Mile high club to Mali

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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.

Phil kicks me out of Senegal into a Mali-bound DHL freight plane. We take off into the night sky. Once airborne and comfortable, Phil and Andrew organise our surroundings. Stacks of containers taking up the hold become makeshift goalposts and, high above the clouds, I am used in a game of football.

In Mali I am a guest at Le Stade 26 Mars, the national stadium in the capital, Bamako. It is the dry season. There has been no rain since November. We drive to the stadium with the windows down. The needle on the dashboard's thermometer leans heavy on forty-five degrees Celsius. It is sweltering.

I play in a 20-minute game of unified football between two teams of players with and without intellectual disabilities, before a match where national champions FC Djoliba continued their unbeaten campaign with a two-nil win against Duguwolofila.

Our game ends in a 1-1 draw, and players from both teams and officials cover me in their signatures.

There is large presence of African players throughout European leagues. Mali's national team is packed with players whose careers have taken them to some of the biggest clubs in the world; with Frederic Kanoute at Seville, Mohamed Sissoko at Juventus, Mahamadou Diarra at Real Madrid, and Seydou Keita at the all-conquering Barcelona.

The lack of money to keep African players in Africa has been well documented. But elsewhere, outside of the game, we have met many Africans who have left other countries to return to their homeland.

Bashir, our driver in Senegal, was living in America and booked a one-way ticket home after being inspired by his country's 1-0 win over the then reigning world champions France during the 2002 World Cup.

Salif Keita is one footballer who returned home after a distinguished career that saw him win four consecutive French league titles with St Etienne before going onto play for Marseille, Valencia and Sporting Lisbon. He was African Player of the Year 1970 and many consider him one of the greatest players the continent has ever produced.

We meet Salif at the Mande Hotel, which he owns and which is situated on the banks of the River Niger. He speaks to us about what football means to him. “It can help people to live together,” he says, smiling. “In this moment the world has many problems. Football can help us to solve some of them by encouraging people to accept others.”

Salif tells us that African teams have as good a chance as any of winning this year’s World Cup.

Guidance later comes to Phil, Andrew and I through an invitation to meet a teacher of the animist tradition, known as a fetish-man. They believe all things have souls – be these humans, animals, mountains, rivers, or even modern football stadia like stadium:mk in Milton Keynes.

We're taken to a house that seems to have been made almost entirely from mud. A hunter guards the entrance. Smoke escapes from the long pipe hanging from his lips. His index finger is pressed on the trigger of what appears to be a musket. Phil presents me to him.

We are welcomed inside where the fetish-man examines me closely by running his fingers along my stitching. Then he clears a space on the floor and draws symbols in the dust in much the same way Andy Gray is prone to on Sky Sports.

After much speaking to himself, he is ready to give us his message. “There will be a happy end to your journey to Johannesburg.” We're glad to hear it.

Next stop: Burkino Faso.

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

Part 3: In Iraq, football is torture
Part 4: You'll have to forgive him, he's from Hotel Barcelona
Part 5: Making changes in Senegal
Balls to Africa home

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