Late last year, as the conflict in Mali worsened, the photographer Stuart Roy Clarke travelled to the capital, Bamako. There he found a football culture undiminished by the slide towards civil war.


Badala is on the bend of the river in Bamako. The usual scene: people washing their clothes, washing themselves, collecting water to irrigate their crops. Along this riverbank are beauty and scruffiness, the natural and the artificial, the water-carried and the human-discarded. There, here, where I am fortunate, there are two goals, with crossbars, bound together by twine.

At 5pm every night — with no abandonment or postponement conceivable as the weather is always much the same: hot or hotter or really hot or hot with thunderclaps as God says, "That's quite enough heat," — the young men of the area filter out from alleys and workplaces on mopeds, scooters, bikes and on foot to greet each other and then argue the team selection and the toss. A man, an elder nowadays, in a turquoise cape, wags his finger and utters lavish much-loved nonsense, mostly to the smaller boys who actually try to listen to him. Another man, with a club foot, who casts himself out of team selection, bangs the ground with a spare goalpost. 

Through the haze lies the other bank of the River Niger (the third longest in Africa), a tallish building (the tallest in West Africa) and the first of several bridges that seems always laden. Iman Mohammed, my hotel's faithful gardener, will miss the game. Because of the conflict, he is having to work overtime as a security guard. He is unhappy at this, only, for he never misses a match.

The stage is set. The daily washing removed. The pitch is 50m of bumps, big humps, hollows and pools of River Niger overspill flanked on the near side by prickly bushes and a few spectators. No dogs. One team are made to go bare-chested and one player still has his vest wrapped over his head when another nutmegs him. The game is underway and it's a passing game… with some dribbling, then an uncalled for bicycle-kick, then a clutch of players jumping for… a shoe — the ball is elsewhere.

The powerful Skins team are 2-0 up in barely a blink of an eye. Arguments-cum-discussions abound. The smallest boy — as usual — is sent to retrieve the ball from a pond. He is lectured about keeping his head up. And to get on with it, by a ring of Skins eager to get a third goal. A family arrives and Papa, on learning that the team his end are 2-0 down, urges his wife and toddlers "to go look at the river." He rolls up his sleeves and starts reorganising his team.

The second smallest boy, perhaps fearing that go-get-the-ball-out-of-the-water service will soon be upon him, commits a series of fantastically badly-timed tackles sending the stars and giants of the game crashing, looking up at him. Even his own captain. Had there been a referee, he would have walked.

Another incident — a high-speed slip on donkey dung sends the player with the fanciest footwork into a murky pool. His luminous vest is not so eye-catching now. The fightback, however, is on. The scores are level. Another small boy, in goal, saves a thunderous shot in his midriff and with tears in his eyes completes a second reflex save. But not a third. Odd T-shirts abound and when the crumpled boy eventually stands up his reveals the slogan, "Tell Santa not to speak to my teacher."

A player called 'One Love' sets off on a dazzling run, sidestepping and skipping over all challenges, donkey dung, pieces of hose, plastic bottles, fishing nets and lost shoes to pass twice and score: 3-3. High fives. The toothless witchdoctor in the turquoise cape is beside himself, storming onto the pitch finger-pointing. There is so much laughter all around about everything, he won't be heard.

Now the ball is in the bushes and five players, ignoring the scratches appeared on their legs, hack it out mercilessly. One turns, arguing for a throw-in. It's taken quickly, leaving behind the four fighting the bush. It becomes an exquisite move — the throw to a foot, a chip, a passing header and a cannonball of a volley with complete follow-through.

The light is fading, mouths and eyes are smiling and, somewhere, mothers are silently willing their boys home not too far past the curfew.