It’s stoppage time of this World Cup quarter-final match. Argentina the Dutch have been slugging it out for the past ninety minutes, but with the match all square at 1-1, extra time beckons. Jack van Gelder is commentating this match for De Nederlanse Omroep Stichting; two minutes earlier, he had confessed his sudden feeling that the Dutch were going to win.
Frank de Boer strides forward with the ball. His progress with the ball seems harmless, so the Argentines do not press him; suddenly, he spots movement in front of him, and launches a raking 60-yard pass forward.
Dennis Bergkamp is the target of the pass: he controls the ball with his right foot, bringing it to a halt; with his next touches, he swipes the ball behind him and away from the Argentine defender; then, with a swivel of his right foot, he volleys the ball into the net, the Dutch into the semifinals, and van Gelder into one of the most iconic pieces of football commentary of all time.
As the ball left de Boer’s left foot, van Gelder informed us that the ball was aimed for Dennis Bergkamp; as Bergkamp brought it down, van Gelder informed us that it was Dennis Bergkamp with the ball; as Bergkamp spun Ayala and brushed him off, van Gelder forgot everything but “Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp!”
As Bergkamp scored and ran off in celebration, van Gelder screamed. Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! There is no need for verbs, nor for sentences to be articulated in full. Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp!
Van Gelder is Dutch, and has been commentating in Dutch all along, but it’s clear to an English-speaker what he is saying. Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Aooooooooooh! Frank de Boer Dutch-word Dutch-word Dutch-word Dennis Bergkamp! Dennis Bergkamp! Dutch-word Dutch-word Dutch-word and van Gelder sounds like he is crying Dutch-word Dutch-word Dennis Bergkamp!
At no point does the player who has scored become Dennis, or Bergkamp; throughout van Gelder’s rant, he remains DennisBergkamp!
Van Gelder does not wish us to forget who has scored the goal.
It is Dennis Bergkamp.
My other favorite piece of football commentary also transcends language, though I know exactly what the commentator is saying.
In stoppage time of this Champions semi-final second leg match, Chelsea are knocking out the best team in the world on away goals, Barcelona, who do not deserve to be knocked out by anyone; they throw the sink at Chelsea, all rushing forward for one final hurrah.
But the attack breaks down and a Chelsea defender punts the ball forward. Fernando Torres—the Chelsea striker who had come into the game as a substitute—finds himself alone in the Barcelona half. The commentators on Sky Sports come alive.
As Torres strides forward, one declares calmly that this could be the most dramatic story of the season. But his mate, Gary Neville, has no time for such trivialities as words. As Torres skips past the despairing lunge of the Barcelona keeper, Victor Valdes, Neville experiences sexual delight on air.
Ooooooooooooooooooooooooh, he goes, for seven seconds, ooooooooooooooooooooooooh. His raspy orgasm starts at its highest point, then the ooooooooooooooooooooooooh gets softer as he experiences the coming together of happiness. Ooooooooooooooooooooooooh Torres has scored and words cannot convey this emotion I am feeling right now. Ooooooooooooooooooooooooh Chelsea are one man down and their best defender got injured. Ooooooooooooooooooooooooh Messi hit the post and Cech saved and Chelsea survived the Catalan onslaught. Ooooooooooooooooooooooooh.
Neville later blamed a sore throat, tweeting a photo of some Strepsils, but this moment remains, his orgasm on air, “a Meg Ryan tribute” and “when Gary met Sally.”
It communicated the gravity of what had happened better than words ever could.
Why does one need commentary? It’s never in-depth analysis, like at the end of a match or a race, providing insights you couldn’t get while watching the action. But when watching the game, you don’t need a disembodied voice to tell you what’s happening. Yet I’m unable to watch sports, tennis, football, rugby, or basketball without commentary.
When Bergkamp shrugs off Ayala and scores the goal that sends the Dutch into the semi-finals of the 1998 World Cup, he created a moment. Dutch fans will remember that moment for ages to come, for the brilliance and virtuosity of the goal. But I am not Dutch; for me, the important moment is van Gelder’s chant. Two moments were created: one with the goal and one with the commentary. Commentary is not merely an accompaniment to the action, it’s an event in and of itself, a moment all its own. To watch without the commentary is to lose that whole world.
Because commentary occupies its own world, away from the screen, different kinds of commentary have different informal rules. Football commentators often veer off on tangents, talk about previous matches, talk about the histories of the team playing, individual players, or their own things in the studio (what one had for dinner perhaps?). Tennis commentary is more technical, about the technicalities of play: the speed of the ball, the speed of the first serve vis-à-vis the second serve, the type of spin on a ball, the amount of, say, topspin on the ball. American basketball commentary is stats-heavy: a commentator would be expected, say, to mention what percentage of shooting The Greek Freak is averaging from the three-point line, or how many rebounds per game LeBron James averaged when playing one-on-one with his mother as a three-year-old.
The rules also shift with a shift in language.The Kenyan sports historian Roy Gachuhi has observed how deftly Swahili commentators play with language. Nutmegging an opponent is “alikatwa Equator,” for instance (“he was cut at the Equator” in English). There are nonsense words like kinyang’anyiro and kidumbwedumbwe, which mean in practice “big match” even if they are not traditional Swahili words; they were probably invented and popularized by Leonard Mambo Mbotela, a legendary Kenyan commentator. Stoppage time is “kipindi cha lala salama” which literally means “the period for sleeping safely.” It might also mean “the time when one says goodnight,” since “lala salama” is often used to mean goodnight. When a player scores a goal, “amecheka na nyavu” which means “they have laughed with the net” (since Swahili has no gendered pronouns). And when a team is going for broke, “throwing the sink” at the opponents or launching a “Hail Mary pass” is “wameanza mambo ya bei ya jioni,” which means “they have started things at the evening price”: an allusion to how traders lower the prices of their goods in the evenings so that they don’t go home with unsold stock.
Listening to Swahili radio commentary can be an extreme sport, requiring an intimate knowledge of what different forms of “goal” mean. Shouting “Goal!” does not mean a player has laughed with the net; it means only that the action is just outside the box, and, indeed, can mean that the defending team has gained possession of the ball. A slightly-elongated “Goooaaal!” implies that the attacking team has attempted a shot, but the ball was blocked by a defender at source or the shot’s trajectory was closer to the corner flag than to the goalmouth; it could mean that the ball has sailed upwards in a reenactment of the artificial moon the Chinese aim to put into the sky.
“Goooooaaaaaal!” means that while the shot has not gone in, it has gone close; it could have been stopped by the goalkeeper, summoning his or her inner Simone Biles, or by a kamikaze defender throwing their body in the flight path of the incoming flying object, or by the ball, in a show of Joycean writing, hitting one post then the other, bouncing up to the crossbar, coming down, and rolling on the line, ultimately coming to a halt without doing what it was meant to do (again, rather Joycean).
Then there is a lengthy “Goooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaal!” followed by throaty instances of the scorer’s name being screamed out and one of the commentators rolling on the floor, their shirts thrown off—the experienced listener can distinguish the sounds of clothing being discarded. Screaming a player’s name over and over again usually means they have scored a goal. An exception: if the attacking player is a player of a certain reputation, the way to produce this result may simply be to “walk into the area with the ball, get breathed on hard, and then immediately collapse, like a man shot by a sniper, arms and legs splayed out, while you twist in agony and beg for morphine, and your teammates smite their foreheads at the tragic waste of a young life.”
The veteran Swahili commentary attendee learns to recognize all these different nuances.
Swahili football commentators are not, however, the best Swahili commentators in the country.
That honour goes to DJ Afro, a man who produces commentary for film. Swahili-language football commentators—the Ali Salim Mangas and Diblo wa Kaberias and Fred Arochos—are condemned to bow to a man who does not talk about football.
What DJ Afro does is difficult to explain. Or rather, it is deceptively easy to say that he “commentates films.” It’s the rationale behind why he does this is more complicated.
His primary focus is Hindi action films, and he starts by naming the people acting in the movies, a mostly pointless exercise since the names flash across the screen as the movie starts. Maybe this pointlessness helps us understand the point: ostensibly—since the films are in Hindi—DJ Afro’s commentary bridges the language barrier for his Swahili-speaking audience, a translator of sorts. However, this is not what is happening.
One of the films on his Youtube channel opens with an aerial shot of what looks like a market, and then we zoom in to a car coming to a stop in the market. Kikosi cha magaidi, DJ Afro informs us, is these people are. A unit of gangsters. We see a group of men step out of the vehicle. Kikosi cha magaidi kilikuwa kinatafuta mercenaries. When watching it, we must assume that what DJ Afro is telling us is correct, that these group of magaidi was searching for mercenaries. The leader of the men steps up to a man and says to him, “Toni?”
Or that’s what it sounds like. The men are looking for someone called Tony, DJ Afro explains, kimeambiwa hapa kuna mtu kwa jina “Tony,” sasa kimekuja kumtafuta. According to DJ Afro, the man tells them not to ask him about Tony again, not unless they want him to die (Tony? Tony? Unataka nikufe wewe? Usiwainiuliza story kuhusu Tony). Tony is a good man who should not be seen with hoodlums like them. As we cut to a shot of a man whose face is hidden receiving money from a group of men, DJ Afro declares that Tony ni mtu ambaye hata anaweza kuchoma pesa, that Tony is a person who can even burn money.
The leader of the group of magaidi asks other villagers about Tony. One of the respondents declares, “Ah, ati Tony? Tony ni jamaa mpole, hananga ubaya na mtu, ni mtu mzuri.” (Tony is a sweet boy, he can’t harm anybody). Suddenly we see a pile of money tossed to the ground and set ablaze. Tony ni mtu ambaye aliweza kuchoma million moja ju hajalipwa elfu ishirini, DJ Afro declares. Tony is a person who burnt a million shilling because he hadn’t been paid twenty thousand dollars.
The thoughts in my mind as I watched and listened were: What? Tony is a sweet boy who can’t harm anybody but a group of gangsters is searching for him. And what is this about him burning a million because of a debt of twenty thousand?
DJ Afro’s great trick is that he is bullshitting you. I would wager that DJ Afro doesn’t speak Hindi, that he is making things up as he goes along. I would wager, also, that Tony did not burn a million dollars because he hadn’t been paid twenty thousand dollars, and that Tony is not the good man DJ Afro makes him out to be.
I would also wager there is no Tony. One of the characters said “Toni?” or a Hindi word that sounds like it, and out of this, DJ Afro concocted his story. In Kenyan parlance, anatubeba ufala, he is carrying us foolishness. But this is the attraction of DJ Afro: his stories are so foolish that they become brilliant, and carry us away. We watch DJ Afro’s movies because we are aware anatubeba ufala, but we are enjoying the ride. We like the bullshit.
Another scene in the movie takes place in an airport. A man called Rakesh has just touched down, and a woman who is in love with him—though DJ Afro has his doubts about the sincerity of her love—has gone to receive him at the airport. When the woman sees Rakesh, her eyes light up; the two of them walk towards each other, Rakesh’s arms flung open for a hug. But a second man, who is in love with this woman and a rival for her affections, has gone to the airport too, and this second man swoops in, and hugs Rakesh instead.
“Ah, karibu karibu, rafiki yetu,” he declares in DJ Afro’s voice. Welcome, welcome, our friend. The second man bestows a garland around Rakesh’s neck. When Rakesh withdraws violently from the embrace, the rival reassures him. “No. Sisi ni marafiki na Tamaniabatia na rafiki ya rafiki yako ni rafiki yako.” Ah, DJ Afro’s logic: the friend of your friend is your friend. Everything makes sense so far, kind of; the man and Tamaniabatia are friends and have come to welcome Rakesh home. But he continues. “Lakini kulingana na utafiti wangu, nimekuja kugundua…”
Here, DJ Afro goes full DJ Afro. The man has been conducting research and has learned that Rakesh and the woman can’t live together: Tamaniabatia needs someone who loves her, not him. Tamaniabatia looks up in shock. We haumpendi, wewe haumpendi Tamaniabatia; the man argues Rakesh’s lack of love for Tamaniabatia: You don’t love her even a little, and that’s the truth. Rakesh says that he loves her; the other man rejects it. If it were so, he is saying, it would be seen: “Kama ungekuwa unampenda Tamaniabatia basi ingekuwa inaonekana.” Plus, Tamaniabatia’s refusal to speak proves that Rakesh doesn’t love her.
Rakesh throws the flowers to the floor. He asks her, Tamaniabatia, “Mbona hauongei?” Why aren’t you talking? “Wacha ukishinda ukisumbua huyu dem,” the rival declares. Stop disturbing this girl. The two men move away to talk in private (“Ngoja tudeal na huyu mtu,” Rasesh tells Tamaniabatia / Let us deal with this person). Rakesh asks if this means that he, Rakesh, is not supposed to marry her, “Yaani mimi sifai kumwuoa?” “Ndio,” the man agrees. Rakesh asks, “Then are you the one who is good for her?” His rival is wily. He smiles; he isn’t (“Jamaa akasema hapana, hata mimi si mzuri.”). Since neither of them is good enough for Tamaniabatia, they should join forces and search for a third man who is good enough for her. But Rakesh is a busy man; he can’t go searching for a man for her. So the rival will do it. Tamaniabatia looks up in shock.
The fundamental rule of commentary is that it doesn’t accompany the action on screen. It’s a distinct activity of its own. With DJ Afro, there are two films: the film on screen, as intended by the filmmaker, and the second film is DJ Afro’s version, the one where anatubeba ufala, the one with people called Tony burning a million shillings because they are owed twenty thousand.
In DJ Afro’s world, true love is when you love someone so much that you are not good enough for them and you search for someone else for them. But this can’t be what was happening in the movie, can it? No sane screenwriter would set up this situation as the ideal romance, would they?
DJ Afro’s version of the absurd can be more absurdist than Swahili football commentators; they might mislead you about the action on the pitch/court/track, but with DJ Afro, the might disappears and becomes a will. His film is so far from the film as intended by the filmmaker that you must choose what version one is going to watch; having chosen DJ Afro’s, you must accept that you are not going to watch the original film at all.The situations DJ Afro makes up are so absurd that whatever movie he touches becomes—rather than a thriller or an action flick or whatever genre the creator had in mind—a comedy.
DJ Afro creates a new film. He makes you wonder if fluency is necessary to understand what is happening, or if what you really need is an imagination. After all, does any non-Dutch-speaking person know what Jack van Gelder was saying when Dennis Bergkamp scored that goal? Does it matter?