We bumped into Nathaniel in Fez — an American nomad who renews his European visas by nipping over to Morocco every six months. Schengen doesn’t do him as many favours as it does us Europeans.
“I don’t like football. I don’t even watch it,” he told us. “But your project is not about football. It’s The Ball, but it’s more about travel and play.”
Moroccan men love to play, watch and talk about football. Walking through the massive, spectacular Medina in Fez on an evening of European football you will see a multitude of TVs playing football, hear the blur of football commentary, the chatter of men, young and old, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes and the smells of a myriad of exotic foods wafting into the air. But where are the women? Where are the girls?
Boys come up and want to kick The Ball or they want to have The Ball.
“Please sir, give me the ball.” Or they want to buy The Ball.
“How much for The Ball? I give you 25 Euros”
“It’s priceless, not for sale”, we reply. Strange to be offered money for The Ball. By this time, word has got around town that some crazy guys are in town with a ball. They don’t know that it is not just any ball and that this ball cannot be bought.
We’re dribbling The Ball through the medina, meeting people left, right and center, when two young girls come along and, in a flash, The Ball has been booted off down a side alley. We all race after it, laughing, giggling, but also slightly fearful of losing sight and control of The Ball.
We have an enormous responsibility. We must bring this one ball to the World Cup. And on time too.
In Fez we are constantly asked the same question. “Who has signed The Ball?”
“Julio Cesar”, Andrew says.
“Julio Cesar, from Inter Milan?”
“Yes, that’s right.” They know their football here. “Mbark Boussouffa,” he continues.
“What? Mbark Boussouffa? He’s Moroccan. He was player of the year in Belgium.”
We show the video clip of Mbark Boussouffa and The Ball at RSC Anderlecht. He’s a national hero in Morocco we’ve found out. The old football adage that a team is more than any individual player finds an exception with Mbark. When the Moroccan coach didn’t pick Boussouffa, he got fired.
One person in a group learns more about The Ball. He then tells the others in Moroccan.
“Can you please show my friend the Mbark video?”
Moroccans are very proud of their football exports. They’ll happily tell you that every team in the French first division contains a Moroccan player and all top European leagues contain Moroccan stars.
Arriving in Fez… lost. Looking for the road to Azrou. Wrong turn here, wrong turn there.
Two young lads on a moped flagging us down.
“Follow us”, they said.
So here we are driving across town through Fez rush hour, in the dark, following two lads on the slowest moped in town. Thankfully slow, as it just happened to have no lights on. But they got us to our destination: –‘s.
We were promptly invited into –‘s parents house where Christian and Andrew kicked off into an argument, followed quickly with a hug to make-up.
“Sorry,” we apologised for our public scrap.
“No problem at all,” came the answer. We were assured that this was the way things happened here too.
In any case we got a real insight into Moroccan culture; fantastic mint tea, home-made dinner eaten with hands for cutlery. And after dinner, –‘s father produced the quote of the night:
“The world is round. The Ball is round.”
Despite language problems we were able to make each other understood through the common language of football.
In case you’re wondering why there are no photos illustrating the story, it turns out that the Fez police take a very dim view of Moroccans associating with visitors. We were told that locals have to register their friendships with the police so as not to be mistaken for unofficial tour guides. Which means we have to protect the anonymity of the people in this story. So, instead, here’s a picture of a camel which we dedicate to all bureaucracy when it fails to distinguish between the sensible and the ridiculous:
Onwards to Fez via some remarkable Roman ruins and the chance to take a photo of The Ball with an Olympian feel.
As we wander about looking at the site, Andrew bumps into a fellow Liverpool and Rangers supporter. The chances of that happening? Perhaps only an Olympian god could calculate them.
So we’re out and about filming a sequence with The Ball in the blue backstreets of Chefchaouen, blues made even more vivid by the pelting rain…
Andrew engages some kids in a kickabout and somehow The Ball gets kicked into their granny’s flat…
She promptly decides that it now belongs to her grandson…
A dramatic and rather tense rescue mission follows…
The Ball recovered, but touch and go for a while there…
High up on a hanging ledge overlooking the old ciy of Chefchauoen in the foothills of the Rif mountains, lies one of football’s greatest street football locations.
“You have got to see this pitch,” said Christian. “It is a fantastic location.”
He’s not wrong. We were desperate to organise a game of football there. The locals were keen too. Just one thing: the weather. From before we arrived until after we were gone it rained constantly. No game for us in Chefchauoen, but a fantastic time was had.
Hotel Barcelona, one would assume, in a football-mad town like Chefchaouen, might have some football connection. It does.
Mohammed, the hotel manager loves his football. His eyes lit up when he saw The Ball.
“You must be a Barcelona fan,” I suggested, looking at the poster of FC Barcelona on the wall.
“No. No. No,” came the reply. And promptly off came his djelleba to reveal a Real Madrid sweater. “I am Real Madrid.”
“How can you work at Hotel Barcelona?”
“My dream is to work at Hotel Madrid,” he smiled.
Arriving with The Ball in Chefchaouen late on a damp and chilly Monday evening felt like we had stumbled upon a Star Wars convention. Hooded OB1-style djellabas everywhere on the street, coming out of every tiny poorly-lit alleyway, backstreet and in the cafés, restaurants and shops too. At first they look slightly intimidating; full of secrets and wizard-like magic.
Suddenly, a jedi knight sprung out of his carpet shop, flipped his hood from his head to reveal a huge grin. He has seen something that he liked.
“Le Ballon” he said in French.
“The Ball” came the reply.
“Give me The Ball. Come,” he directed.
We followed him into his shop out of the dark and the rain. The floor covered with sawdust. The walls displaying elaborate, colourful hand-made woollen carpets and clothing. It was time for keepie-uppie. Four guys, three djellabas and a ball.
We weren’t on the dark side anymore.
Just 45 minutes of intense bureaucracy and our first major border crossing is relatively painlessly behind us. Christian’s experience and expertise came in useful, as did a few small donations to border “helpers”. As this long day draws to an end, The Ball has begun the African leg of its journey.
Despite the rain that is still falling, it feels great to be in Africa. The prospect of an amazing football pitch in the Rif mountains awaits us, 45 kilometers away in Chefchaouen.
On the road. In Morocco. In Africa.
“Hurray!” exclaims Christian as we speed down a newly constructed motorway to Tetouan. “We’ll be there in no time.” The most important word in Moroccan is “shukran” (thank you), he tell us. He’s been here before. Its a case of first time for me. And for The Ball.