Thinking Outside the Penalty Box poetry challenge

We are delighted to present the Thinking Outside the Penalty Box anthology, including the winning poems in this challenge. Though the challenge is now closed, read the poems and the challenge to get inspired to write your own poems inspired by extraordinary African lives in football.

Lizzy Attree and poet Nick Makoha have been working with Chelsea and Arsenal Football Clubs’ education teams on a poetry project about African footballers. Now they’re looking for poems by YOU, inspired by extraordinary African lives in football, for an anthology in partnership with The Poetry Society!

Image of seats in a football stadium

Thinking Outside the Penalty Box aims to:

  • tackle racism, sexism and stereotypes of ‘Africa’ in the UK;
  • break down mythologies around footballers;
  • link poetry with African footballers as a way of exploring feelings behind the stereotypes

One way in which the project has been doing this has been to look more deeply at the lives of African footballers. Footballers are often seen as greedy and selfish, but many of them have worked extraordinarily hard and sacrificed a great deal to reach the top of the Premiership. Many footballers are also philanthropists or entrepreneurs.

For example, alongside playing for Chelsea, Eniola Aluko has a first-class honours degree in law. A qualified Sports and Entertainment lawyer, Aluko one day aims to establish her own legal practice. Her dream to become a lawyer stems from Harper Lee’s classic novel: “When I was younger I was obsessed with the book To Kill a Mockingbird and the central character Atticus Finch; I loved law films and I was very interested in politics. My dad was a politician back in Nigeria. I just took that interest on to university and when I qualified with a first-class degree, I knew that I could practise it for real.” Watch a day in the life of Eniola here.

You might also want to think about these footballers’ families. Arsenal player Alex Song was born in Douala, Cameroon and lost his father at the age of three. His uncle Rigobert Song acted like a second father, and was a major influence in choosing football as a career. Song references his uncle when talking about becoming an ambassador for Grassroot Soccer, an international non-profit organisation working through football to stop the spread of HIV: “Grassroot Soccer empowers role models throughout Africa to teach young people the skills they need in life. My uncle, Rigobert Song, was a very important role model for me growing up, and I understand the importance of young people having someone in their lives they can look up to and trust.”

Another story that might inspire you is Patrick Veira’s return to Senegal for the first time since he was 8 years old.  As he got older, Veira wanted to “discover my roots, the country of my heart” and to find out more about his father, whom he hadn’t seen since he was a child. When he returned to Senegal, he made a point of visiting the house in Rue Dara where he was born, meeting family and friends who looked after him when he was young. He also made a pilgrimage to the grim Île Gorée – the last staging post for slaves who were being shipped to the Caribbean and the United States of America. It was the point of embarkation for some three million Africans who would never see their homes again.

Read more about African footballers who have played for Chelsea and for Arsenal here:

Eniola Aluka. Photo credit: carefreelee62 / flickr

Football and poetry

You might want to think more widely about the links between football and poetry. The so-called ‘beautiful game’ is a mine of metaphors:

  • Vladimir Nabokov was obsessed by goal-keeping in Russia: ‘Aloof, solitary, impassive, the crack goalie is followed in the streets by entranced small boys … [they are] the lone eagle, the man [sic] of mystery, the last defender.’ Beautiful.
  • Philosopher and playwright Albert Camus (perhaps worryingly?) said, ‘All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football.’
  • Most grandly of all, Sir Walter Scott wrote that ‘Life is itself but a game at football.’

Could you include a metaphor relating to the game of football in your response poem? How do the sport of football, the pitch, the audience relate to life and poetry?

Read Sugar J, Roger Robinson and Nick Makoha’s poems

Alongside Nick Makoha, two other poets of African heritage have created poems inspired by the theme of ‘extraordinary African lives in football’. Sugar J looks closely at Kolo Touré’s answer to a seemingly flippant question in an interview: ‘what would you do if you were invisible for a day?’ His poem goes on to ask bigger questions about humanity, and mentions 20th century New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Sugar J looks particularly at Basquiat’s Self Portrait (Plaid), which you can see here. Read Sugar J’s poem, inspired by the theme of ‘extraordinary African lives in football’:

Give Invisible by Sugar J

Kolo Touré is asked what he’d do if he were invisible for a day,
he says “I’d rob a bank and give the money to poorer people.”

There is so much we don’t understand about a man,
we see everything and nothing at the same time
like a page of writing written in a language we don’t read.

Jean-Michel Basquiat paints Self Portrait (Plaid) in 1983.
He colours himself featureless in all black,
cream slit eyes floating on the faceless.

from the outline you know it’s him
you can tell,
maybe it’s the hair.

There is so much I don’t understand about a life,
I see everything and nothing at the same time
like a page of writing written in a language I don’t read.

When Basquiat paints himself a shadow
is he saying we’re all the same
is he trying (and failing) to give invisible?

Doesn’t he know that a faceless saviour can’t bring salvation?

Don’t they know this?

Doesn’t Touré know the question was a baseless dream?

Sugar J uses the life and work of a footballer and an artist to ask questions about all people, and how we connect to one another. Could you link an African footballer’s life to someone in another walk of life? What interesting contrasts and bigger questions might this bring up?

Kolo Touré. Photo credit: Ronnie Macdonald / flickr

Meanwhile, in Roger Robinson’s poem ‘Balotelli’, the speaker imagines the experiences and feelings of the footballer, using lots of images taken from Balotelli’s life, from ‘jollof rice’ to ‘the thud of your shot’. All these images come together to create a portrait of the footballer, and the poem culminates in a challenge to the Balotelli’s (and Robinson’s) audience.

Balotelli by Roger Robinson

In between the lilt of your name and your skin like onyx. 
In between the matt curl of an afro and your flaming mohawk,
between jollof rice and pani pizza.
Between the dam of your tears
and the wet chest of your shirt.

In between why always me and leave me alone
between the complicated and particular, 
speaking up and being spoken of;
in between talent and challenge
between cheering crowds and lonely clicks of flashing lights.

That liminal space, that difficult uncomfortable space
between the thud of your shot
and the frictive hiss of a spinning ball climbing the net;
and you running, shouting to your fans
I’ve slayed your demons, now what about mine.

Note how Robinson repeats the word ‘between’ throughout the poem, suggesting the feeling of not quite being one thing, but between two identities. There are hints towards the racism in the sport, the loneliness of being a hero, and the complexity of the African footballer’s inner life. What have you read about these footballers that links to this idea of being ‘in-between’? How could you explore this in your own poem?

Nick Makoha approaches the subject of extraordinary African lives in football in a similar way, looking at a particular moment in George Weah’s football career on the pitch. His poem ‘Lone Star’ is written directly in response to Weah’s Coast to Coast goal in an AC Milan vs Verona match which you can watch here. 

Lone Star by Nick Makoha

For George Weah

Lone Star, you were a man on the run
when you picked the ball up on the edge
of your penalty box. A planet at your feet
San Siro stadium sealed tight, so nothing
escapes. The crowd a pair of eyes as you
moved toward the light. One man in costume
dancing across the pitch as if he were liquid
weight, a flicker, black orpheus with five minutes
to go. The opposition’s error believing that you
were on your own. Past the halfway line
was the future, wide open like the shores of Liberia.
You ran like a man with a ship to catch. Like smoke
you had a story to tell. The boy from a village
without a well, who never spoke of money or the war.
At their forty yard line you struck the ball like a match.
Released from your spell it curled into their goal.

See how Makoha makes the poem sound breathless with his line breaks: the sentences run on and on, mirroring Weah’s movement, without a single end-stopped line until six lines before the end. Makoha told us, “I am an Arsenal fan and was moved by the touching words the George Weah had to say about Arsene Wenger in an article I read in The Guardian.

“George Weah is the reason why  Thinking Outside the Penalty Box project was devised by Lizzy and myself. George is an example of that adage There is more to it than meets the eye. African footballers have a lot to give the world on the pitch but also off the pitch. It is amazing to think that one of my childhood heroes on the pitch has become the president of his country Liberia. The poem is called Lone Star, which is the name of the Liberian national football team. But in this poem George is the Lone Star: a shining light for Africans and democrats.”

Flash Back: George Weah in action for AC Milan

The challenge

We would like you to write a poem (or poems) not exceeding 50 lines, inspired by ‘extraordinary African lives in football’. Do some of your own research on African footballers, and check out our useful documents, full of links to videos, interviews and more. You can respond to something you’ve read about one of these footballers, or to any other footballer of African heritage. You could think about the game of football within your poem. You might, like Sugar J, link a particular footballer to an artist, writer or person in another discipline, or like Roger Robinson imagine what it’s like to inhabit the body of an African footballer to face up to some difficult questions. Or perhaps like Nick Makoha you’d like to focus on a particular moment in a footballer’s time on the pitch, and attempt to capture that in words.

Some things to think about might be the prejudices and difficulties that these sportspeople have faced; how far they’re seen as heroes, and what that really means; the sport itself… but you can take your poem(s) any way you’d like. Remember – your poem(s) should not exceed 50 lines.


The top three poets will win book vouchers with a value of £100, £50 and £25 respectively. Winning poets will also have their poems published on Young Poets Network and in the Thinking Outside the Penalty Box anthology, and receive an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook. 

How to enter

This challenge is now closed for entries. You can read the winning poems on the sidebar at the top of this page! 


Lizzy Attree has a PhD from SOAS, University of London on “The Literary Responses to HIV and AIDS from South Africa and Zimbabwe from 1990-2005”. She has taught African literature at Kings College and SOAS in London. In 2010 she was a Visiting Lecturer in the English Department at Rhodes University in South Africa and from 2002-2009 she organised literary tours of African writers in the UK funded by Arts Council England such as the Caine Prize 10th Anniversary Tour in 2009. She is a member of the Board of Trustees for Writivism, an initiative of the Centre for African Cultural Excellence. She worked for the Caine Prize from 2011 – 2018, and was made Director in 2014. She is also the co-founder of the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature with Mukoma wa Ngugi. She published Blood on the Page – Interviews with African authors writing about HIV/AIDS with Cambridge Scholars Publishing in 2010.

Nick Makoha. Photo credit: Sam Burnett

Nick Makoha is a Cave Canem Graduate Fellow and a Fellow of The Complete Works in the UK. He won the 2015 Brunel African Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for 2017. In the same year he was also shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize. He also won the Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize 2016 for his manuscript Resurrection Man. He represented Uganda in the Poetry Parnassus as part of the Cultural Olympiad in 2012. His poems have appeared in The Poetry Review, Rialto, The Triquarterly Review, Boston Review, Callaloo, and Wasafiri

Nick also worked on the Christmas Day Truce 100th anniversary football tournament 2014: The Poetry Society in collaboration with Barclays Premier League with poets Simon Barraclough, Steve Ely, Chris McCabe, Nick Makoha and Deanna Rodger accompanied Under-12 teams from the Premier League clubs to Ypres, Belgium.  The poets helped the young players write poems, these were then passed on to Ian McMillan to produce a new poem ‘The Game: Christmas Day, 1914’ to mark the centenary.

Published February, 2018

2 thoughts on “Thinking Outside the Penalty Box poetry challenge

  1. I am as poet, i have written hundred and seventy nine poems, not publish. Some are on my Facebook webpage/#Promise_Ita_Okpohoudeme.
    I must confess that i am grateful to view this site and i am satisfied with the content. Please, i will love to hear from the Administration of this site if they could help me actualise my dream as a poet. They will be no issue if you agreed to publish my works. Thanks in anticipation.

    1. Dear Promise,

      Thanks for your message – it’s great to hear that you’re a keen poet! Do enter our Thinking Outside the Penalty Box challenge, and consider the Nearlyology challenge ( which closes on Sunday 11 March. Winners will be published on the Young Poets Network. Winners in the Thinking Outside the Penalty Box challenge will also be considered for publication in the print project anthology.

      Best of luck!

      Helen at Young Poets Network

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