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Saturday, September 26, 1998 Published at 10:31 GMT 11:31 UK


Paradise worships Man United

Mauritius Manchester United Supporters Club in training

The BBC's Africa correspondent Jane Standley swaps the war zone of Congo for the island paradise of Mauritius and discovers an army of Manchester United fans.


Watch Jane Standley's report from Mauritius
The press pack was waiting for me in force. This being tiny Mauritius, there were thankfully only three reporters, three photographers and the mayor.

There was none of the usual journalist jostling - just lists of immaculately typed out questions.

What had I done to deserve such attention? It was not by arriving to record a feature about why people of dozens of different religions and ethnicities live together in harmony in this Indian Ocean paradise. Neither was it for covering a summit of African presidents trying to find an end to the war in Congo.

No, it was because I had expressed an interest in the Mauritian obsession with British football - and Manchester United in particular.

There are fans of Liverpool and Arsenal and Tottenham here too - local teams are named after the cream of the Premier division - but United is certainly top of the league.

And they do the pools

The newspapers know better than to forget to publish all the British results as the people of Mauritius have also inherited a fondness for doing the pools.


[ image: Swalley Bandhoo:
Swalley Bandhoo: "All the kids in Maurititus want to be like the Man United players"
The visit of the 'BBC football team' had been announced in the newspapers before we set foot on the island. And now at the training ground of Manchester United, Mauritius - Rosehill not Old Trafford - I endured the disconcerting experience of having the lens and the pen turned on me.

As the BBC team began recording the island's Manchester United youth and adult squads training, I faced the reporters' questions.

What did I think of the current United squad? And what about the proposed takeover? How often do I watch United? And - worst of all - my favourite player?

Not a football fan at the best of times, I limped gamely through midfielders and centre forwards. The photographers snapped away happily and the reporters listened attentively. I mentioned that I had once seen George Best in London. But, no, I had never met either of the Charlton brothers.

Then, the faux pas. I'm actually from near Manchester I chirped. The pens and shutters stopped . . . but my family supports Manchester City. Tongues clicked in disappointment.

Mauritian politeness

Mauritian politeness won the day though. My clear insanity at not worshipping Manchester United was only mentioned in passing in the newspapers - backed up by the other obvious example of my unstable state of mind - that I had come to Mauritius after covering the war in Congo.


[ image: This is the first season without live TV matches for Mauritius fans]
This is the first season without live TV matches for Mauritius fans
Mauritians cannot understand why people on the African mainland, their closest neighbours far across the Indian Ocean, fight so much. Their disapproval of violence, whether it is because of economic, political, religious or ethnic grievances, is one I share, having spent so much of the past few years in Africa trying to understand why there is so much conflict. Perhaps there is not enough football.

At the home of the chairman of Manchester United Mauritius, the fans gathered for some post-training refreshments and to indulge in another of their favourite pastimes - watching Manchester United videos.

The chairman, Swalley, had turned his house into a shrine. I sympathised with his wife, polishing the replica of Old Trafford. But Swalley, a Muslim whose family came to Mauritius from India more than a century ago, served snacks and drinks to his football fan friends - Hindus and Creoles - with no interest in the fact that they worship differently or speak a different first language.

No hooligans

The children who Swalley trains in the junior side also have no such concerns. Their love of football binds them together across what could be elsewhere a serious racial divide. As a club, they go on trips to nature parks, to the beach and to lectures about good citizenship.

I wondered why this did not include a ban on grafftti. Perhaps football slogans are not on the Mauritian list of social sins.


[ image: Football bank accounts: If the team wins, interest rate rises]
Football bank accounts: If the team wins, interest rate rises
But there is no fighting in the stands here, though once a few punches were thrown between rival fans. It caused outrage and, as when the slightest communal tensions emerge, religious leaders, politicians and leading citizens get together to nip them in the bud.

Perhaps this is the secret of the Mauritian miracle - antagonism is never allowed to flourish, to get to the point where there is distrust.

The Mauritian president told me that being an island was the key. We know that if we fight, we will end up in the sea.

As I ponder how these diverse people have achieved such peaceful co-existence, it is time for the team photo.

Then for a tour of the dressing rooms where photographs of this Man United's matches against the island's own Chelsea and Arsenal Wanderers in the local league are proudly displayed next to posters of the great and the good from the original Old Trafford.



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