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
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
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
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
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
Here's a quick running diary of my journey to this point:
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.
Back with more reports in the coming days...