THE CONTINENTAL GAME
By Al Mattei
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When Sam Owopetu comes to the United States as the African liaison to the JFK Memorial Hockey Tournament, he notices the homogeneous nature of field hockey in America.
"It seems to be a female-dominated game," Owopetu said. "Four of my boys (from his team, Union Bank of Lagos) are now playing for Atlanta. Many of the black players in this country are from Africa or India.''
Having played for the Nigerian men's national team a scant eight years after first playing the game in school, he has a personal view of the state of African field hockey.
"The game is played mostly in the English-speaking countries," Owopetu says. "In the North, you have Egypt, which has a very good team. In the East African zone, you have Kenya," Owopetu said. "And in West Africa, you have Ghana and Nigeria. Everything is zonal."
Several seperate cultures have developed in Africa when it comes to field hockey. In the north, it is almost exclusively played by males of Arab extraction. In the center of the country, it is played by both men and women. In the south, especially in formerly white-minority countries like Zimbabwe and South Africa, women are especially powerful in the game.
With this type of diversity, it makes for an interesting African Nations championship, which is held every year. Owing to climate changes over such a huge continent, it is held at a different time each year.
In these championships, the club players put aside their domestic rivalries and come together for their national teams. Unlike the United States, there is a well-defined European-style club system in most African countries.
"Particularly in Nigeria, we play a league with categories and an in-season knockout championship," Owopetu said. "For example, Union Bank (in Lagos, the Nigerian capital) had four teams. And now, they are seperate from each other: Constant H, Stallions, Reunion Bank, and Fortumarina."
Why African field hockey does not have a bigger presence on the world stage, is an open question. The continent has only one automatic berth in the World Cup, and must fight with non-winners of continental championships in order to gain any more representation.
"Because not many nations in Africa play hockey, we have only one slot," Owopetu said. "It's usually only the African Nations champion that goes."
Further, there is not much artificial turf in Africa. Turf, which costs anywhere between $200,000 and $1 million an acre, is scarce in a continent which has among the poorest people in the world. The hockey is instead played on grass, among other surfaces. In the hottest areas in Africa, the game is also played on huge brushed dirt surfaces which resemble clay tennis courts, known as a "laterite" pitch.
However, the powers in African field hockey have realized recently that the easiest route for growth in the game is to include women in the growth pattern. African women have mostly played field hockey in the former British colonies such as South Africa and Zimbabwe. However, there are very small changes in the Muslim areas of the continent when it comes to letting girls and women play sports.
"They don't allow ladies to expose parts of their body, except for the nose and eyes," Owopetu said. "In Nigeria, in the Muslim North, they do come out and play. Once women get to the universities, they become more liberal. But in the Muslim countries -- Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia -- they don't play."
He even has hopes for the growth of the game among persons of color in the United States.
"I think it's catching on, because Jamaicans are playing," Owopetu said. "And also in the Bahamas."
Owopetu was in Washington with four teams in the 1998 JFK Memorial tournament, and their presence was not lost on the spectators, especially neighboring high school teams. One group, from Woodbridge, Va., immediately took to the style of play exhibited by the Constant H. men's team. They cheered, "Go, Nigeria!" when Constant H. got a good scoring chance.
Owopetu greeted the Woodbridge players after the game with a hearty chuckle, furthering his role as ambassador of the game from a place which has a lot to teach the United States about the game of field hockey.