My first gig alone is a trip with Special Olympics to visit the famous ASEC Mimosas football academy. Stano Claude, National Director of Special Olympics Côte d’Ivoire — and a supporter of ASEC Mimosas — is only too happy to connect me to his club.
ASEC’s youth academy is world famous and has produced some of the greatest footballing talents of the modern era. The 25 would-be footballers, aged between 12 and 17, are given a thorough education, including classes in maths, history, geography, French, English, and Spanish. They live at the academy in dorms from Monday morning until midday on Saturday and they have two football training sessions a day with expert coaches who teach them how to play beautiful football.
We are given a guided tour of the academy by Benoit You, Director of Marketing and Communication who tells us that “it is very important for the players to go home once a week, because here they are in a paradise but it is very dangerous. When they are here every day it is very different from the reality. They can forget where they come from.” These lucky, talented kids are receiving an excellent education and if they don’t make it as footballers they have a very good chance of succeeding in the game of life.
The club’s first team is the most celebrated and successful in Ivoirian football history and has been utterly dominant in the last 20 years. ASEC’s philosophy is to play the beautiful game with a strong emphasis on passing and to give young players the chance to shine. The average age of the current first team is just 19 years old. The other teams in the professional league are much older (and much more physical) but ASEC is the most successful.
The list of alumni of the ASEC Academy is a testament to the success of this philosophy. It reads like the team sheet of the Ivorian national side as it includes Kolo Touré, Solomon Kalou, Didier Zokora, Yaya Touré, and Emmanuel Eboué — all of whom are now starring in top European clubs like Arsenal and Barcelona. Indeed, ASEC has provided the backbone of the national team for many years.
“We develop them. We give them a chance. This is the philosophy of the club”, says You.
Playing and having fun are part of this philosophy of the football here. If you have have fun on the field you can win games. Try telling that to so many of the aggressive coaches plying their trade around the world. The Ball likes this idea. FUN = Football Unites Nations.
Phil has gone, his flight left at 2am this morning. Now I am all alone, just me and The Ball. It is going to be hard trying to take care of everything now: filming, taking photos, writing, organizing… and trying to keep the German taxman off my back.
There is so much to do on such a journey that there is often little time for anything else. In fact, on the whole trip thus far, we have not had one big night out on the town. And you are talking about 3 lads that enjoy good old-fashioned knees up and are unlikely to ever turn down an opportunity. The Ball dictates this hard schedule but it is worth it.
It is time to bid farewell to you, Phil. You have been on the trip since meeting The Ball at the airport in Casablanca. You need to get back to your little boy Jasper and your lovely wife Sophie in Brighton. Wow, your third journey – following up on 2002 and 2006. You have been a fantastic travel companion Phil, it is going to be a hard slog without you. I’m going to have to wear all of the hats now. But hey, what a time we have had!
West Africa will always be with us: That mad arrival in Dakar and Richie’s bag of tricks, you showing that professional team how to warm-up on the beach, your Remi Gaillard kick of The Ball onto the DHL cargo flight, your, ahem, “crappy experience” at the Grand Mosquee in Djenne, the amazing sequence of events from the Dogon Country to Ouagadougou where public transport Africa style was phenomenal, 46 hour tropical train ride to Abidjan to the cavalcade massive [check out the next blog entry to see Phil’s trip swan song]. Welcome to Africa Bruce!
Sophie, maybe you will agree to Phil coming back for the final push into Johannesburg? You wouldn’t want to miss that would you now, Phil?
Two sweaty, stinky, happy vagabonds holding a ball (yep, you guessed it, The Ball) are on the back of a moving truck, surrounded by dancing Special Olympics volunteer girls and SO athletes, led by a gendarmerie on a motorcycle, siren blaring away, and followed by 10 bright yellow DHL vehicles. It is a sight for sore eyes…
…and a sound for dancing ears as an excellent DJ is cranking out super tunes on the rather large sound-system on the truck and, as we pass, bystanders are getting into it — dancing and waving. The Special Olympics athletes are absolutely made up. So are we. What a great time. What a great idea! A cavalcade through the streets of Abidjan from street to stadium, from the airport to downtown, from slum to high-rise. This snaking cavalcade of fun has a morning of visits through the streets of Abidjan and a Unified Football event to get to. Let’s go.
At our first stop we meet with Côte d’Ivoire’s most famous footballer of all time: Laurent Pokou who is even more famous and highly regarded in Côte d’Ivoire than current Chelsea star Didier Drogba. Pokou was twice the highest goalscorer of the Africa Cup of Nations and was voted the best African player of the twentieth century. He is all smiles as he juggles The Ball with Phil and children. Laurent has paid for the cavalcade. He loves this ball.
We process through 5 of Abidjan’s 10 districts and in each we stop to meet the mayor and various dignitaries for a quick hello and a hand over of footballs and football shirts from SO turning up at an event, where the Minister of Sport is awaiting The Ball. He addresses a large crowd and mentions The Ball as a unifying factor. After he has headed it and signed it we are off again.
Our final destination is a Special Olympics unified football event, where Andrew is a super-sub, coming off the bench to score a cracking left-foot goal. 20 minutes of football later, he collapses in a heap on the ground, unable to move any more in the sweltering heat.
A few hours kip after that exhausting 46 hour train ride and we’re all set to meet up with Ancilla Smith, Special Olympics Africa’s football project manager, who has been tirelessly organizing their involvement in The Ball’s journey to Johannesburg for the best part of a year and a half.
She has flown in especially for the Côte d’Ivoire event because it is a premier programme in Africa for Special Olympics. The Ball is only in town for a few days but Charles Takouet and the folks at Special Olympics have put together an amazing schedule which leaves little time for anything else, sleep included. It all starts with a press conference at the Ministry of Sport.
Not being able to speak much French, Andrew leaves the talking to Phil. It’s hard to get across the essence of The Ball in a second language, but thankfully Phil’s explanation of The Ball and its mission seems to impress the Ivoirian journalists.
Dropping down from Burkina Faso on that agonizingly long train ride, one cannot help but notice the change in climate. It was 40 plus degrees in Ouagadougou but a very dry heat and surprisingly manageable. Abidjan’s temperature by comparison is mid thirties and stiflingly humid; one starts to sweat just thinking about going outside.
We are soaked through, while all around us are locals, used to the conditions and looking very comfortable — even wearing suits and ties and not a bead of sweat to be seen.
“Get used to it”, says Charles Takouet from Special Olympics, “Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria and Cameroon are all going to be the same.”
Stinky, sweaty boys on tour!
Didier Drogba is wildly popular in Côte d’Ivoire. Every second child wears a Drogba Chelsea or Côte d’Ivoire replica shirt. There is even a beer named after him. But for all of his fame and talent (and those of the other highly skilled bunch of Ivoirians who are plying their trade at top teams all over Europe) the people of Côte d’Ivoire are not expecting World Cup success.
Ivoirians are quick to play down their team’s chances of success at World Cup 2010.
“They are too big for their own boots.”
“They are not playing with their hearts when they play for Côte d’Ivoire, they are more concerned about making money for their clubs.”
“We are in the group of death, Portugal have Ronaldo and other top players we cannot compete with them and Brazil is Brazil, they are just too good. We couldn’t even reach the semi finals of the African Nations championships.”
It is hard to argue with some of that logic.
But it seems that underneath their modesty, Ivoirians are quietly confident that their national team can go far in the World Cup. My thinking is that it all comes down to that first game against Portugal. Côte d’Ivoire’s players need to restore their confidence. If Côte d’Ivoire wins that first game — and they most certainly can — then they could go very far, maybe even all the way. Wouldn’t it be great if an African team were to win Africa’s first ever FIFA World Cup?
Abidjan, the capital of the Côte d’Ivoire, is a lively place and the most western looking of any African city that we’ve visited so far. The skyline is dominated by skyscrapers and there are roads without too many potholes. Football advertising boards have been a regular thing in West Africa but not quite as much as in Abidjan.
Everywhere you look you can see the big telecommunications companies MTN and Orange slogging it out. MTN is an official sponsor of the FIFA World Cup and they are flaunting that fact. But Orange is the clear winner here. Côte d’Ivoire’s Elephants play in an all orange kit and the huge billboards with players and fans dressed in orange are impossible to miss. They are especially effective since everyone’s focus is turning to the World Cup now.
Ouagadougou — Abidjan. What a ride, 1,180km of searing heat in 46 hours… and a seat for The Ball. This single track giant of a line, dating back to 1905, is carrying The Ball, Phil and me from the heart of Burkina Faso to the tropical Côte d’Ivoire.
We were told “don’t go to Côte d’Ivoire, it is far too dangerous”, “watch your back there, there are thieves everywhere.” “Don’t trust anyone”. “Watch the political situation. It is a volatile one. ” “It is getting ready to erupt there” said a French pilot we met in Mali, “the people want elections, they have been waiting for many years. The government cannot hold out much longer. It will go off there in the next month.” I am particularly worried about this leg of the journey.
There was a civil war here recently and our train is taking us through the heart of former rebel territory and its capital Bouake. I am also paranoid that our video camera might get confiscated. The train line is one of national security and monitored by the gendarmerie. But trying to prevent Phil from recording is a tough job for anyone at the best of times. He is also hoping to climb onto the roof of the train to film from above.
Many people warned me about travelling through Africa. Friends and family alike have grave concerns for our safety. They think we are mad. “Yes, there are problems in Africa. But there are problems everywhere,” said the Burkinabe Minister for Sport a few days ago. “If a bomb goes off in Marseille,” he continued, “France is still okay. If a bomb goes off in Nigeria, it is Africa and it is a big problem.”
Phil is much more relaxed about the whole situation. I worry when we can’t get a hold of Charles who is due to pick us up at the end of this gruelling ride… our mobile is not working. Phil chills. I’ve heard that bandits operate on the train which should arrive in 2 days time, if there aren’t any unforeseen technical problems. Phil continues to chill. I’m quietly looking forward to seeing the back of Cote d’Ivoire and I haven’t even set foot in it yet. The prospect of Ghana and visiting my friend Kweku is very appealing.
As the train rolls onwards, we start getting to know some of our Ivorian and Burkinabe neighbours. We drink beer with them, share food with them and joke with them. We have plenty of time to contemplate this roller coaster of a trip to the World Cup, endure some rigours of sub-Saharan long distance travel and open up The Ball’s Côte d’Ivoire adventure with a lightning-quick game on a station-side pitch.
As we cross into Côte d’Ivoire, almost a whole day into our journey, I have no more fears. I am excited to visit Abidjan and slightly embarrassed about my paranoia and very tired from this long, exhausting train ride. Onward.
Check out the excellent blog on FourFourTwo written by The Ball. “…and I’m pretty. Go on, read me!”
Thousand’s of miles still to go and thousands of players to play with… Rolling to South Africa for the FIFA World Cup 2010. This ball’s got legs.