Guns and smiles in Portugal trio's Africa adventure

JOHANNESBURG - Three Portuguese fans drove 20,000 kilometres through 13 countries, braved gunmen in Sudan, made Ethiopian children smile and dodged trouble by trading Ronaldo shirts to watch Portugal's World Cup opener against the Ivory Coast in Port Elizabeth on Tuesday.

Carlos Brum, Jorge Franco and Joaquim Baptista, all businessmen, met at previous finals, but this time embarked on the adventure of their lives, spending 16,000 euros on a truck that has been their transport and home since April 25.

Their departure point was symbolic - Lisbon's Belem Tower, from where their ancestors sailed off in the 15th century to discover new worlds, including the South African shores.

Like many of those brave sailors, the 21st century adventurers also had their fair share of close shaves.

"The biggest one was driving in Sudan at night. A pickup truck carrying several machine gun-toting men overtook us, all staring at us," the 38-year-old Franco said.

"A few kilometres later they blocked the road and said they were police officers in plain clothes, but we were suspicious. But then we started talking football and told them what we were doing and suddenly everything went well," he said.

They decided not to drive again at night, but almost ran into trouble again on the South African border when they were refused entry by guards.

"They wanted to stop us, but there's nothing like a few Cristiano Ronaldo T-shirts to unblock a bureaucratic situation," Franco quipped.

GRATIFYING MOMENTS

The trip also had some very gratifying moments.

"The best was in Nampula (Mozambique) where we offered balls, clothes, toys and pens to the locals. Also in Ethiopia, where we saw children suddenly smile when we gave them soccer balls."

On arriving at Magaliesburg, the small town around an hour from Johannesburg and where the Portugal team is based, they were received "like kings". They parked their Mercedes truck in front of the players' hotel and became an instant attraction.

"People gave use food, they invited us into their houses. You could say the only thing they didn't give us was their girlfriends," Franco said.

They received a message of support from Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz and expect to meet the players in Port Elizabeth.

They hope to follow their team all the way to final. After that they will ship the truck back to Portugal, but hope to get on the road again in two years, headed for the European Championships in Poland and the Ukraine.

"Now it should be easier, we've done the difficult one!" Franco said.

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