One ball's journey to the World Cup
Spirit of Football
Alive & Kicking's
250,000th ball continues its journey with the Spirit of Football team
from London to the World Cup opening ceremony in Johannesburg.
We enter the courtroom of Mogha Naba, King of the Mossi People, as honoured guests. Beforehand we’re briefed on the protocol - you shouldn’t look directly at him and when you speak to him you speak through someone else who relays it to the big fella sitting on the throne.
So what does Phil from Spirit of Football do? He throws me at him, saying that nobody can sign my leather panels without first kicking or heading me.
The Mossi are an ethnic group making up half of Burkina Faso's 15 million population, and, as you can probably guess, the Mossi King is something of a big deal in these parts: a very popular figure not just in his own country, but across all Africa.
And so, without warning or invitation, through the air I’m sent, leaving Phil’s hands and passing the aghast facial expressions of the King’s subjects, aimed squarely at the big man himself. "Sweet Jesus," I think, "we’re done for now."
Unflustered, the King gathers me safely in his hands and smiles. "But surely a goalkeeper can use his hands?" He’s a goalkeeper? He’s a goalkeeper! And he’s smiling. Phew! Phil looks quizzically at Andrew, and then notices the stern faces of one or two of the King's burly subjects and casually agrees, “Yeah, it’s fine for goalkeepers to use their hands.”
The King signs me before showing us his private collection of football memorabilia. Here's Didier Drogba's signed Ivory Coast World Cup shirt; there's a framed photograph of the King dressed in full goalkeeping kit standing next to Cameroon World Cup legend Roger Milla after both had played in a celebrity football match. But the most prized possession in the King’s vast collection is a Wales jersey worn by his hero Ryan Giggs, signed by Giggs and the Welsh squad.
South of the capital Ouagadougou is the village of Kalzi. It's an ideal place for a quick game. Dusty soil the colour of Paul Scholes' hair covers the ground as far as the eye can see. A Saharan wind blows this dust into eyes and noses, and overcast skies do nothing to cool the temperature.
The clouds smother Andrew and Phil like a thick woolly jumper. Children are playing table football nearby under the futile shade of a tree. The children quickly lose interest in their game when they see me. They make goalposts out of stones and use me in a game that sees four goals shared during 40 minutes of play. Afterwards everybody waits patiently to scribble their signature on me.
The train journey from Burkina Faso to the Ivory Coast takes 46 hours. On arrival at the port of Abidjan the Atlantic Ocean offers little relief to the humidity. Locals move freely without so much as a bead of sweat; Phil and Andrew aren't so fortunate. We are to be part of a procession through the city’s streets.
We meet with procession organiser and financer Laurent Pokou. Laurent is more highly thought of in the Ivory Coast than Didier Drogba, and looks too young to have played for the national team during the 1960s. Special Olympic athletes dance and wave to onlookers who have gathered to see us. Laurent remains immaculate in his buttoned orange polo shirt, while Phil and Andrew's clothes fight a losing battle to stay dry in the sticky air.
We later visit ASEC Mimosas Football Club, whose youth academy teaches boys aged 12-17 English, Spanish, French, maths, geography and history. The club's director of marketing, Benoit You, tells us the philosophy is to develop players and give them a chance. It's a motto that has served them well. Former players include Manu Eboue, Salomon Kalou, Kolo Toure and his younger brother Yaya.
ASEC Mimosas also hold the world record for the longest run of unbeaten league games, avoiding defeat on 106 consecutive occasions between 1989 and 1994. The Ivory Coast marks the end of Phil's trip, leaving Andrew as my sole guardian for the next leg of our journey: onward to Ghana.
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