begin to explain. The players, if they win this thing – for the rest of their life, they are set.”

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