Football writer, Musa Okwonga takes us on a journey through his connection with football, his love for Manchester United and capturing the beauty and simplicity of the world game through poetry.
James: I'm James Parkinson. From 3nil, this is By Association, a show about football and the connection we all share with the beautiful game.
Football is an emotional game and we all express those feelings in different ways. But sometimes it’s difficult to actually explain those emotions.
On today's show we want to do something a little bit different. We’re going to meet someone who has his own way of showing his passion for football. You may have heard of him or read some of his work - he’s written a couple of books - but he also writes poetry.
Musa: My name is Musa Okwonga. I’m a poet and football writer, and I suppose football poet and journalist. Sometimes I write poetry about current affairs, politics. But I suppose football’s my first love so my favourite pieces are probably about that.
James: When did it all start for you? When did your love for football begin?
Musa: I think the love really started playing at school. So, we had these football’s - they’re actually more like handballs. Very, very bouncy and very difficult to control. And we played with these footballs on tarmac. So you know, really inhospitable surfaces at school and we’d play for an hour before school, half an hour at lunch during the break and then an hour afterwards. So you’re playing up to three hours of football a day, basically. And that’s where the fanaticism started and it’s been the same ever since.
And in terms of the professional game, you know whenever it was televised, the FA Cup games. The first World Cup I was not allowed to watch, it was 1986, because you know, it was after my bedtime when the games were on. But World Cup ‘90 I suppose was when my real love of the professional game took off. Until then I’d suppose I’d supported United but I’d not been caught up in the day to day fervour of professional football. But the World Cup ‘90 sort of sealed it for me because it was such a sort of romantic adventure, England going all the way to the Semis and narrowly missing out in sort of tragic fashion.
James: Is there one defining moment that sums up your love of the game?
Musa: Yes, actually there is. So, first year at University, when United came back to win the Champions League final against Bayern. And I was watching the game I think with about thirty friends, all crammed into one room, one student room at Uni. And when United equalised - grabbed everyone, massive bearhug and everyone went crazy. And then, no sooner had United scored the equalising goal, as you probably remember, they scored again to win the game. And at that point I jumped out of the first floor window and ran around the yard at Uni and just went wild. I don’t think I was actually in the room for the final whistle but yeah, that the defining moment.
Musa: What makes United so special I think is that, you know there have been many great teams in world football, also world sport. But of all the teams in world sport, I think United are consistently the ones who won very, very late in the game. Like the smart kid who doesn’t really work that hard at school who always manages to kind of pull it out of the bag with a bit of last minute revision.
You know, and they win by their fingernails and the lesson from watching United is a lesson from life. It’s like actually, keep going, keep persevering because in the end you will have glory. And that sounds a bit crazy, I know, but I guess that’s where my love of United comes from. They just never ever gave up.
James: So, what inspired you to start writing about football?
Musa: The inspiration for me was that it’s always been in our family. So my Grandfather actually coached the Ugandan National Team for a few years, back in Uganda in the 60’s and 70’s. So, football was always something that was in our family. And for me, you know I’ve always been a keen writer, a keen journalist but there was always this sense to kind of - not try and, not settle football discussions but frame them, because everyone always talks about footballing greatness and this player and that player is great.
What if someone came up with a book to discuss what greatness was? Because we talk about greatness all the time but there’s never actually a kind of distillation of that. So I thought I’d make an attempt, so a couple of books about that. One was about great players, great managers. So that was my starting point I think.
James: And so how did the poetry come into it? Are there similarities for you, between writing and poetry?
Musa: Well, I’ve been writing poetry, I think as long as I can remember writing anything. So I think I’ve been writing poetry since I was about ten or eleven years old and there came a point where I thought to myself, “you know what actually, why don’t I just bring together two of my passions?” I love writing poetry, it’s always been a hobby of mine, a pastime of mine. And there seemed something quite attractive about trying to frame moments of football always as well as you can frame them with photographs. So trying to frame them with words and that’s where it all started.
When you write poetry about football you’re trying to use turns of phrase and certain images and all the best football writers are able to capture moments of the game in prose. So actually they’re not that dissimilar. But the challenge of writing poetry about football, as opposed to prose is actually, you know football is….how do I say this? People don’t like poetry in football, a lot of them don’t like it. They think that it’s, that they’re suspicious of it. It’s middle class, it’s trying to subvert a working class culture in the game, which actually you know, poetry is as actually as working class as it gets in many respects. So the challenge actually with poetry about football is there’s much less margin for error.
I suppose what lends itself so well is the brevity. So you know, football ultimately is about moments. The way that someone sets himself before taking a corner or a penalty. Or the look on a supporters face as the ball narrowly goes wide. Or let’s say the guys shaking hands before kickoff, everyone does this high five. There’s a moment of community where you’ve got these players who are going out to play in front of tens of millions of people, sometimes billions of people.
And before the kickoff they’ll give each other this sort of high five. And you realise that actually it’s a bit of a brotherhood. Because despite being fierce opponents for the next 90 minutes, they are united in this spectacle and they’re providing a show for us and there’s a lot of pressure in that. It’s the acknowledgement of that pressure, it's the, you know this is something that very few people in the world will ever be able to do to a high level.
It is those moments, they make you wax poetic, you know, quite literally in my case. You know, a lot of people, their response is to ooh and ahh and my response is to actually, I’m going to get my pen out and see what I can create to do justice to that.
James: So is poetry something that comes easy to you?
Musa: No, no, it never comes easy. Poetry never comes easily. If I look at a lot of the best work I’ve done, the work that’s been received the best, I’ve been the least sure of it’s quality. When you’re working so hard to produce something that’s really good you kind of lose yourself in it and almost that’s the sign you’re getting it right. The further you lose yourself in it, it’s almost a sign that actually you’re on the right track but it never really comes easy, I have to say.
James: What do you want people to take away from reading or listening to your poetry?
Musa: I think that all artists primarily want to express themselves but then again they also want to connect. And I think if I want anyone to take something away, is for them to think “yes, that thing I was feeling but I couldn’t fully express myself, he captured it with his words, with his poetry”. That would be the best accolade anyone can give you.
James: I have to admit, I’ve never been a big reader of poetry. But when you read Musa’s work it honestly does speak to those elements of the beautiful game that we all love and really puts those emotions into words.
And now, two poems written and performed by Musa Okwonga. The first, a character portrait of Paul Scholes.
Musa: One of my favourite things in poetry is capturing individuals. I think it’s probably my favourite poem about Manchester United. It’s called ‘Paul Scholes a Tribute’ and it goes like this...
In his first few years at United, he wasn’t seen as the danger.
It was just Beckham, Keane, Giggs and some ginger.
Sometimes he seemed to bring his shyness to the field of play, waiting politely for everyone to enter the box before he did.
After you, after you. Letting his other teammates approach, then sending ahead the ball.
And last of all, silently slipping in at the far post.
Head down, always down. In an aggressive burst, like a fervent worshipper arriving late for church.
I don’t know how he managed to stay so long out of the media’s sight. Perhaps because his shots travelled faster than the speed of hype.
Perhaps it was his playing style, elegant and minimal. Often seeing two-touch as too much.
Whatever his ploy, it was several seasons till I heard his voice. Since those quietly great have others to speak for their legend. People like Zidane, who considered him an equal.
He was a man of erratic passion, followed by fiery confetti throughout his career, conjuring plumes of red and yellow from top-most pockets.
But those sins are forgiven, for all the rhythm he brought to endless games, over which on YouTube we can cast our endless gaze.
Paul Scholes. Twenty-four medals all told.
He came. He saw. He scored goals.
James: We’re fortunate to be living in a period where we get to witness one of the greatest footballers of all time, if not the greatest. But how do you articulate the incredible talents of Lionel Messi?
Musa: It’s so hard to write about Messi because so much has been said about him and Messi’s goals defy description. It’s so difficult to say anything about Messi that hasn’t already been said or gasped or screamed. And I suddenly thought that actually, the defining quality of Leo Messi is that he is so brilliant that his brilliance becomes almost monotonous.
And that to me was something that hadn’t been written about him or which I hadn’t seen so much and I thought I would try to capture that. So this poem is called ‘Just Another’, and it goes like this…
Just another for Leo Messi.
I guess that for Messi each goal is just another.
They come to him as sun does to summer.
Just another low drive with the right or left. Or the odd lob or deft touch with head or chest.
Just another night making his rival number drift past like a ship with a busted rudder.
Just another soul left in his slipstream by his lightspeed shift up from nought to sixty.
Just another free kick from thirty yards that will swerve like the letters of his autograph.
Or another free kick, sneak beneath the wall. Or a hand ball that gives our praise the briefest pause.
Just another hat trick scored. Just another home crowd's ecstatic roar. Just another dribble that will dazzle all.
Watch this juggernaut clutch another Ballon d’Or.
James: By Association is produced by me, James Parkinson. I’m @JamesRParkinson on Twitter.
Many thanks to Musa Okwonga. You can find his excellent books, A Cultured Left Foot and Will You Manage? on Amazon.
Music featured in this episode comes from Chris Zabriskie, Kai Engel and Josh Woodward under Creative Commons.
Support for By Association comes from our world class listeners. If you enjoy the show and you’d like to help us out, visit our website, byassociation.audio/support.
And check out our parent site, 3nilfc.com, where we always love the game.