Away from Tomé

Bats swooped through the airy rooms of the clapboard plantation house I was staying in. Elemental rain hammered the lush undergrowth and large fruits thudded to the ground. I walked down the middle of the road in near total darkness to a restaurant on the coastline. The windows of rustic homes framed families gathered around candlelight. I filled up on fresh fish and returned to my colonial residence to watch Brentford against Fulham on a video call home. Brentford won a penalty. Ivan Toney had the ball. The electricity cut and I was in a deep sleep within minutes.

I woke up nine hours later and the power was still down. I was on the island of São Tomé, where modern essentials are a less secure bet than Toney’s spot kicks. São Tomé and Príncipe might be the least famous country in Africa. It is not known for wildlife nor warfare and only one air route links it to Europe. Keen for warmth and adventure, yet limited by timeframe, I searched for interesting destinations from major European airports and found affordable flights from Lisbon to São Tomé. I was quickly sold on this intriguing duo of islands in the Gulf of Guinea.

São Tomé and Príncipe is tiny, the second smallest of the 54 African nations by population and area. London has six airports that I regularly use. São Tomé Airport hosts six flights per day and has one luggage belt. The islands were uninhabited until discovered by the Portuguese in the 15th Century. Its rich volcanic soil and labour imported from the African mainland fuelled a lucrative trade in coffee and cacao. The plantations are now picturesque ruins and the islands are a languid backwater. I sat outside a bar with Luis, my affable guide, and it took 40 minutes for a Rosema beer to arrive. “They sent a snail” said Luis. Rosema, a sweet pale ale, is much loved by locals and drunk from labelless brown bottles. “Straight for the goal” said Luis with a smile on his face.

I was after a few goals in the nation’s four football divisions. Information was scant. No matches had been listed on Soccerway since July 2022 and the Santomean Football Federation’s website was last updated the previous year. The cheery receptionist at my guest house suggested that I ask about fixtures at the national radio station. I rocked up at the breezy sea-facing building with Ailton, a boy who found it entertaining to follow me. Tourists are still a novelty in a country that attracts a mere 35,000 per year, mostly from Portugal. Ailton waited at the radio station entrance as I strode in and spoke enough Spanish, the second most prevalent language after Portuguese, to be introduced to a journalist called Ricardo. He explained that all four leagues were on a break until April. I was rather downbeat. Football is hardly the only reason I travel, but I was looking forward to watching a match in such an unlikely destination. I cheered myself up by taking selfies with Ailton until the nearby fort opened.

Inside the fort an obligatory guide showed Ailton and I wooden spears, religious paraphernalia and, most interestingly, old photographs of the capital before the colonial buildings started to crumble away. My guide wore a Porto shirt and the Portuguese football influence is clear in São Tomé. Around the island, I saw numerous locals wearing Benfica shirts and several green Sporting Club de Portugal clubhouses. The largest of these once housed the country’s underground independence movement. A few days later, I visited Ilhéu das Rolas, an even smaller island off the south coast of São Tomé, where a man had painted his entire home in the blue and white stripes of Porto.

Ilhéu das Rolas is bisected by the equator. I visited the photogenic equator mark but the actual equator line runs a few hundred metres to the north, very close to a waterlogged football pitch in the island’s village. One goal, strung with discarded fishing net, faces the northern hemisphere whilst the other faces the southern hemisphere, a real footballing oddity. I crossed the deep channel that separates Ilhéu das Rolas and the main island and spotted several spear-fisherman bobbing in the swell, miles from land, without boats or buoyancy aids. Otherwise, there is little danger in São Tomé. After dark, the main hazard in the capital is tripping over sleeping dogs, and there are few wild animals to alarm. The deadly black cobra is rarely seen and Luis recalled that when a rogue crocodile washed up from the African continent, 150 miles away, locals promptly killed and ate it.

After visiting the national radio station, fort and the filthiest of markets, I completed my day in the capital by walking to the Estádio Nacional 12 de Julho. The pink-hued national stadium, named after the date when the islands gained independence in 1975, was no longer deemed fit to host international matches. It wasn’t hard to see why. The rear of the stadium was a dump, with rubbish piled high, and the road that circled the outside was fringed by rusting cars. I entered the stadium through an open side-door that revealed a wide pitch flanked by low stands. São Tomé and Príncipe, who draw mainly on players from domestic teams and the Portuguese third tier, had only lost 1-0 to Ghana in this stadium, but playing home matches on neutral territory recently led to a 10-0 defeat to Nigeria. I strolled onto the pitch and hoped that the national team would be able to do so soon.

I heard nearby whistles. The training pitch next to the national stadium was hosting kickabouts. I ventured into the dilapidated stadium and watched various Saturday league players take the field as beats from a sound system floated on the stiff breeze. Some players were entirely barefoot whilst one, strangely, wore a single shoe. Another sported a full Benfica strip, a flame of fiery red, and was easily the worst player on the pitch. Abdul, the only casual to speak any English and wearing a beautiful São Tomé and Principe national shirt, asked if I wanted a game. I was content to watch and laugh as Abdul gave the ball away in central midfield to gift his opponents a goal. This was no tick towards my ambition to watch more formal football in 100 FIFA nations. But provided the sort of ambience I craved in a verdant country with a very friendly vibe.

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