Back home in Erfurt, Germany last summer, dignitaries from Mali were in town. They were in for talks about the possibility of a partner city connection between their town, Kati, and Erfurt. I found out that Kati is close to Bamako, the capital of Mali: one of the destinations for The Ball en route to Johannesburg.
I met the Maire de la Commune Kati, Monsieur Hamala Haidara, and his assistant in the Steinhaus Biergarten. It was a lovely summer’s evening. Traditonal Thüringian food had been ordered, meat dumplings and red cabbage, if I remember correctly. The guests were in great form. Although, as strict muslims, I recall that beer was not on the agenda. I introduced The Ball and told them I’d love to visit. They were excited. Hugs and contact information were exchanged. Next time: Kati, Mali. Yet until a few days ago there had been no contact. Why not? Language barriers. I don’t speak French or any local Malian dialect and they don’t speak English or German. But there is one language that we all speak: football. The Ball is a leveller and a promise is a promise!
So now, many months later, I’m in Mali with The Ball. It’s 45 degrees outside and dust is everywhere. Yesterday, Moussa, director of our partner organisation Special Olympics Mali called the Mayor of Kati on our behalf and tried to fit in a visit. Our schedule with Special Olympics has been full to say the least: Press conferences at the Ministry of Sport and the Malaian Football Federation; visits to schools for children with intellectual disabilities; meetings with dignitaries like the Mayor of Bamako, the Governor of the region and Salif Keïta: one of Africa’s legendary footballers. Not to mention planned meetings with the President and Prime Minister coming up. Nevertheless, time is found and without delay we’re on our way out of Bamako on the road to Kati.
The sun is directly overhead and it’s a blazing searing 45 degrees. Windows down, scarves over our mouths to avoid choking on the dust, we enter the district of Kati. I’m wearing my Rot-Weiss Erfurt shirt, the one with ARIS on the back and the number 33, from my days in 2006 warming the bench for Pavel Dotchev’s team. We swing into the mayoral compound and are met — as we have been the whole time in Mali — by big smiles. We follow an assistant up the stairs and into the mayor’s office. There he is. Looking every bit as charming as he was in Erfurt. I reach out my hand. He pulls me towards him. We embrace. It is a wonderful moment. Erfurt’s flag is pulled out. We pose for photos.
He’s seen us on television, we are told. He wants to see and sign The Ball. “Wait, a moment,” we say, “you can’t sign it until you have kicked it!” Without hesitation, he starts juggling The Ball once, twice, three times. Not a bad touch, Monsieur Haidara, you would have stood a better chance than me of being in Dochev’s starting eleven.
Written by Andrew Aris on Monday, March 22nd, 2010
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