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.
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!
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.