Andrew Esiebo, Marina, 2018, ink-jet print, 39 × 59".

Andrew Esiebo, Marina, 2018, ink-jet print, 39 × 59".

Andrew Esiebo

Rele Gallery

In Accra, Ghana; Lagos, Nigeria; or Dakar, Senegal; beneath bridges under construction, on market streets choked with carts, merchants, and customers, in open palace courtyards, at dusk, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, glory is a round leather ball kicked successfully into a net—even if the ball is a makeshift version formed of crumpled paper or tin cans bound together by tape. Little children, teenagers, or young adults are usually the players. They are following the tradition of a sport beloved across the continent. They toss the ball in the air, move it nimbly among themselves, on concrete or sand, in thick vegetation, or on planks and other surfaces that otherwise don’t lend themselves to good soccer.

In his cleverly titled exhibition “Goal Diggers,” Nigerian photojournalist Andrew Esiebo moved the sport to an even unlikelier surface: the gallery wall. In color photographs set in contrasting frames of burnished brown wood, Esiebo captures these scenes and tests the limits of what’s known as “the beautiful game.” Who really gets to enjoy soccer, and where and how? In Esiebo’s images, kids play between open shop stalls holding items that could break when met with the force of a kicked ball, or on a beach where wayward waves constantly threaten to take away the ball and perhaps even the players.

Esiebo’s work indirectly comments on the problems of urban planning in his chosen cities, where the construction of yet another government office building might be favored over the addition of recreational facilities. And if such facilities were to be built, they may be inaccessible, guarded, under lock and key. Who, then, has access to this beautiful game, a game so often said to be democratic, open to all across political or racial divides?

Esiebo’s exhibition coincided with the start of the fifa World Cup—this year held in Russia—and the whole world was supposed to see itself represented there. Games were played in stadiums that cost more than $300 million to build, though rumors say the true figure may be much higher. Most of the players who attract global attention trained in elite European soccer academies. In the tournament, Europe was guaranteed thirteen slots. Africa, with a similar number of countries, was allotted only five. The prevailing argument was that Europe has more competent teams and should therefore have more representation. But how many African countries—impoverished by their own leadership, as well as by historical colonial exploitation by European powers—have $300 million to spend on a stadium or funds to support academies? Although there have been exceptions to the rule—low-income neighborhoods and impossible circumstances have produced stars such as the Nigerian defender Taribo West, who helped his country win gold at the 1996 Summer Olympics—the academies of wealthier countries are always going to be more likely to produce star players such as David de Gea or Cristiano Ronaldo.

Shot between 2006 and 2018 as an exploratory project, Esiebo’s images capture moments that are usually fleeting, such as the celebration of a goal, or a badly timed tackle and the resulting injury. Esiebo apparently does not require stillness in order to attain clarity. In spite of the makeshift conditions in which his subjects play, there is an unmissable, infectious joy in his images. In one of the more striking of them, Marina, 2018, more than thirty young men play soccer beneath a railway bridge under construction in Lagos. Immense concrete pillars tower over everyone and everything; the players, happy and animated, are dwarfed, apparently irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. The truth could not be any clearer.