By Paul Bassey

Time there was when travelling was fun. Perhaps not anymore.
As a third year student of modern languages in the University of Calabar, we needed to go abroad for a year and I was one of those who benefitted Grenoble, France as destination. So started my romance with passports, visas, tickets, planes, hotels……name it.

My romance with journalism, founding sports editor of the Champion group of newspapers enhanced that vocation a great deal. Because Champion decided to use sports to break into the newspaper market, my colleagues and I travelled to every sports event that Nigeria participated in, from the Olympics to the FIFA World Cup, Commonwealth Games, All Africa Games, Cup of Nations….again, name it.

At the Champion, we also developed a strategy of staying ahead of competition by making sure we arrived a week before the start of such events so that we could start the build up as regards weather, arrivals, venue lay out…..Nigerians loved us for it.

My romance with foreign travels got a boost when I was appointed into CAF in 1992 as a member of the Press and media committee whose knowledge of French meant I had to be at every Nations cup as media officer. When you travel CAF, you travel business class, you stay in five star plus hotels!

In 1997, I got this mail that said I had been appointed by FIFA to be at the Coca Cola Junior World Cup in Malaysia as media officer. I must have read that letter over 20 times in one minute and cross checked my name in as many times.

Then, came the real one. I must have done well in Malaysia to have earned a call up by then FIFA Communications Director Keith Cooper as member of the FIFA delegation to the World Cup in France, with Marseille as my base.

Since then there has been no stopping me. In Korea _Japan I was the only Nigerian on the FIFA delegation.Name the country and I will tell you my experience.

As I grew older, that thrill, that expectation started waning, partly because I have seen it all, and most importantly……..age. as I grow older, my body resists waiting at the airport for six hours for a connecting flight……..jumping from one plane to another and perhaps landing in an hotel whose facilities do not match those of my humble abode.

In all these however the thrill of serving football keeps me on. After all, as a recipient of the prestigious CAF Award for service to African Football, I am condemned to answering the call of my culture medium….forever.

One of such calls came recently when I was appointed to go to Algeria as General Coordinator of the CAF Champions league match between Entente Setif and defending champions T. P. Mazembe of Congo D.R. it was when my flight schedule arrived from CAF that I realized that the match was not going to hold in Algiers but in Setif, a place I had never been to, so it lifted my expectations.

Last year I had a similar novel experience when I went to Lubumbashi for the first time as CAF Coordinator of the Champion’s league semi final match between T.P and AL Hilal of the Sudan.

I set off from Lagos in the company of legendary Linus Mba who was on his way to Cairo for his referees committee meeting. Thanks to the FIFA Referees Advisor, the six hour flight was the shortest I had made on that route as we discussed extensively on Nigeria, Africa and world football. If officials of Egypt Air are reading this, travelling business class with them is no more fun. That extra touch, unlimited choice of drinks and food, carry home memento……all are lacking.

More on Egypt Air. Got to Cairo, bid Mba bye and had to wait in transit for over two hours before we were ferried to our hotel. Gratefully the five star luxury of hotel Radisson Blu…..complete with free and fast room internet services helped to soothe the frustration of the long wait at Cairo Airport.

The next day, as early as 6am, I was off to the airport where a 9am flight awaited me to Algiers.
Got to the airport too early, window shopped for over two hours and was finally in a plane filled with Moslems ( most of them very old ladies barely able to walk ) on their way back from Mecca. With my CAF suit and pair of trousers I found myself totally out of place in the piously white galabiya clad entourage….

My prayer, that of not sitting beside an old woman was not answered and I found myself virtually spoon feeding my neighbor for the four hour duration of the flight! (That, is the topic of another day )

As we landed in Algiers, I thanked the Almighty for Journey mercies and …..for surviving my neighbor. Then commenced another wait, this time for three hours for a 30 minute flight to Setif.
Got into Setif safely, ( Of course, if not, I would not have written this column.) No old ladies this time ( If there were, I would have opted for the three hour journey by road with the pretext of wanting to experience the country side! )

The hotel here is not really top class, but very neat and ok. Oriental carpets, Muslim murals, boldly inscribed direction of Mecca, TV channels without CNN, BBC, SKY….lots and lots of Arabic alternatives with a sprinkle of French ( TF1) I thank God for a twenty four hour Fox Film Channel. As I am writing this I have already watched seven interesting films back to back, including ‘The school of rock’ ‘The fighting Temptations’ ‘Training’ ‘Survival 24’ ‘Nurse Getty’……..

How about UEFA Champions League and Europa Cup matches? Saw none except the Europa confrontation between Anderlecht. and Zenith which was relayed in Arabic. (Did not need any language to see the four goals of the match)

Food has been a problem. Today I have been promised rice. I have been on a twenty four hour diet of chicken, steak, potatoes, salads, lots and lots of all types of baskets of bread and fruits and coffee and tea. Is it by force that I have to take coffee and tea after every meal? They say it is for digestion. Is it not when you eat that you worry about indigestion?
On Friday I decide to let go, ask to be served “ Chef Recommends”. Over twelve years ago, Ikeddy Isiguzo had warned me against ‘Chef Recommends’. He said to me then that the Chef will always recommend what was surplus in his pantry. On Friday I ignored him, asked for the meal of the day ( Plat du jour ) and got ‘Roasted liver in a fried okro sauce’. I slept hungry.

Let me quickly say that when I left Nigeria, I was so relieved. Run away from the mad sports and political environment, deciding that I will not even bother myself with news from home save calls to family and friends.

Just finished watching the maiden interview of the new Algerian coach, Abdelhak Benchikha. The former Club Africain coach was appointed less than one week after Rabah Saadane had thrown in the towel. He says he carries the flag of home based coaches, that there will be no distinction between home based and foreign based players and is thrilled by Rangers defender Madjid Bougherra,who was voted man of the match in the Champion’s League confrontation against Man. U.

I switch Channels, in time for the start of the film “ I think I love my wife” starring Chris Rock and Kerry Washington…………………. and that, gives me an idea for the title of this week’s travelogue. East, West, North or South, I think I love Nigeria. Can’t wait to be back.
See you next week.


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