Red mist

Madagascar is a curious fusion of Africa, Asia and French legacy. I took a battered Renault into the centre of Antananarivo, the Malagasy capital affectionately known as Tana. The short distance took over two hours as the Renault struggled with traffic and breakdowns. But the small rear windows framed throwback agricultural scenes with a mountainous backdrop. I knew I would enjoy Madagascar, if I ever managed to escape the Renault.

I later scaled the capital’s hills with Donné, a likeable local guide. One hill offered a stunning view of the revamped national stadium but my plan to watch an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier there had been crushed.  The organisers had belatedly realised that monsoon season in Ivory Coast, the next hosts, was not an opportune time for a football tournament. The summer 2023 edition had been moved to January 2024 and the qualifiers postponed.

I exchanged numbers with Donné and spent the next two weeks travelling the south. Madagascar is not a mainstream destination and some visitors had misaligned expectations due to the animated film of the same name. “It has caused a few problems” said my guide in Isalo National Park. “People expect to see lions and penguins”. Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island, shares few animals or plants with other countries. Indeed, bats are the only wild mammals found elsewhere.

Madagascar also promised to be rich with forests teeming with enigmatic lemurs. But half of the country’s forests were cleared in the late 20th century as a growing, and impoverished, population needed fuel and agriculture. Now, only protected fragments remain. Even the charismatic ring-tailed lemurs, famous from the cartoon, are endangered, with just a few thousand left in the wild.

I visited the ValBio research centre and met director Michael Docherty, a Glaswegian who had swapped the city for the forest. He lamented the constantly changing government officials who refused to make decisions, like referees without a whistle. Even gaining approval to relocate greater bamboo lemurs from a threatened forest to the relative safety of Ranomafana National Park was proving troublesome. But, here, deep in the montane rainforest, was a handmade Celtic table football, commissioned by Michael for around £120 and much loved by his ValBio staff. Madagascar is a country of craftsmen and this beautiful table, depicting an Old Firm derby, was a work of art. Even if the metal ball wasn’t quite perfectly round.

The table football was made in Ambatolampy, the ‘aluminium’ town two hours’ drive south of the capital. I passed craftsmen banging on new creations, unlikely to be Scottish grounds or Craven Cottage. My Fulham shirt failed to raise an eyebrow of recognition in the central highlands, yet Madagascar proved rich pickings for a comprehensive retrospective of worn PSG strips. The faded football shirts were imported, but virtually everything else is made from scratch. I especially loved spicy sakay sauces stored in reused water bottles and faux chameleons made out of ratan. And, even in the poorest village, there were rickety wooden football goals, hand crafted from those disappearing forests.

Away from the forest, Madagascar’s south is a knarled, otherworldly, landscape of barren plains and eroding red mountains. The country has a paved road network as small as Jamaica’s despite being over 50 times larger than the Caribbean island. The intrepid jeeps and minibuses that ply the unsealed roads stutter on the giant potholes and leave a great red dust in the air. A red mist.

When the red mist settled the most noticeable animal was not the lemur, but the zebu, a humped sub-species of cattle used to plough these harsh lands. The zebu are a symbol of royalty and Bara men, one of 18 tribes that inhabit Madagascar, traditionally must steal one to prove their eligibility for marriage. The national football team are named after a breed of zebu called Barea. Goals are celebrated by imitating the zebu’s horns, a scene replicated on a pair of underpants I bought in Morondava market for 40p.

The national team have been a recent success. Their FIFA ranking has increased from 179 in 2012 to 102 now, with an intelligent use of European-based diaspora that has also served the Cape Verde Islands, Mauritania and the Comoros well. Most surprisingly, Madagascar reached the Africa Cup of Nations quarter finals on their debut finals appearance. I had watched their opening 2-2 draw against Guinea in Alexandria, and massive photographs outside the national stadium pay homage to those 2019 stars.

I was still cursing the curtailed qualifier when a Facebook post alerted me to a possibility: my first ever club match in Africa. I messaged Donné and he secured £1.07 tickets to a Confederation Cup qualifier, the African equivalent of the Europa League, between Tana team El Geco Plus and Cameroonians PWD de Bamenda. I travelled nine hours out of my way to central Tana, met Donné and ambled downhill to the national stadium. Locals were selling koban’ny talata outside, a snack that looks like raw sliced tuna from afar, but is actually a delicious crushed peanut cake, wrapped in banana leaves to protect it from the red mist.

An incredibly lax security check allowed us into the sparkling arena, its seats coloured in the red, green and white of the national flag. The PA system boomed out a bouncy tune celebrating the Barea and, rather less predictably, Metallica’s rousing “Nothing Else Matters”. We settled in a main stand that offered a magnificent view of the hilltop rova, the Queen’s palace that was scarred by fire in 1995. Madagascar may be a country of traders, but there was nothing on sale so I was glad to have brought in some crunchy snacks. I rested an empty packet on the seat next to me. Xavier, sat behind me with his two sons, instantly pointed at me to pick it up. Madagascans were proud of their pristine stadium, with its toilets arguably the cleanest in the country.

El Geco had secured a useful 1-1 draw in Cameroon. I questioned whether away goals, extra time or penalties would decide a drawn second leg. Donné was no football expert, but a useful translator. Unfortunately, after a long exchange in the Asian-sounding Malagasy language, Xavier didn’t know the answer. The friendly crowd of some 5,000, many wearing colourful Betsileo hats, enjoyed the Madagascans deft control and slick passing more than often profligate finishing.  Fortunately, a tie-breaker wasn’t needed, as home striker Feno showed rare calm to round the Cameroonian goalkeeper and score the decisive goal. National team goalkeeper Nina, something of a superstar in this El Geco side, made several good stops to ensure that the Madagascans’ continental silverware dream continued. For now.

El Geco celebrated in front of each stand with the Icelandic handclap. We didn’t hang around. Donné accompanied me through the narrow hilly streets to my hostel. Tana, like many African capitals, has an iffy reputation after dark. Even Donné was getting the bus home rather than risk the unlit streets. But football seemed a rare light in a country where a youthful population of some 30 million live in some of the world’s poorest conditions. There may be no power, running water or crops amongst the red mist, but there is always a football made of rags. And a Barea goal celebration.

El Geco Plus lost 4-1 on aggregate to South African side Marumo Gallants in the second qualifying round of the Confederation Cup. My Barea underpants remain unworn.

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