Home 2013 – Airness




The country

The small West African nation of Benin lies on the Gulf of Guinea wedged between Togo and Nigeria and is considered one of the continent’s most peaceful, politically stable countries, the sort of place where elections are free and fair, ethnic tensions minimal, citizens typically boast a full compliment of limbs and villages are seldom burnt to the ground by anything other than faulty wiring or a drunkenly inattentive approach to monitoring a chip pan. Due to this lack of newsworthy strife and mischief, Benin remains relatively obscure in Western circles, a shame as there’s some fascinating stuff once you dive in. For example the country’s chief nickname – other than “Where’s that then?” – is the “Cradle of Voodoo”,  a nod to the area’s historical prominence in spreading the African folk religion (known locally as Vodun) to neighboring lands and ultimately on to the Americas via the slave trade. However before you go tracking down the nearest Beninese person to place some sinister hex on that guy who always steals your parking space, it’s worth bearing in mind that all those dark magic cliches involving pins, dolls, rooster blood etc are actually a load of old bollocks, the result of racist propaganda in 19th century America and subsequent Hollywood sensationalism. That said, the practice does advocate the worship of serpents, so feel free to pop a rattlesnake into their glove box.

European exploration/exploitation of the region was first conducted in 1472 by the Portuguese who, in a not so subtle foreshadowing of things to come, named the colony “Slave Coast” before coaxing naive locals onto their ships with the promise of a ‘free transatlantic cruise’, neglecting to mention that the trip would be one way, end in a life of servitude and that the ship’s bar only served Carling or Strongbow. The desirability of Benin’s native tribes for the slave trade stemmed from Europeans having observed their impressive physiques and military training, leading to their being labelled “Black Spartans.” One sincerely hopes then, that upon learning of their captors’ fiendish intent, some of the more rebellious prisoners might have seen fit to deposit them overboard with a well aimed kick and a cry of “This is Benin.”

In later years, with slavery now illegal, the French took over the area, imparting their language and retaining control up until independence in 1960. Since then the country had a quick stab at communism up until 1990 when the penny finally dropped that the sharing of wealth isn’t particularly viable if there’s none to begin with. Tourism is now growing in importance though, and popular attractions include Ganvie (a lake village built on stilts), various pre-colonial palaces and Temple Semassou, which features a white voodoo fertility idol replete with erect penis* that visiting women were encouraged to straddle in order to ensure fertility, making for a unique holiday experience and a really weird photo album.

*Apparently the penis has since been broken off by a randy female tourist who took it as a souvenir. I refuse to speculate as to how she managed to sneak it out.

Benin are one of African football’s middling nations, hardly minnows but never really threatening to qualify for the World Cup finals either, while the national team’s three appearances at the African Cup of Nations in 2004, 2008 and 2010 have all resulted in a group stage exit with not a win to their name. In a strange and unfortunate coincidence, Benin have found themselves thrown into a group alongside powerful neighbours Nigeria at each of their AFCON appearances. Predictably they were beaten each time, although they did restrict the Super Eagles to a 1-0 margin of victory last time out so at least things are heading in the right direction, or at least they would be if the Benin Football Federation hadn’t managed to get themselves suspended from FIFA in 2016. The twits.

Not that Benin need outside interference to look silly, as evidenced by the team’s bizarre nickname. Whereas other African nations like Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Nigeria have chosen to channel fierce or imposing animals such as lions, elephants and eagles, Benin’s finest have dubbed themselves “Les Ecureuils” or “The Squirrels”, essentially drawing on the questionable fighting qualities of a timid, tree-dwelling rat with a feather duster strapped to its arse, so unless there’s a national team out there calling themselves “The Acorns” this is intimidating precisely nobody.

The shirt

Airness are a strange bunch. Not content with stealing Puma’s logo and tweaking it just enough to avoid a lawsuit, the devious French scamps have also made the national shirts they produce (typically African ones) exceedingly difficult to obtain, so I guess I should be grateful to have any of their designs in my collection. Thankfully this one’s a cracker, garish, loud and featuring plenty of detail including a pair of Squirrels on the badge designed to strike laughter into the hearts of opponents.

One more thing; Airness shirts always seem uncommonly tight to me.      The label on this one states it’s a large, but I dare not so much as scoff a kit kat whilst wearing it for fear that even the slightest expansion of my torso will shred the material in the manner of the Incredible Hulk commuting to work and hearing the words ‘replacement bus service’ over the railway station tannoy.