Togo is safe, almost too safe. There is a police escort, ready to take me and The Ball to every event and there is a minder, sitting outside of my hotel room ready to protect The Ball from would-be thieves.
The Togolese government has got heavily involved in the Ball’s journey; we have met top dignitaries including the Prime Minister, and everyone is very concerned to make sure that The Ball doesn’t go missing in Togo. I imagine that the concern stems from the African championships in Angola in February and the machine-gunning of the buses carrying the Togolese football team. That issue is still a hot one in Togo and very politicized.
Losing The Ball in Togo on Togolese watch is not in their interests. Our philosophy is that The Ball must be played with as often as possible and by as many people as possible. The spirit of The Ball is about trust. Sure, the playing of The Ball to a stranger contains an element of risk. Yes, someone could try and steal The Ball but that is very unlikely. It is more likely that the person receiving The Ball will smile and play. The interactions we are having are overwhelmingly positive. These random encounters are what The Ball is all about.
Against the best intended advice I take The Ball to the Coca Cola sponsored event at the beach. A man on horseback rides The Ball up and down the beach.
Acrobats on stilts perform with The Ball
A woman carries The Ball in a basket on her head
The Ball is juggled in a Coca-Cola sponsored competition on a stage with a crowd in excess of 2000 people watching on.
During the juggling competition The Ball ends up in the crowd. Where is it? Panic sets in. Ohhhh, there it is…
And as the sun goes down young men and women dance freestyle with The Ball.
Put your hands up for The Ball
We like to think of the way in which The Ball travels as one big game of football where the world itself is the pitch and everyone a player. The Ball highlights the ways in which football can be inclusive — breaking down barriers wherever it is played.
So when we learnt that Special Olympics have developed a variation on the standard game which they call Unified Football®, we were intrigued. We went to the Iba Mar Diop Stadium in Dakar to see how it works.
The basic premise of Unified Football is that each team consists of both Special Olympics athletes and mainstream athletes training and playing alongside each other. Andrew had hoped he might get special treatment on account of being unused to the heat. No such luck — there are no allowances made on the pitch for anyone, whether they have intellectual disabilities or not.
When this kind of game happens, the emphasis is not so much on the winning as on the taking part. What is foremost in everyone’s minds is the sheer joy of playing the game — the essence of the “spirit of football” as we see it.
When football is played this way, it becomes immediately apparent that Special Olympics athletes are people of equal status and value in the community. And encouraging that kind of acceptance really is a cause for celebration.
“Where is my bag? Where the — — is my bag?”
“What’s in the bag?”, I asked.
“Ohhhh, nothing important… just my filofax, my passport, my credit cards. Everything.”
Ironically, we’d just been listening to the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, whose cover says “Don’t Panic” in big friendly letters — but I was panicking. Christian seemed to be panicking too…
The sun had been shining and we had been making good progress towards Valencia. The Ball seemed happy enough too: it was still on a high after rolling around on the grass pitch-side at the Nou Camp yesterday.
We had stopped earlier as we were leaving Vilanova, a random football moment had suddenly appeared. Out of the car, camera at the ready, Christian put his bag down to kick The Ball. Elaborately-dressed children enjoying carnival season marched by singing and chanting. 150 kilometres later, ready to feed our caffeine habit, he realised he’d left his bag back there in the park.
After back-tracking to Vilanova, a friend who speaks Catalan called the police. And you know what? Someone had turned in the bag… And, nothing was missing…
Bill Hicks liked to say that “life is a ride”… but our ride has taken us up and down this toll road two too many times today. As I write this we are speeding off along the coast towards Valencia — again. Adreneline is still rushing like the gusts of wind outside. What a ride it’s been today.
“It’s not Friday the 13th is it?”, asks Christian as I type away. He suggests paying a Homage to Catalunya for lettting him off so lightly for such a grave lapse of concentration… I tend to agree. The ride continues as we head south.
Friday the 12th — lucky for some.