Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Kickabout Africa 2010
A World Cup Dream Whose Time Has Come
(for current blogs click on the month in the right column)

The photo: Near Abu Simbel, a football pitch was created by the crew of the Kasr Ibrim cruise ship a few yards from crocodile infested waters of Lake Nassar and many, many miles by ship from the nearest city of Aswan, Egypt. We are surrounded by the sands of the Sahara and the waters of the Nile. One week earlier, a local fisherman was eaten on the shoreline visible in the background. If you only could have seen the terrified crew running to save Maria, their client and the event's photographer, when she neared the lake to take a look at an old, abandoned ship! Other than the crocodile drama, on this day in January 2007, all was as it should be when playing a great sport, in the greatest of settings. While tourists tour, the crew played football. Generous by nature and custom, true to the international spirit of the game, they invited blogger Tom Simpson, to join them on the pitch. It became the inspiration for an amazing trip of a lifetime, the topic of this blog, a celebration of the World Cup on African soil, Kickaboutafrica 2010.

Kicking Off

We kicked off January 9, 2010, from where-else-but England, the reputed home of the game that has captured the competitive imaginations of all who kickabout on planet Earth.  After roughly 20000 miles of sand, savannah, rivers and rifts, we will cross the goal line of South Africa in time for the World Cup.  We'll dribble our way through Europe to Syria and through Jordan,   Cruyff from Aqaba to Nuweiba in Egypt, wall pass by Cairo, then juggle along the Nile to Khartoum. From there we'll head our way to Ethiopia, then make a long run along the "Eastern Path" to South Africa, scoring Chilenos in Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, and Botswana. We'll safe pass to Uganda, Ruanda and Burundi time, weather, politics and fortune permitting. We have many goals to score.  Watch our pile-on celebrations at the flag pole after each goal celebrating that, for the first time, the World Cup will be on African soil.  You'll see set piece goals at soccer clinics,  scored through spontaneous creativity, or by practiced design, in schools, refugee clinics, towns in remote areas, wherever there's an open piece of Africa. We only need a ball and the willingness to say "let's play."

Our destination is South Africa and the event is the World Cup.  As we prepare for this once-in-a-lifetime journey, this historic event that will bring smiles on all faces across the majestic continent of Africa, our thoughts are on the kickabout. This is a personal journey, fully funded through the pockets of the principle travelers:  Tom Simpson (that's me, the blogger), Maria Perez and Lorrie Fair.  However, the journey has caught the attention of others who would like to recast the attention in the direction of worthy projects taking place on the African continent.  Some of these projects we will visit.  In some we will participate actively. And maybe we can assist these projects by bringing them to the attention of businesses and philanthropists who want to make a difference. For more about the goals and purpose of this part of our kickabout, particulary the work of team member, Lorrie Fair, check out www.thekickabout.org.

Some People Ask Why? Why Go? Why Africa?

Why would a retired doctor drive the length of Africa to watch some soccer, even if it is the World Cup?  Why doesn't he stay in the comfort of his San Francisco home,  ice up some cool ones, switch on the HD TV, kick back and watch it all, including the instant replays in brilliant detail on a 52" Samsung LCD?  Why would anyone give all that up,  drive 20,000 miles (the average drive from London to Capetown), voluntarily subject himself to months of nights in a tent on a car roof, his butt bouncing by day on washboard roads, the dust, and dirt, and sun, and more dirt, the inevitable axle grease that never seems to clean from the finger nails, the constant threat of malaria, bilharzia, dengue, amebic dysentery, the interminable waits and inevitable indifference of officials at border crossings and, for that matter, everywhere you encounter them. And who hasn't heard the stories of  armed and angry Somalis roaming the badlands of Northern Kenya like banditos in a bad Spaghetti Western? And what about the child abductors of the insane Lord's Liberation Army?  Who's crazy enough to drive within a hundred miles of those knuckleheads.  Most American's don't pay attention to what's going on in Africa, in spite of the recent resurgence of interest in that continent by anti-Obamites who think our President was born there.  If all one knew about Africa could be summed up in ten lines quoted from CNN ribbon news, one might guess that anyone who'd willingly travel across Africa suffers from pathological reality distortion or is potentially suicidal.

Almost eight years ago, Allen Hopkins, soccer enthusiast extraordinaire and the most irrepressible and talkative soccer player who ever spent time with the San Francisco Seals (that's my team), challenged me in a public debate that was published on Fox Sports News On Line service.  Allen eloquently laid out all the reasons why World Cup 2010 should happen on American rather than African soil.  I was more than a little shocked at his argument.  How many voices for soccer have come from the American Black community and there was Allen talking down the chance of Africa to shine in the biggest spotlight of sports. Allen knew I'd take him on.  In my rebuttal I made it clear why.  I love that continent and the people who live there.  It's a love that overcomes every kind of imaginable objection to traveling and living there.  I've already done that, for many years.  It's not that I'm naive or uninformed about the dangers of living in Africa, but I am practiced.

In response to Allen's challenge, I made it clear that his argument that the World Cup shouldn't happen in Africa was logical and loaded with good facts, but he missed the point.  The World Cup is not about dollars and TV ratings.  The World Cup is about transcending that which divides us.  What else brings Iran, North Korea, the Sudan and Cuba, to drink from the same trough as does the United States and Israel?  Not everyone makes it to the biggest trough of all, the World Cup, but everyone drinks, and no one says "no."  The day an Arab country faces off against Israel in the World Cup may be a day of reckoning on this matter and that day will inevitably come. My bet is the desire to compete will push the politicians aside and the athletes will play.  The desire to play seems to trump just about everything, including the residual and current effects of colonialism, apartheid, slavery, an HIV epidemic,  and tribalism (to mention a few),  and that's why this event, the World Cup, must and should happen on African soil.

Here's an excerpt from my rebuttal to Allen's argument:

"Africa... loves soccer with a passion Americans don’t really understand.  Maybe the image of Willie Mays, the child, hitting a ball with a stick on the streets of Brooklyn conjures up emotion that is reasonably close to the passion that children have for this game in Africa.

"I once watched a game on the island of Mombasa, in Kenya, played next to an old Portuguese fort that overlooked the Indian ocean. The field was about 40 to 50 yards long, but irregular without one right angle to a corner. It was all dirt, with rocks jutting from the ground here and there. There wasn’t one flat area. It was near the island’s edge. One sideline was jagged rock and the slope down to the water. Another was the wall of the fort. One goal line was half way up the hill towards the shops that surrounded the fort. The other goal line was at the end of the angle where the fort met the water.

The ball had no cover. The player’s had no shoes. The goal was made of tree branches, unequal in size, knotted with rope and crooked in construction, barely able to survive a shot on the post.

"The players had uniforms, amazingly. One team was green. The other was blue. Every square inch of space that could be occupied by fans was, and there may have been 1000 people crammed into a total space that might be sufficient for 75 people to stand without touching one another. Yet no one cared about any of that. I, and my children, all soccer people, watched this game in utter disbelief from the top of the fort’s wall. When the Blue team scored against the Green, you might have thought for a moment, a goal has scored in a World Cup match.

"Sure, if FIFA has any sense at all, they will listen to people like Allen Hopkins and they should take his advice. On the other hand, if FIFA listens to the people of Africa, I don’t think there’s a better choice. Besides it’s about time Western World gave something back to Africa.

"So to hell with all the reasons why the World Cup shouldn’t happen in Africa. If there’s any continent in the World that needs the World Cup, if there’s a continent that can show it’s love for the game, and if there’s any continent that would show it’s appreciation for the games being staged there, it’s Africa."

I recently contacted Allen, who now works for ESPN.  I'm not gloating over the fact that FIFA decided favorably to stage the games in Africa.  Actually, I think Allen is secretly pleased with the decision.  I asked him if we can continue the debate.  "I'm going," I said.  "You should come, too.  Tell your guys at ESPN they need to be on this. It's simply the most historical event in the history of the sport, if not one of the most historical events in the history of time. Come and be a witness.  Come and celebrate!!'  \