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From Baltimore to Cabinda, my journey to the latest Big Game

CABINDA, Angola -- It only took four Nyquil, a last-flight-out-of-Saigon airport scene and 44 hours door-to-door from my home in Baltimore, but I made it here just in time for the kickoff of Friday's showdown in the Africa Cup of Nations between Ivory Coast and Ghana, the two showpiece teams in Africa's most important biannual sporting event.

I'm on this odyssey to the southwestern coast of Africa for a few reasons: to put together a magazine story for Sports Illustrated in advance of this summer's World Cup in South Africa (more on that down the road); to write some on-the-scene pieces for SI.com; to watch some of Africa's top soccer stars (like Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast, Michael Essien of Ghana and Samuel Eto'o of Cameroon); and to see first-hand how everyone is dealing with the aftermath of last week's machine-gun attack in Cabinda on the Togolese team bus, which killed three members of the Togo delegation, injured nine and caused the team to leave the tournament.

You might wonder why I'd make this trip after my last far-flung soccer journey to Honduras, where I drove solo cross-country in an ongoing coup, got mugged at gunpoint and met the Honduran president on the same profoundly strange afternoon. But I figured lightning can't strike twice, and I also did plenty of due diligence before I came here, hiring a driver and getting assurances about the relative safety of Cabinda City from the U.S. Embassy, a New York Times correspondent and the intrepid British soccer writer Jonathan Wilson, who's here covering the tournament.

Besides, crazy road adventures are one of the greatest things about soccer journalism, whether you're dodging beer showers in Mexico City, exploring the streets of Havana or making friends in the backwoods of China. The fact is that no sport comes close to connecting the world like soccer, and that common global passion causes fútbol to take on an importance -- and a symbolism -- that far exceeds those of the sport itself.

Take Angola, for instance. After suffering through a 27-year-long civil war that only ended in 2002, this country views its hosting of the African Nations Cup as a coming-out party to show off its growing infrastructure (including four new stadiums) after using its peace dividend and oil revenues to promote development over the past eight years. Everywhere you go, you'll see people wearing the red, black and yellow of their beloved Palancas Negras (Black Antelopes) team, which stoked national pride by beating Malawi 2-0 on Thursday night. The grinning mascot Palanquinha (The Little Antelope) is booting a soccer ball on billboards all over the country.

Yet long before this crowd-pleasing tournament started, skeptics questioned whether it was smart to award an event featuring some of the world's biggest soccer stars to a country so recently removed from war, one that still warns visitors to beware of left-over land mines throughout the country. (The Confederation of African Football has made a habit of awarding the ACN to developing nations, from Burkina Faso in 1998 to Mali in 2002. The next tournament in 2012 is being shared by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. In 2014 the host will be Libya.) Those skeptics felt even more unsettled when organizers placed one of the tournament's stadium venues in Cabinda, a tiny, relatively poor (but oil-rich) exclave separated from the rest of Angola by a small strip of Congo and the Zaire River.

A separatist group called FLEC has destabilized Cabinda over the years in its efforts to seek Cabindan independence, and it was FLEC that claimed responsibility for the Togo bus attack, which took place about 20 miles from here as the Togo team crossed into Cabinda overland from their training camp in Congo. (Take some time right now, if you want, to scan your world atlas for Cabinda. It's fair to say the only other significant global sporting event to have taken place in these parts was the "Rumble in the Jungle" between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in nearby Kinshasa in 1974.)

Here's a quick running diary of my journey to this point:

5 p.m. Wednesday, Baltimore: My cab driver somehow gets lost trying to take me from Charm City to Dulles Airport in northern Virginia. A pattern starts. I barely make my flight to Frankfurt.

11:30 a.m. Thursday, Frankfurt: There are few pleasures in life greater than taking a hot shower in the Lufthansa flight lounge after an overnight trip. Of course, those pleasures are mitigated by the Frankfurt airport itself: a charmless place that brings to mind thoughts of the Star Wars bar and travelers resembling Dieter from Sprockets on the old "Saturday Night Live".

9 p.m. Thursday, Frankfurt: Boarding Lufthansa flight 560 to Luanda. Surprisingly, many of my fellow travelers are Americans in mesh baseball caps. That's right: Chevron oil workers heading out for a 28-day shift. Just north of Cabinda City there's a heavily fortified Chevron compound named Malongo that includes, of all things, a plush golf course. Back when the Angolan government was supported by Cuba, you had the strange case of a U.S. oil company's land in a Marxist country being protected by Cuban troops.

5:30 a.m. Friday, Luanda: Arrival at 4 de Fevereiro airport! It's newly renovated and immaculate. Now if only Angolans could get out of the habit of naming their buildings after important dates. The shiny new soccer stadium here in the Angolan capital is called 11 de Novembro stadium. Either get a cool name or go for the sponsorship dollars, guys. It has to be one or the other!

6:30 a.m. Friday, Luanda: The Angolan capital has never had what might be called traditional Western-style taxis -- until the African Nations Cup. The gleaming white "Afri-Taxis" are brand new, and I hop in one for the 10-minute ride to the domestic terminal. It becomes a 20-minute ride when yet another cabbie gets lost on the way.

7 a.m. Friday, Luanda: Despair. All of the companies that offer flights to Cabinda say they are full or canceled for the day. There was no way for me to make an advance reservation from America. I have to get to Cabinda in time for the 7:30 p.m. game tonight. I run from one shop window to the other pleading my case in broken Portuguese. The shirt I have been wearing for two days is soaked with sweat in the 85-degree heat. Still no luck on the ticket.

I notice a curious phenomenon. Amid the throng of people outside the terminal, I'm approached by several local "ticket guys," who say they'll get me on the full flights and ask for my passport. (No thanks.) A female traveler finally explains: the "ticket guys" have connections inside the flight companies and (for an extra fee) can get you tickets when they're supposedly sold out. (Nice system there.) All you have to do is give them a copy of your passport (not the real thing) and let them go to work.

So I do that. Not even three different ticket guys can get me on a bird to Cabinda. I am a big, fat failure.

8 a.m. Friday, Luanda: And then -- a miracle. I'm approached by a friendly Angolan guy named Januário P.S. Cuela. "Call me J," he says. He's an engineer in his late 20s who has just dropped off his nephew for a flight. He speaks great English. He takes pity on me. For an hour J. hassles the sales staff of something called Diexem Express airlines. He has never met me before. We wait. I give him a copy of Sports Illustrated with Kentucky's John Wall on the cover. He asks me to sign it, acts like I'm doing him a favor. Unbelievable.

9 a.m. Friday, Luanda: Success! Not everyone has shown up for the flight. I'm taken off the Angolan version of stand-by, purchase my ticket and am allowed into the air-conditioned waiting room, but not before I offer J. a sizable tip (he won't take anything) and we exchange numbers. May good karma be with you forever, J. Cuela.

9:30 a.m. Friday, Luanda: Hey, my iPhone works here! Wonder how much I'm paying for roaming?

10 a.m. Friday, Luanda: My flight to Cabinda is canceled. Mechanical failure. I'm put on the next flight at 12:30 p.m..

1 p.m. Friday, Luanda: We board our plane!

2:30 p.m. Friday, Luanda: More delays. We're bused back to the terminal. Apparently the Cabinda airport runway doesn't have room for our prop-job because so many private planes have landed there for the Ghana-Ivory Coast game. The "Express" in Diexem Express is deemed a relative term.

3 p.m. Friday, Luanda: England's own Wilson is with me now. He's trying to go to Cabinda too, but informs me that with sunset at 5:30 p.m. (and requirements that planes land in daylight) we only have an hour before we'll have to scrap the trip for the day altogether. Depression sets in.

3:45 p.m., Friday, Luanda: Can it be? Yes! We're on the plane. We're taking off!

4:45 p.m., Friday, Cabinda: It's beautiful as we approach our landing: pristine sandy beaches, emerald-green fields, and ... lots of offshore oil rigs. I'm met by my driver, Pedro, and fixer, Cristóvão Luemba, a correspondent of the Angolan Catholic Church Radio Station Radio Ecclésia. Cristóvão is The Man. I think he might know everyone in Cabinda. The public affairs office of the U.S. Embassy in Luanda hooked me up with them -- many thanks to the Embassy guys.

5:30 p.m. Friday, Cabinda: Cristóvão comes with me to pick up my credential at the local basketball gym. (Remember, Angola is traditionally the best basketball country in Africa, despite what you might recall from the first game of the Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics.) Duly credentialed, I'm legit and can get into the stadium.

7 p.m. Friday, Cabinda: After checking into my hotel in the Cabinda town square -- an attractive store-fronted area with a sort of tropical-style light spectacular -- we drive 30 minutes through heavy traffic to the gorgeous new 35,000-seat stadium, a Chinese-built jewel that reminds me of stadiums used at the 2008 Olympics. There are plenty of gun-toting security officers along the way -- no one wants any more violent incidents, despite promises of more from FLEC -- but not so many that the fans can't have fun in the stands.

7:30 p.m. Friday, Cabinda: Kickoff! I'm seated in the press area in the third row of the stadium at midfield. No matter how many times you see these guys play on television, it's jarring to be this close to the speed and power of players like Ivory Coast's Drogba, Yayá Touré and Salomon Kalou or Ghana's Essien (a surprise non-starter) and Asamoah Gyan. ACN crowds are relentlessly festive, with brass- and horn-bands supporting both sides, and the style of play tends to be fast-and free-wheeling too. It's a heck of a lot of fun.

9:30 p.m. Friday, Cabinda: Drogba's late goal allows Ivory Coast to finish off a 3-1 victory in which it dominated, even after going down a man (to Emanuel Eboué's second-half red card). Ivory Coast qualifies for the second round with a victory, and afterward I'll talk to Drogba (in English) and Touré (in Spanish; he plays for Barcelona) in the mixed zone.

11:40 p.m. Friday, Cabinda: A phone interview on CNN International World Sport complete, I slump into a chair in the lobby of my hotel. I'm hungry as hell, and the only restaurant open on my street can offer a bottle of Portuguese SuperBock beer and a piece of chocolate cake. It's the best combination ever. For all the effort it takes to travel to the most remote Big Game in the world, every single minute is worth it.

Back with more reports in the coming days...

You can follow Grant Wahl on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GrantWahl

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