Passports, jobsworths and the Kaizer Chiefs

“I’m sorry Sir, you’ll not be boarding the aircraft to Johannesburg.”

“But…”

“I’m sorry.”

This was the culmination of a conversation at midnight on Thursday, shortly after I’d tried to board the Air France 777 to South Africa at Paris Charles De Gaulle.

As I handed in my final boarding card, an airline employee flicked through my passport. He paid particular attention to each visa stamp. Was it because I’d been to Cuba, Israel or Saudi Arabia? No, it was because there wasn’t a free page for my South African visa. There were half pages – and a previous South Africa visa took only half a page, but Mr Jobsworth was adamant and I wasn’t allowed to fly with my passport.

As my head started to spin, I heard: “You’ll have to try and get a new passport and we’ll put you on tomorrow night’s flight.”

“But I’m in Paris? How can I get a new passport in a day?”

“We’re sorry.”

Rooney tussles with Jimmy Tau in Cape Town

I was escorted out of departures to an Air France desk, where a lad overheard my conversation who lived in Manchester. He’d missed his connection to Rio de Janiero and Air France were putting him up for the night in an airport hotel. He was a United fan. With no space in the airport hotels, he said that I could crash in his room. I appreciated the gesture immensely.

First thing on Friday morning, I rang the British Consulate in the French capital.

“We can’t promise anything, but come down,” offered a soothing voice.

I took a train into Paris, thinking about lost flights and interviews. The staff in the Consulate were highly efficient and promised me a brand new 48 page jumbo passport within four hours for €194. I called my mum and praised the Consulate.

“They knock the British for many things,” she said, “but we’re good at things like that.”

Then I rang Carla Bruni to see if she could whip up some eggs on toast and a brew, but she was at Lidl buying cleaning products. So I walked the trendy Arrondissements around the Consulate, the Champs Elysees and St. Germain in the same clothes I’d been wearing a day earlier as my luggage was held in the airport.

The Brits were true to their word with the passport and at 5pm Friday I headed back to the airport hoping to finalise my flight connection to Cape Town, the destination of Manchester United’s first pre-season friendly at 3.30pm on Saturday.

The first Air France official told me it would cost €3,064 as my ticket needed to be upgraded to Business Class. I laughed. The second took an hour, but did it for free. My new flight meant I would arrive 1 hour 10 minutes before kick-off. I boarded the plane, with officials barely glancing at my new passport and not checking any pages.

I rarely sleep on planes, but managed eight hours as we flew south before switching for a connection to Cape Town where a hire car was still waiting. 47 hours after setting off, I arrived two minutes before kick-off. United drew 1-1 against the Kaizer Chiefs.

Goalscorer Chris Eagles congratulated by Ryan Giggs 

Later, I was further surprised when a Manchester United director told me that he too had a full passport – but that he’d had no problems boarding the plane.

“I didn’t have any free space so they just stuck a little visa over my Macau stamp,” he said.

I had barely 24 hours in Cape Town, a superb city as I learned in 2000 when first visiting with Quinton Fortune for a magazine feature, before flying to Durban, where I’ve finally been able to unpack my case ahead of United’s game against Orlando Pirates on Tuesday night.

A few of my mates have travelled out to watch the tour, but while they enjoy beaches and beer, I’m holing myself up for two days to write. I’ve got to deliver 4,000 words by next Monday. I’ve already got 8,000 words of notes and interviews, so I need peace to work.

And no planes.

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