In Iraq, football is torture

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Alive & Kicking's 250,000th ball continues its journey with the Spirit of Football team from London to the World Cup opening ceremony in Johannesburg.


We've enjoyed plenty of hospitality so far on this trip, but when Andrew from Spirit of Football decided to use charm rather than Black Amex to book a hotel room in Monaco, saying to staff we were on a footballing mission of utmost importance, I knew he had even less chance of getting us a free night's stay than Michael Owen has of getting his Facebook friend request accepted by Fabio Capello.

The last place we tried was the Hermitage Hotel in Casino Square, one of the poshest places in the whole of Monte Carlo. Although they wouldn’t give us a room either, the concierge was good enough to rubberstamp me with the hotel's crest, but by then I was more interested in organising a kickabout on the hotel’s immaculate lawn.

Poor ball seeks place to sleep

At first Monte Carlo's women didn't seem so keen on me, although judging by their old boyfriends I wasn't the only leather-faced thing in town. But before I had a chance to impress the ladies the game was brought to a halt when I left the Hermitage lawn via a heavy punt – only to be brought under instant control by the well-polished shoe of Haitham Rashid Wihaib, an Iraqi who previously held the position of Minister of Protocol for Saddam Hussein.

Haitham told us how he's spent his life fighting against dictatorship. The football team he was associated with refused to play against a side put together by Saddam Hussein's son Uday, an act that saw Haitham's friends tortured by Uday's henchmen. Before wishing us well and saying goodbye, Haitham said he, like me, was an ambassador of peace.

Christian from Spirit of Football took the wheel as we made our way along the French Riviera to Barcelona in torrential rain. The reigning European Champions had invited us onto the Camp Nou pitch – somewhere very few visitors have opportunity to go.

Chris and me at Camp Nou

We left Barcelona and headed to the ferry port of Algeciras, stopping off on the way for kickabout on a roadside pitch. Some local children joined us and before you knew it I was hitting the back of the net more often than Wayne Rooney. "Gol!" these skilful little Xavis, Iniestas and Messis would cry each time I crossed the goal-line.

The game was followed by another gruelling drive through torrential weather, and some 150 kilometres further down the line it suddenly dawned on Christian that he'd left behind his bag containing his credit cards and passport. Perhaps the excitement of following in Lionel Messi's footsteps at Camp Nou had somehow gotten to him?

Without further ado, Christian spun the car round and in a state of high anxiety sped us back through the pouring rain to the pitch. Miraculously, the bag had been handed into the police station with nothing missing from it.

Not wishing to waste another minute we set off at once for Algeciras. Once there we made our way to the seafront and stared out across the choppy waters of the Mediterranean towards Africa. I was looking forward to returning home to decent weather and sunshine.

Next stop: Morocco.

Part 1: From Battersea to Belgium en route to Africa
Part 2: Lost in translation with Julio Cesar
Balls to Africa home

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