Three teams answered the call from Sierra Leone to take part in the first All-African Amputee Football Championship, but come 9 February there was one notable absentee. While Ghana and Liberia both succeeded in attending the historic event, Nigeria were involved in an adventure of their own. Having left Lagos in a bus, the Super Eagles spent a gruelling five-and-a-half days on the road to Freetown, only to miss the big kick-off.
"We didn't know the distances involved, so we calculated as well as we could and reckoned it would take us three days to arrive in Freetown," explains Nigeria coach George Badejo Olusegun. "We just hadn't allowed for the hazards along the way." Severely bereft of funds, the Super Eagles chose to go by road and packed into an old school bus to complete the 1,800km trek between the two capitals. And with 19 people setting off on a vehicle that only seated 18, the sums were already failing to add up.
"We planned for a three-day trip which meant three days of
food, but we got slowed down," recalls Olusegun. "The
roads aren't very good in Benin and Togo and when the sun came
up on the third day, we'd only reached Ghana. By that time, we
had nothing left to eat." Adding to their troubles, the
contingent were forced to travel to the capital of each country
along the way to have their passports stamped. "Bureaucracy is
not always particularly quick," notes their trainer, dryly. By
this time, the driver was understandably exhausted as well.
The worst was yet to come, however, with the drive through Côte d'Ivoire approaching calamitous levels. Still unstable, the country is teeming with rebel roadblocks. "We had to wait for hours on end and they stole everything. They took our money, our watches and our clothes. We had nothing left." In all, the Nigerians' yellow bus spent a taxing three days on Ivorian soil.
At the last roadblock, the head of the delegation asked the players to leave the bus and explain to the rebels why they were there and how they had nothing left to give. "The rebels watched as the amputee players climbed out of the bus on their crutches and they were surprised," says Olusegun. "They spoke to the players and realised most of them had once been soldiers too, just like them. Some of them began crying and they gave us food and let us go on."
Liberia proved less fraught, but a fresh problem held the bus up one last time. Arriving at the border with Sierra Leone late on Saturday 10 February, the Nigerians were told it was closed until the following morning. At this point, there was no chance the team would arrive on time. "The tournament's organiser, Mambud Samai, tried to negotiate with the Liberian customs officials, but he got nowhere. We knew then that we were going to be too late and the players were crushed."
Determined not to give up, the Nigerians continued on towards their destination without money for food or petrol. There was only one option, according to Olusegun: "We collected all the players' mobile phones and sold them to buy gas." Finally, on the evening of 11 February, the delegation reached Freetown. The tournament had begun without them, but they still managed to arrange a friendly match with Sierra Leone. And when they left, they left by plane. After all they had been through, no one had the heart to watch them clamber back on board their yellow bus and begin another six-day nightmare.