African Nations who’s who

Filippo Ricci tells his story of mistaken identity and the search for an elusive sticker

I have always had a love-hate relationship with picture cards. Despite many attempts, I never managed to finish a single football collection. I’ve always felt a bit ashamed of myself because of that.

Towards the end of 1994, a friend of mine who worked at Panini headquarters in Modena called. “They’d like to do a collection on African football, and I’ve mentioned your name. Do you feel up to it?” It had to come out in time for the subsequent Cup of Nations, scheduled for the beginning of 1996 in South Africa. There were 316 cards: the 16 competing teams, the three biggest teams that had failed to qualify, nine all-time greats and photos of the four cities and four stadiums that were to host the tournament.

So, 316 cards: no one to swap them with, only a few places where I could buy the photographs – it seemed like mission impossible. Another problem was that the collection had to be assembled while the qualifying rounds were still under way, and results so far were suggesting that teams such as Liberia, Burkina Faso and Mozambique would qualify. Good for them, but nations like these were going to complicate my task a lot.

I came back from a trip to South Africa with two thirds of the album done, plus contacts and ideas about how to find the missing third. Panini wanted all the photos ready by the middle of August but, by the start of that month, 52 were still missing. Then an envelope came in from Senegal with the photos of Liberia who, certain to qualify for their first African Cup of Nations, had played and lost 3-0 in Dakar on July 30. I celebrated its arrival like the return of the prodigal son.

The celebrations didn’t last for long: the photos were there but the Senegalese photographer knew none of George Weah’s mates, so it was up to me to match the names with the faces. It wasn’t a matter of three or four doubts. Apart from the man himself, Weah, and his cousin James Debbah, I couldn’t recognise any of the team.

At Milanello, AC Milan’s training camp, I had an appointment with the only man in Italy, maybe in the whole world, who could put a name to the transparencies of his Liberia team-mates. After a training session and a massage, Weah and I sat down on the steps that led up into the dressing room. King George didn’t turn a hair. He was unflappable, keen to help and amused by the job of matching names and faces. We shook hands and promised to meet in South Africa, then I took the train to Rome. The meeting had given me a new lease of life. Now I’d solved the Liberian problem, there were only four cards to go.

Panini found they had three missing Zaire players in their archives, though they had to retouch the jerseys (the trio played in Europe and had already appeared in albums for the French or Belgian championships). All I was lacking now was a player from Mozambique. Anyone would do. I asked Antonio Pereira, a colleague on the Portuguese sports daily A Bola, for help. He reckoned that the photo had left Maputo days, if not weeks, earlier.

One day, on my desk at the Student Tourist Centre in Rome where I worked part-time in the press office, I found a white envelope from Maputo waiting for me among the mail. The album was complete. I opened the envelope frantically and pulled out a vertical black-and-white photograph that looked as though it had come from a 1950s laboratory, a portrait worthy of the Malian Malick Sidibe, one of the best-known African photographers. The face of Matias Bebé appeared to be made of wax, an ancient face, a face I’ve never forgotten. Bebé was a run-of-the-mill defender who wasn’t even called up for the Cup of Nations, but that hardly mattered. It was the last card.

A few months later, I’m at the Holiday Inn on the seafront in Durban, South Africa, staying in the same hotel as Liberia. The players get together in the hall. At the centre of a huge sofa sits Weah, King George, the rest on either side of him apart from the youngest who remain standing to the rear. It’s like a group portrait of a patriarchal society. I approach with the album in my hand.

George says hello and hurriedly asks what’s happened to the work he did for me. “Here it is,” I reply and hand him the Panini collection. With great ceremony he goes to the Liberia pages, grumbling because his “Lone Star” team doesn’t open the section – and to hell with alphabetical order. He looks for his photo and finds it. The others do the same. Some complain because they aren’t there, even though they’ve been picked. I try to explain but then a soft little voice manages to make itself heard. “That’s not me!” Panic and confusion all round. George turns to me with a questioning, vaguely accusatory look. “That’s not me!” Another voice repeats the same words. Then a third says he’s in the album but over someone else’s name. Everyone’s baffled.

George stares at me like a prosecutor stares at the most dastardly criminal. “What have you done?” he asks me.

“Who put the names to the photos?” I reply, defensively but firmly.

He mulls it over. What a great actor: he pauses, they all look at him, and he eventually says: “Me!”

They all burst out laughing and start joshing and slapping the boss on the back. George defends himself as best he can. One guy’s too young, he says, another looks like someone else, another still had only played in one game… and then there was the quality of the photos, very poor, dim light, bad exposure – you name it. The next day Liberia make their debut in the Cup and beat Gabon 2-1. I snatch the opportunity to put the right names to the right faces in my first finished album.

From WSC 256 June 2008