We are off on yet another visa escapade. At the Burkina Faso embassy, we are met by stares from the receptionsists so icy they could power the air-conditioning.
“Fill out these forms”, they say.
Unexpected disinterest in The Ball and our story. Oh well, you can’t win everytime.
Resigned to our task, we get stuck into filling out three identical forms. To our dismay, there’s not a photocopier in sight. We take some time out from the paperwork to look at a map of Burkina Faso — to plot our route from Mali to Ouagadougou and then on to Ivory Coast by train.
As we turn in our paperwork the Chef de Protocol comes out and stamps The Ball. He’s not interested in signing it. But our biggest mistake? We haven’t brought any money with us to pay for the visas.
So we’ve got exactly 30 minutes to get some cash and get back to the embassy. In the car and quick. Kassim from DHL puts his foot down in his white Mercedes, Mali seems to be the place where all of Europe’s old cars end up. Every second car is a Mercedes. Anyway, first bank: no luck, cards not working in that machine. Second stop at the North South Hotel and success! Olé olé olé! Cash in the hand, it’s back to the Burkina Faso embassy.
We arrive at midday, right on closing time. As we approach the embassy, the Chef de Protocol races out to meet us – excitement on his face. “The Ambassador wants to meet you. Now.” A surprise change of tack here — a much friendlier atmosphere, so upstairs we go. Straight into His Excellency’s reception room. Ambassadour Extraordinaire du Burkina Faso au Mali Sanne Mohamed Topan welcomes us with great warmth.
We sit down, tell our story and philosophise about the world through one football — The Ball. The most welcoming ambassador from one of the world’s poorest countries opens his arms to the project and tells us that he has decided to give us our visas for free – we’ll just pay for the tax duty on the stamps. We’ve won again.
And so we end up paying a tenth of what we could have done. What a wonderful gift to The Ball, which is doing this journey on the slimmest of budgets. Thank you, Your Excellency, we are excited to visit your country next week.
Phil has been practising a song about The Ball called “This ball is our ball” based on Woodie Guthrie’s famous tune for the people of the United States: “This land is our land”. He performs it for the first time to a live audience. Malian’s love their music and Phil ain’t half bad. The Ball certainly helps to break the ice at such events and Phil’s music adds to the fun.
But the star of this show was the President of Special Olympics, Mama Garba Tapo who called the press to atttention about the problems facing children with special needs in Mali. He spoke directly to the press: “Without your support, nothing is possible.”
After several questions from the press about The Ball we talk about the project with the Vice President of the MFF Monsieur Toure. I ask him if we would be able to meet the famous Salif Keita, dubbed “The Black Pearl of Africa” by the press in Valencia. He is one of Africa’s footballing legends and perhaps the first sub-Saharan African footballer to make it big in Europe. Indeed, there is a brilliant french film entitled Le Ballon D’or based on his life. “No problem,” says Monsieur Toure. A meeting with the man himself is organised for the next day.
We hone our diplomatic skills as Special Olympics Senegal organise a visit to Dakar’s City Hall.
We’re beginning to understand that, this time round, The Ball’s journey is more than just an exercise in “happy-go-lucky” serendipity and has a more serious element to it. Meeting the children at the special needs schools impressed on us just how important The Ball can be to them and that we have a responsibility to make The Ball as good an ambassador for their cause as we can. And so we’re off to meet the Mayor of Dakar on their behalf.
It turns out that the Mayor himself is otherwise engaged and so The Ball is introduced to the First Deputy Mayor. The meeting takes place at an enormous long table with a central channel for The Ball to be rolled down. The Deputy Mayor takes great interest in the journey and our partnership with Special Olympics and can’t resist a spot of keepie-uppie out in the hallway.
He promises to grant Special Olympics athletes access to a number of sports facilities for training and other activities. He also asks Special Olympics Senegal to send him a list of their needs for further consideration.
We hope that The Ball has helped Special Olympics Senegal to open some doors to the administrative and political authorities in Dakar. And, more importantly, that they stay open once it has moved on.
This morning it’s back to “Visa Training”. We go to pick up the Malian Visa. The Chef de Protocol takes us upstairs into the Ambassador’s office. Her Excellency kicks, heads, signs and officially stamps The Ball for entry into Mali. Accomplished sporting — as well as diplomatic — skills are on display.
As we leave the Embassy, the Chef de Protocol comes running out.
“Stop! You forgot The Ball” he says, handing it over. “Bon voyage!”
“Plan at least 3 days for the Ivory Coast visa,” the Lonely Planet guidebook tells us. “Requirements: Letter of invitation from the Mayor of city you are visiting. Letter of invitation from business partner. Official address whilst in Ivory Coast. 2 passport-sized photos.”
We have neither a letter from the Mayor of Abidjan, nor do we know where we will be staying. We do have a letter of support from DHL and from Special Olympics who are organising several events for The Ball in Abidjan. We also have The Ball.
Buoyed by the Malian experience we decide to dive straight in. This time, Richard, Phil and Andrew are joined by Guy from DHL. Once again, careful preparation allows The Ball to be a sensation. We are ushered upstairs to meet the Ambasador. With a picture of the President looking down on proceedings, The Ball is decorated with an official visa stamp and signed by Her Excellency.
3 hours later, Phil returns to pick up our visas.
Visa training advice: Be prepared. And take a ball, but not just any ball!
On the road again as the sun was going down in late afternoon we followed the coast into France. What a gorgeous drive.
“Shouldn’t we stop off in Monaco? It is another country, isn’t it?” said Christian. Depends who you talk to. In we went. An idea was born, maybe The Ball might be given a bed for the night in a luxury hotel. Monaco is a magnet for the wealth of Europe. In Africa one is more likely to find “poverty management”. In Monaco, there was plenty of advertising for “wealth management”. And wealth was on display everywhere we looked: luxury yachts, luxury cars, luxury stores and luxurious people with luxurious pets. And there we were with the most valuable asset around… The Ball, soon to cross the entire African continent.
Would the folk of Monaco realise the wealth of The Ball? Would it be welcome? We tried our luck at one of the top hotels, looking over the marina. “Can The Ball stay here?” I asked. “No. Monaco is too special” came the reply. “The Ball is very special too” we replied, and left.
Our plan wasn’t going to cut it on Monaco. But life is what happens when you don’t make plans. And we were having a lot of fun with The Ball. The Ball went to the casino — came rolling out empty-handed but high-spirited. Next up, the top hotel in town, the Hermitage. A friendly welcome. The Ball got a stamp from the concierge. An employee of the hotel was a former Monaco player. The concierge contacted him and told us he’d meet us outside the front of the hotel in 30 minutes. Brilliant.
We decided to have a keepy-uppy session on the manicured lawn outside the lavish entrance to the hotel as we waited. We passed The Ball to passers by — high-heeled back heels, shiny-shoed toe-pokes returned it. The Ball got some first class treatment. Then a friendly looking fellow with a cigar in his mouth controlled The Ball. He wasn’t from around those parts. Turns out he wasn’t just anyone. An Iraqi Ambassador, Saddam’s Minister for Protocol, a famous author with an award-winning film made from of his award-winning book “In the Shadow of Saddam”.
“I wish you all the best in your effort. I fought against dictatorship all my life. I and a football team of my tribe were imprisoned in the time of Saddam Hussein because we refused to play on behalf of his criminal son Uday.”
We were stunned by what was unfolding.
“His son was the chairman of the Iraqi Committee of Football,” he continued. “I used to have a team of football with our tribe and he ordered us play with a team of his and we refused — and put us in prison and he tortured us. Yes. So as you can see these people are far away from the value of sport.”
“Sport is peace. Sport is love. Sport is humanity. And what you are doing now, you are missionaries or ambassadors of peace because sport is really a way to unite nations and this man wanted sport to be a way to divide the Iraqi nation. If you come to Iraq, we will protect you with our hearts and with our life.”
“You are ambassadors of peace and football. It is a very honourable mission.”
The former Monaco player never showed up.
With our hearts held high we headed onward to Carcassonne.