Here is the story of how the World Cup began for me when I was cycling round the world.
The World Cup, at last, was only hours away. France, the World Champions, were playing Senegal, the African lions, in the opening match of the competition. I said goodbye to the latest village that had looked after me, memorable for the children’s homemade wooden bicycles, and pedalled quickly to find a town with a television where I could watch the football. Each village I reached told me that the next village would have a television. But none of them did. After four years’ waiting, I was going to miss the match. I was desperate and so, with only two hours to go until kick-off, I cheated.
You may want to stop reading now and demand a refund for this book that claims that I cycled to South Africa. Because I did not. I cheated. I stuck out my thumb, a pick-up stopped, I thanked the driver, hurled my bike in the back, and whizzed – entirely voluntarily – 60 miles to Dar Es Salaam. I had no excuse and no regrets. A game of football was more important to me than sixty miles of flat scrubland. I never did it again, but once is enough.
Five minutes before kick-off I was cycling, panic rising once more, up and down the streets of Dar Es Salaam trying to find a television. “Television? Football?” I kept asking. Fortunately, everyone understood those two words and pointed me in the right direction. I spotted a little board with ‘France-Senegal’ scrawled on it. Relieved, I pushed my bike through into a scruffy little backroom bar and flopped, sweat-soaked, onto a chair. Welcome to The Greatest Show on Earth.
Twelve people were sitting in silence round a small television screen on pink plastic chairs in the courtyard at the back of the shebeen, or drinking den. I bought a Pepsi and sat down. The screen was half obscured by bright sunlight. One supporter spoke English and checked that I was going to be supporting Senegal. Of course, I told him. The referee blew his whistle and the game began, a momentous game in which the African nation, in their first ever World Cup, defeated the reigning World champions.
Early in the second half of the match the phone rang behind the bar. The call was for me. Surprised, I walked to the bar. Who could possibly want to speak to me in a random African boozer? Nobody I had ever known knew where I was.
“Hello?” I asked.
“My friend,” spoke an African man with a deep, rolling voice. “After the game, you will be beaten and robbed. Stay behind for ten minutes before you leave in order to be safe.”
Before I could speak again he hung up.
I returned to my seat beside my bike and looked around. Everyone was watching the game. Nobody was doing anything unusual or looking at me.What the hell was going on?
I didn’t want to leap up and panic. But I didn’t want to hang around either. Who on earth was that on the phone? (I found a moment to be amused that I was not going to be robbed until the game was actually over: “Police are today looking for a dangerous gang of robbers. They are all believed to be keen football fans…”) I started to wonder whether the caller was actually trying to make me stay behind so that I could be mugged then. I had to get out of there, to the safety of the public street. I looked around the courtyard, searching for escape routes if things suddenly kicked off. I could probably leap onto that table and then up onto the roof, but where then? I would just have to take my chances.
I drank my Pepsi, watched the game and tried not to let on that I had been tipped off. I was scared stiff. With ten minutes of the game remaining, I stood up as calmly as I could and wheeled my bike towards the exit. My whole body was tensed and expecting the scrape of chairs as I was rushed and grabbed and punched. Here we go. Oh no. Oh no, no, no, no, NO! I was ready to kick and bite and scratch or to run – hopefully to run. But nobody moved from the television and, after sauntering out the door, I jumped onto my bike and pedalled like I had never pedalled before. I didn’t care where I was going, I was just going. I stood on the pedals and thrashed them round and round as I raced down the road, snatching glances back over my shoulder. After a few minutes, the lactic acid started to bite and I slowed down, certain by now that nobody was following me and I was safe again. It was a strange and inexplicable incident.
- Extracted from Moods of Future Joys, available here.