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
Andrew and The Ball are taken to Hotel de Ville (City Hall) where Andrew tells the Mayor of Lomé that he, like anyone else, may sign The Ball but that there is a condition: he must head it or kick it first. The Mayor replies: “I have a head and I have a foot” and proceeds to head and kick The Ball before signing it.
And with no further prompting, save Andrew’s proud smiles, The Mayor continued:
“It is a pleasure and an honour to welcome you and your organisation Spirit of Football to Lomé and to receive The Ball of the World Cup in Lomé. I am honoured that you have chosen the city of Lomé and Togo on your route. The day you have arrived in Togo coincides with a day after the election and just before Easter, it is very good timing as we are also celebrating the 50th anniversary of Togolese independence. I am wishing you well and I hope that you feel at home in Africa. This ball that has been made in Africa, by Africa and for Africa is an honour for Africa and I wish that an African team will be world champion. But as they say — let the best team win. I wish you a welcome to Togo and as the Mayor of Lomé I am symbolically giving you the key to the city of Lomé so that you can open all doors here.”
— Mayor of Lomé
We found Chantal and André’s little slice of paradise Un Paradis à Ouaga in Phil’s West Africa guide book and decided to stay there. And what a delightful place it turns out to be. This lovely French couple are wonderful hosts and have been able to provide us with great insight into the region. They travelled around West Africa for 3 years in their Land Rover and decided to settle in Ouagadougou. “Why Ouaga?” we ask. “Because the people of Burkina Faso are genuine, extremely honest and friendly.”
André and Chantal tell Andrew that they support a local community called Kalzi, a small village 30 kilometers off the beaten track from Ouaga. They financed the building of a classroom and are set to invest more in infrastructure. Andrew travels with André and Chantal to Kalzi to have a look at what they are doing.
Unfortunately the school is closed. It is a Saturday and school holidays are starting today. Upon arrival, the Ball comes out straight away. It’s introduction to Kalzi is being played with in a game of table football.
A kickabout is quickly organised outside the village’s central community meeting place. It is dusty, very dusty. Warm, sandy Saharan winds have been blowing in from the north all morning. The sun is barely visible and, as usual, it’s blisteringly hot. With all this dust in the air, it’s not the best weather for football. But the children are flocking to The Ball.
We are ushered to the football field. Well, it is a very hard flat open area covered in dust. Large stones are set up as goals and teams are being formed. Lights versus darks. Henry, Messi and Drogba are all playing. Game on.
The game lasts for about 40 minutes. The kids, playing barefoot are full of running. Andrew and Alex, a guy from Italy who happens to be in town, are the captains.
They tire quickly and cough repeatedly. The score is tied at 2-2. Golden goal is played but neither team can score that all-important, decisive goal. Despite throwing everyone forward and half a dozen goalmouth scrambles the teams are inseparable.
It’s going to be penalties to decide this one.
Lights win the shootout, but there is delight all round at the end of the game. Yet again, it is a privilege to be involved, a privilege to meet the players and to have such fun.
It has been a long day of meetings with dignitaries. We haven’t eaten all day and ready for some food and then sleep.
We get out of Kasim’s car. Phil and Kasim head for the restaurant to order dinner. Lagging behind with The Ball, Andrew sees two children on the intersection of two dusty little dirt roads. One child comes to ask for money, holding out an empty paint tin. Andrew reluctantly shakes his head. “Non”, he says. Instead, he kicks The Ball to little lad. The boy’s eyes light up. The three of them pass The Ball back and forth, inviting two more boys to join in. Soon there are ten or more kids with him, juggling with The Ball in a giant circle.
Phil and Kasim have joined them now, and there seems to be talk of a game. Indeed, goals are being marked by large jagged stones. The dangerous ditches on either side of the road define the touchlines. The child who was begging for money offers Kasim his paint tin begging bowl. Kasim, duly appointed as referee, takes it — hitting it with a stick will do perfectly for a whistle. Game on. Skins against shirts.
Andrew considers himself lucky to be a shirt. However, his DEET-impregnated, anti-malaria shirt and trousers feel much too warm. It is 9pm and 30 degrees outside. He’s sweating and coughing up a storm in this little dust-bowl of a pitch. Phil takes his place — and the goals start flowing. Shirts win 3-1.
This kind of playful interaction makes The Ball’s journey such a magical experience for us — it reminds us of the power that lies at the heart of the beautiful game. And for the little boy with the empty paint tin? Although we can only guess how he feels, perhaps his tin contains something more precious than money — memories of a ball which are his to keep forever.
A collection of random moments in Dakar. We’re about to leave for Mali, but wanted to post these to give a flavour of this football-obsessed city.
Next up, The Ball heads onwards to Mali for adventures on the southern edge of the Sahara.
So what do we do when we’re not chasing round on one footballing mission or another here in Dakar? We take a stroll along Ngor beach and enjoy the relative cool of the late afternoon. And play some football, of course!
The temperature is dropping and the sun is starting to set, plunging straight into the sea. Who are those guys walking towards us? A team of footballers? Yes. Certainly. These guys look like professional athletes — they have amazingly toned bodies. “Phil, they have to be a football team,” Andrew suggests.
Phil immediately approaches them and explains The Ball and the journey and is welcomed to join their “light” training session the day before an important cup match. Phil whips his shirt off, revealing a great British blindingly-white torso.
Soon the team and their latest starlet start jogging up and down the beach. While Phil’s energy quickly drains away, their pace ramps up to a furious level and Phil rolls out of the pack in a heap. As the professionals continue their light warm-up, Phil resorts to some more gentle keepie-uppie instead.
By this stage, Andrew is keen for a game of beach football. Organising a game of footy in Dakar is just about the easiest task you could ask of someone. People simply love their football here — and play just about anywhere and anytime they can.
In a flash, its 3 against 3, with stones as goals. The tide is coming in and The Ball, being made completely of African leather, is soaking wet in no time. No matter, game on. 3 against 3 becomes 5 against 5. Two French surfers join in. They are spending a month in this surfing Mecca, where the local Wollof-speaking fishermen have surfed for years on the beautiful rollers that frame the nearby Ile de Ngor.
This idyllic beach harbour is the perfect place to wind down after the intensity of the last few days. Football for football’s sake. A welcome break.
We are sitting across the road from the medina entrance in the rather souless modern centre of Rabat, sipping strong double expressos and checking email, having been attracted by the “Gratis Wifi” sign out front.
Andrew strikes up a conversation with his neighbour.
“Do you like football?”, he asks. The man certainly looks like a footballer, dressed as he is from top to toe in sports apparel.
“Everyone in Morocco likes football”, comes the reply.
It turns out that Hassan’s life revolves around football. Not only was he a professional footballer, but he was a former national team player. Now he’s a goalkeeping coach for the Real Madrid Academy, based in Rabat.
The next thing we know he’s on the phone to his friend — coach and famous Moroccan football commentator, Hicham Jdran. Jdran is in a hurry. He has to get to a game where he will provide the expert analysis for Morocco TV1. He signs The Ball in his car at the stop lights, gives us the thumbs up and is off.
The Ball seems to magically draw people into its orbit. We don’t know how this happens, but we like it.