Street Warriors

Last Saturday night a large crowd gathered at the Demerara Park, which is actually a parking lot during the day for the Banks DIH head office, located across the street. Cars were littered all over the East Bank Public Road and the nearby streets, leading passers-by to suspect that it was either a Christmas party for a large company, or there was an international artiste performing at the nearby Thirst Park.

Nothing so relaxing was happening. This event was much more important to the several thousand attendees than such frivolous activities. After all, this was the final of the Georgetown zone of the ‘Guinness Greatest of the Streets,’ arguably the most competitive street football tournament in Guyana.

Take a drive any afternoon during the week through the streets of the lower income areas skirting the edges of central Georgetown and you are guaranteed to see a game of street football in progress. Depending on the neighourhood (‘hood’), they might move the minuscule contraptions serving as the goals, but more often than not, there is an obvious reluctance to do so, expressed by both facial and vocal displays, and drivers are expected to navigate in the tight confines around the goals, as penance for disturbing the afternoon’s training session.

Street football is the pulse of the ‘hood.’ It’s joy, it’s laughter, it’s sadness, it’s passion, it’s everything. Anyone selected to wear the colours of the ‘hood’ and represent its people, knows that it is the ultimate achievement. Street footballers are proud of who they are and where they are from, and they consider the challenges in these tournaments as serious business. These Street Warriors take great pride in their ‘hood.’  Pride is at stake here. This is all about pride.

The ninth edition of the Guinness tournament kicked off in mid-November. Sixteen teams were seeded through to the group stage; the other eighty entrants battled for the other highly prized sixteen remaining spots. Teams have adopted all manner of sobriquets, including Fruit Stand, Gaza Squad, Back Circle, Judgement Yard, Piccadilly Street (shortest street in the city), Perfect U, The Island, and Sophia Bullies. Missing from this year’s starters were the Camp Street All-Stars who have been transferred to the East Coast Zone, courtesy of their new location, Lusignan Pasture.

There are special rules for street football tournaments. Teams comprise seven players, four on the field of play and three rolling substitutes. The playing area is flexible in size and is adapted to the space available, but averages 40 metres in length by about 20 metres in width. The area is enclosed with four foot high boarded walls, allowing for the ball to remain in play continuously along the two sides. Games consist of two ten-minute halves, and teams are allowed two fouls per half, after which penalty kicks are awarded. The kicks are taken from the half line and are aimed at an unprotected goal, approximately three feet square. The failure rate at this seemingly easy task is extremely high. Goals scored in the last three minutes of play, ‘Guinness Time,’ count as two and are notorious for breaking teams’ hearts and saving the day for the fortunate scorers.

The qualifying rounds took place at several venues across the city, including the Burnham Court (a basketball court) opposite the Promenade Gardens, California Square (East Ruimveldt Community Centre), the National Cultural Centre tarmac (parking lot) and the factory yard, site of a former chowmein factory in Albouystown, or as the residents prefer, ‘All-Man-Town.’ The playing surface is always asphalt, not grass, not mud, not sand. This is hardened tarmac, this is where the men get separated from the boys. This is street football.

A few minutes before 1 am on Sunday, following a few exhibition games and the playoff for third place, the two finalists are summoned to the arena. The well behaved crowd, for the most part ‒ there was only one skirmish ‒ are buzzing with anticipation. The mini-sized buckets, labelled with the sponsor’s name and filled with its brew and ice, littered the venue, as natural smoke filled the air, lulling everyone into a relaxed mood. The DJ had been filling the down time with the strains of reggae, old ‘dub’, ‘culture’ and dancehall music, as the tension slowly mounted.

Demerara Park is nestled in an idyllic setting. Looking towards the east one sees the rotunda, the ‘brain’ of the Banks DIH corporate headquarters and its famous bottling and manufacturing buildings, to the north lies the decaying future, the soon to be empty Demerara Sugar terminals. A good corner kick away lies the Demerara River, the omnipresent reminder of our natural blessings, and Meadow Bank Village, with its busy docks and ships, never sleeping, provides the southern border.

Gold is Money had never won the Guinness tournament, suffering a tough loss in the 2011 final; they are the underdogs and amble in first. Their opponents, Sparta Boss are the kings of the street. This is their fifth Guinness final and they possess an envious unbeaten record. This is their third consecutive capital city zone final, and the trophy cupboard also holds two national championships. No doubt, Sparta are the masters of this game.

The two finalists, Gold and Sparta, represent West Ruimveldt Front Road and North East La Penitence, respectively, neighbourhoods which are just a good stone’s throw apart.  The Gold team is comprised of three related families, the Pedros, the Oies and the Wagners. The Sparta players are like the famous Brazilians and red Abba. The moment has arrived, no quarter is going to be asked or conceded here. No love is going to be lost either.

The final begins at a furious pace, and Sparta immediately shows their mastery. The passes are fast, flat, crisp and direct. The ball moves quickly around; the Gold players appear to be out of their depth for the first ten minutes, as Sparta controls the tempo and the cadence of the contest. Sparta can do everything but put the ball into the tiny goal. Gold slowly begin to find their rhythm, and the battle ‒ this was a battle ‒ ensued. The twenty minute first half produced “scores of nil-nil” according to the public address announcer.

The second half began cautiously, as the two sides adjusted to each other’s style. Suddenly the tempo exploded and the pace was furious, and then the game was concentrated in the Sparta half, as Gold upped the tempo further after ten minutes. With their supporters banging on the side boards, the crowd had come alive. In the 36th minute, the Sparta defence cracked and Gold notched the vital goal. Their supporters from the ‘hood’ went crazy, screaming, shouting, jumping. Debris was thrown onto the tarmac, and the game had to stop for the cleanup operation.

Play resumed and Sparta, like true champions rose to the occasion, and unleashed assault after assault. Gold was good for it and weathered the relentless storm of the Sparta attacks. The referee’s whistle sounded: Gold is Money were the new champions, and winners of $500,000 in prize money.

The Sparta players are stunned, but graciously acknowledged their conquerors. They have nothing to be ashamed off, they played like worthy champions and will be back. Gold was the money on the night, rising to the moment to snatch the crown from the defending champions.

The appreciative crowd quietly dispersed, having enjoyed an evening of very skilful football, free of charge, since there is no price of admission for street football.

As one wanders away from the arena, one is haunted by the words uttered by the President of the Guyana Football Federation (GFF) earlier on Saturday afternoon after the Extraordinary Congress had passed the 2106 Financial Statements, “We presented the 2018 schedule for competitions which shows the consolidation of football activities that will bring as you would notice in our most recent press release greater regulation of every aspect of football, including street football in particular.”

“…street football, in particular,” the words resonated in one’s mind. Why doesn’t the GFF leave well alone? Why do they want to regulate every aspect of football? Just who do they think they are anyway? They can’t even manage the elite league which is $30 million in the red after two seasons, and now they want to control street football. And they are going “to levy three per cent against the total prize monies or the total gate income, whichever is higher of the two,” according to the GFF president, sounding like the GRA, and probably contemplating the generous prize money meted out by the sponsors.

Since there is no gate, then they intend to dip directly into the pockets of these players from the low income areas.  The GFF has now cast its greedy eyes on the poor man’s game. Are they jealous of the high quality of play of street football which is better than their regulated game? The suits should be ashamed of themselves.

These Street Warriors, they play for the ‘hood,’ they play with pride and dignity. What makes the GFF think they want to be regulated and play for the suits?

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