In a season full of football, a writer pens a belated Father's Day letter to the man with whom he shared memories over the beautiful game.
This article is part of "In the name of the beautiful game", a series of articles on football and how it intersects with all aspects of our lives.
Today is Father's Day in America. Yesterday was my 41st birthday. I didn't wake up longing for the unfinished conversations we shared, in my childhood during our Saturday morning drives across Yaoundé. I remember conversations we had exploring your brand new IBM desktop in your second floor office overlooking Commercial Avenue in Bamenda, trying to make sense of bits, bytes and disk operating systems. I remember how almost a decade ago in Chicago, we stayed up until dawn talking in my brother's living room, trading living abroad battle stories; we talked about the cold greyness of your London student days against the sweltering Houston of my undergrad years. We talked Cameroonian history, Barack Obama, African youth, Francafrique, American pop culture, Albert Mukong and Mongo Beti.
This summer's football-packed so I woke up with you and the game in mind. I woke up with memories of the joyful screams that erupted in our living room in GRA-Bamenda when Ernest Lottin Ebongué scored that 84th minute goal in Cameroon's 3-1 victory against Nigeria in the 1984 African Nations Cup at the Stade Félix Houphouët-Boigny in Abidjan. I remember the penalty shoot-out loss to the Pharaohs of Egypt in 1986 that silenced the house in Nsam, Yaoundé. Honestly, it is impossible to forget the image of you moving in your seat, chin cupped in your right hand, as we watched Roger Milla run towards Colombia's Higuita, dispossess him of the ball, pass it between the keeper's legs, dash around him and kick it slowly into the opponent's net, propelling Cameroon to the quarter finals of the 1990 World Cup.
Today, you were with me as I ambled to the kitchen to break my overnight coffee fast. You stood beside me as I brushed my teeth, swallowed the day's supplements, and took my first sip of the day. I imagined you watching me as I reached for my phone to find tweets with predictions about Holland's match against Cameroon's Indomitable Lionesses in the ongoing Women's World Cup in France. I felt you watching me as I smiled to myself remembering the time you mocked my football abilities even though you had never seen me play - but somehow you saw through me. I was not a football player.
I had just woken up late in the afternoon, after a night out in the town during the long mid-year school break. My mother had travelled out of town, and you hadn't seen me in two days. I was heading for the kitchen, when we met in the TV room. You were walking out of your bedroom after your afternoon siesta. I believe you were going back to the office like you often did.
"Papa," I greeted you.
You forced a smile. "We haven't had lunch together in two days. Are you just waking up?"
"Hmmm," I mumbled.
The sharp sound of a whistle from distance landed between us. Smiling mockingly, you shook your head, and shot me a pitiful glare. "Kang, do you hear that? Your friends are getting ready to play football and here you are just getting up from bed. What is with this staying out late? Why don't you play something? Anything. "
"Papa, you know I play table tennis."
You laughed drily, "Kang, I am talking about football. Despite all the balls we've bought for you over the years, what position can you really play? Papa buy me a ball. Mammy, buy me a ball. Ball after ball. Can you even kick a ball?"
I stood listening, amused and surprised at your sudden interest in my athletic abilities. You had never spoken of yourself playing the game nor showed any particular interest in my siblings and my athletic ambitions - even though you didn't discourage them either. After all, didn't you drive through the torrents of the rainy season to pick me up from my karate classes? Speechless, I watched you grab your brown leather briefcase and leave for work. Before I could tell you how if you had asked my secondary school classmates, the objective ones would have said I was a good goalie, or at least had the potential to be a really good goalie if I practiced.
At times I want to believe that your comments that afternoon might have subconsciously prompted me a year or so later, when I returned to CPC Bali for high school, to use my "Bali old boy" card and talk my way to being named O'Neil House's goalie against Ashili House in that year's inter-house competition. Now, while O'Neil House boasted of at least three players who had school team potential, our opponents featured players who were not only starters for the school's team but were amongst the best in the position in their region of residence; players so good they highlighted in semi-professional leagues during long mid-year holidays.
Leading up to kickoff, I remember my legs shaking, cheering voices, clusters of people encircling the field, and my heart pounding against my chest. I knew deep within I wasn't the Thomas N'kono of my fantasies. I stretched and jogged around the penalty box. Soon both teams were standing in position. I did my best to control my breathing. I failed at every attempt. I twisted my neck, jumped from the same spot, and kicked big pebbles away. Next, I zoomed in on my second cousin, a dexterous midfielder warming up with the school's undisputed leading fullback. I caught the new high school student, a left winger whose reputation for speed and waist-twisting footwork had preceded the game - the opener in the series - warming up.
I do not remember hearing the kickoff whistle. But I remember our opponents having the first touch of the ball, passing it amongst themselves on their half of the field, and then lobbing it to the waiting feet of my attacking midfielder cousin who wiggled his way past two of our defending players in the central spot, inching closer and closer towards my penalty box before being swiftly tackled by a defender, resulting in a free-kick. Ashili House fans exploded with joy.
I lined up my defensive wall and waited for the referee's signal. I remember fixing my gaze on the kicker, hearing the whistle, and moments later saw what looked like a projectile heading for my face. "Goal!" The crowd erupted in cheers and jeers. My team captain, a friend who against the wishes of a handful of players had designated me starting goalie, looked deflated. Moments later, we lost possession of the ball in an all-out offensive to Ashili house who counter-attacked, leaving me facing a player nicknamed "Yeboah", the school's star striker in a one-on-one. It resulted in their second goal in under five minutes. I begged to be replaced. No one objected. I walked off the pitch thinking how I had often imagined my biggest and last game ending differently.
Following my memorable performance - ball dodging and all - I spent the next week repressing my rage from the mockery and laughter, which trailed me, as I wandered across campus. As you can only imagine, Bali College does not forgive a goalie who concedes two goals within the first five minutes of a game - especially in the manner that I did.
Well, even if I tried and honestly I wouldn't, I couldn't recall the final score of that game but I remember O'Neil House losing by a wide margin. I don't remember how they fared during the rest of the competition, but I remember them not ever performing as badly as they did with me in the goalpost. I don't remember why I didn't tell of this game, but it is not often that Father's Day falls on a football packed summer.
Happy Father's Day.