Lost & found in South Africa

Alive & Kicking's 250,000th ball completes its journey with the Spirit of Football team from London to the World Cup Finals in South Africa.

Lost in darknessAhead in the darkness I could make out four figures groping around on their hands and knees. It was Andrew, Phil and Christian from Spirit of Football, and our driver Richard.

Richard had parked the mini-bus on the outskirts of Rustenburg so that Phil could speak to the BBC about how we were just over 100 miles away from the Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg, having begun our journey to the World Cup Finals from Battersea Park, London, 132 long days ago. At no point during that drive did they notice me rolling out of the open mini bus door and into the tall grass on the side of the road. They drove off into the distance, leaving me far behind, along with the chances of us reaching Johannesburg together.

A bottle of South African brandy helped make the mood on the mini-bus a very good one, though it was around the fourth or fifth time the bottle had been passed around when the panic set in. Who had the ball, they asked each other? A sudden horrible realisation began to hit home that they were an important passenger light.

During our long journey through the continent, Andrew's sleep had been interrupted by a recurring bad dream where he had lost me. This time he wasn't bolt upright in bed between sweat-soaked sheets. A futile search of the mini-bus found nothing, and the chances of finding me seemed less realistic than Raymond Domenech being invited to Nicolas Anelka's house for a cup of tea and a chocolate hobnob.

As our driver, and the only one not drunk on Klipdrift, Richard insisted that he remembered exactly where they had stopped earlier, and sped the frantic Spirit of Football team back to where he thought that was. On arrival each of the four men got out into the wild safari armed with nothing more than desperation.

They began by searching the undergrowth on the side of the road. Each conversation they had was further invitation for hungry wildlife to eat them all for dinner. Ten minutes of hopeless groping and searching passed before Christian's outstretched hands stumbled upon me in a thicket of grass. Any hungry lions looking on would have no doubt been scared off by the sight of four sweaty men cuddling each for far longer than deemed appropriate in polite society.

Johannesburg Outside the Soccer City stadium the streets were filled with Mexican supporters dressed in green and mixing freely and dancing with fans of Bafana Bafana, amid a chorus of booming vuvuzelas. Fans of both nationalities began using me as an opportunity to showcase their own football skills, while Phil led them into a singsong of 'one ball, one world,' to which an English-speaking Mexican began a spirited rendition of 'un mundo - una pelota.'

Unlike some nationalities, South African football fans seemed to have realistic ambitions for Bafana Bafana's progress in what is their own World Cup, but in no way did that diminish the overwhelming sense of pride and excitement that hosting the competition has brought them. Although not everybody there knew about my journey through Africa, it didn't take long for people to understand what I represented – although as a football outside the stadium for the first game of the World Cup, I was clearly preaching to the converted.

To watch South Africa take on Uruguay in the opening game we were in the township of Soweto, only a stone’s throw away from the magnificent Soccer City stadium. The area is better known for its struggle against apartheid, which we had to keep reminding ourselves ended only 16 years ago, the same year a Brazilian team of mixed-race players featuring the likes of Dunga and Marcio Santos lifted the World Cup over 10,000 miles away in Los Angeles.

Around us vast hordes of people were dancing and singing in front of one of many recently-installed large-screen TVs. Andrew, Phil and Christian were the only white people present. Once Kaiser Chiefs' Siphiwe Tshabalala smashed South Africa into a one-nil lead, the celebrations really kicked off from those whose love of the game is clear to see, with the yellow and green of Bafana Bafana adorning television aerials, gateposts and doorways as far as the eye could see.

So, the journey is over. I've been repaired four times throughout the 32 countries that are represented by each of my 32 leather panels, which are now covered with some 17,000 signatures of people we have met. Now I will retire as a football. Having learnt so much about the Spirit of Football and Alive & Kicking, I am confident that long after the World Cup trophy is held aloft on 11 July, their work will continue to dissolve the boundaries between race, age and intellectual disability. One ball, one world.

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