From Baltimore to Cabinda, my journey to the latest Big Game
Traveling from the U.S. to Angola requires a little patience and luck
Angola views the tournament as a chance to display its developing infrastructure
Ivory Coast topped Ghana 3-1 to advance to the next round
CABINDA, Angola -- It only took four Nyquil, a last-flight-out-of-Saigon airport scene and 44 hours door-to-door from my home in Baltimore, but I made it here just in time for the kickoff of Friday's showdown in the Africa Cup of Nations between Ivory Coast and Ghana, the two showpiece teams in Africa's most important biannual sporting event.
I'm on this odyssey to the southwestern coast of Africa for a few reasons: to put together a magazine story for Sports Illustrated in advance of this summer's World Cup in South Africa (more on that down the road); to write some on-the-scene pieces for SI.com; to watch some of Africa's top soccer stars (like Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast, Michael Essien of Ghana and Samuel Eto'o of Cameroon); and to see first-hand how everyone is dealing with the aftermath of last week's machine-gun attack in Cabinda on the Togolese team bus, which killed three members of the Togo delegation, injured nine and caused the team to leave the tournament.
You might wonder why I'd make this trip after my last far-flung soccer journey to Honduras, where I drove solo cross-country in an ongoing coup, got mugged at gunpoint and met the Honduran president on the same profoundly strange afternoon. But I figured lightning can't strike twice, and I also did plenty of due diligence before I came here, hiring a driver and getting assurances about the relative safety of Cabinda City from the U.S. Embassy, a New York Times correspondent and the intrepid British soccer writer Jonathan Wilson, who's here covering the tournament.
Besides, crazy road adventures are one of the greatest things about soccer journalism, whether you're dodging beer showers in Mexico City, exploring the streets of Havana or making friends in the backwoods of China. The fact is that no sport comes close to connecting the world like soccer, and that common global passion causes fútbol to take on an importance -- and a symbolism -- that far exceeds those of the sport itself.
Take Angola, for instance. After suffering through a 27-year-long civil war that only ended in 2002, this country views its hosting of the African Nations Cup as a coming-out party to show off its growing infrastructure (including four new stadiums) after using its peace dividend and oil revenues to promote development over the past eight years. Everywhere you go, you'll see people wearing the red, black and yellow of their beloved Palancas Negras (Black Antelopes) team, which stoked national pride by beating Malawi 2-0 on Thursday night. The grinning mascot Palanquinha (The Little Antelope) is booting a soccer ball on billboards all over the country.
Yet long before this crowd-pleasing tournament started, skeptics questioned whether it was smart to award an event featuring some of the world's biggest soccer stars to a country so recently removed from war, one that still warns visitors to beware of left-over land mines throughout the country. (The Confederation of African Football has made a habit of awarding the ACN to developing nations, from Burkina Faso in 1998 to Mali in 2002. The next tournament in 2012 is being shared by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. In 2014 the host will be Libya.) Those skeptics felt even more unsettled when organizers placed one of the tournament's stadium venues in Cabinda, a tiny, relatively poor (but oil-rich) exclave separated from the rest of Angola by a small strip of Congo and the Zaire River.
A separatist group called FLEC has destabilized Cabinda over the years in its efforts to seek Cabindan independence, and it was FLEC that claimed responsibility for the Togo bus attack, which took place about 20 miles from here as the Togo team crossed into Cabinda overland from their training camp in Congo. (Take some time right now, if you want, to scan your world atlas for Cabinda. It's fair to say the only other significant global sporting event to have taken place in these parts was the "Rumble in the Jungle" between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in nearby Kinshasa in 1974.)
Here's a quick running diary of my journey to this point:
5 p.m. Wednesday, Baltimore: My cab driver somehow gets lost trying to take me from Charm City to Dulles Airport in northern Virginia. A pattern starts. I barely make my flight to Frankfurt.
11:30 a.m. Thursday, Frankfurt: There are few pleasures in life greater than taking a hot shower in the Lufthansa flight lounge after an overnight trip. Of course, those pleasures are mitigated by the Frankfurt airport itself: a charmless place that brings to mind thoughts of the Star Wars bar and travelers resembling Dieter from Sprockets on the old "Saturday Night Live".
9 p.m. Thursday, Frankfurt: Boarding Lufthansa flight 560 to Luanda. Surprisingly, many of my fellow travelers are Americans in mesh baseball caps. That's right: Chevron oil workers heading out for a 28-day shift. Just north of Cabinda City there's a heavily fortified Chevron compound named Malongo that includes, of all things, a plush golf course. Back when the Angolan government was supported by Cuba, you had the strange case of a U.S. oil company's land in a Marxist country being protected by Cuban troops.