For the 31 sides that had to qualify to join hosts Brazil at this summer’s FIFA World Cup™, the world’s media often describe their hard work, sacrifice and determination on the road to Brazil. For one England fan on a fundraising mission, his journey to this summer’s finals has been much longer, more demanding and tougher than most.
Hugh Thompson is in the final stages of a 25,000km journey that will take in 25 countries across five continents by the time he reaches Rio de Janeiro in June. What makes his feat all the more impressive is that the incredible distance has been covered on the Newcastle United fan’s trusted bicycle Shola (named affectionately after the Magpies’ Nigerian forward, Shola Ameobi).
But why is this Englishman undertaking such an arduous challenge? He is raising money for TackleAfrica, a charity that delivers HIV education through football across the continent that hosted the 2010 finals. The 29-year-old, who has worked with homeless football projects across England and for the New York Red Bulls as a development coach in the USA, told FIFA.com about the purpose behind his journey and the good and bad times on his road to Rio.
“I volunteered for TackleAfrica five years ago in Uganda,” Thompson said. “I was blown away by the impact the charity was having on local communities. I fell in love with the country, the people and their passion for football. I also witnessed the need to educate young people about HIV and was inspired to make a difference and raise some money.”
Thompson has some remarkable stories from his time on the road so far, including playing and coaching in some stunning locations.
“I’ve had the privilege of visiting lots of TackleAfrica’s projects in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania,” Thompson continued. “I’ve met some incredible women who are empowering young girls in Tanzania. I ran a football tournament in Sydney, raising £4,000 on the day with 20 teams taking part which was incredible. I also joined in an endless game of football on the side of the road in western Sumatra as the sun came down, which was amazing.”
There is one moment from his journey that stands out for Thompson though, and it is directly linked to his roots in the north-east of England.
“I was coaching and playing in Budapest as part of a homeless football project,” Thompson said. “It was a beautiful afternoon on Margaret Island and nearby there was a musical fountain. I read that morning it was four years to the day that Sir Bobby Robson had passed away. While I played in the sunshine, the famous Nessun Dorma came through the musical fountains. It was a great moment with memories of 1990 coming flooding back.”
It is England’s run to the semi-finals at Italy 1990 that provides Thompson with his earliest World Cup memories, and he admits his dream cycling partner would be the Three Lions manager from that tournament.
Thompson said: “Bobby Robson would provide endless stories of his time in football. You spend so much time on the bike that I imagine I would learn so much cycling next to him. He would no doubt also make me laugh during the hard times!”
There have indeed been plenty of tough times for Thompson, who was in Nairobi in September last year when the Westgate Mall terrorist attacks took place in Kenya.
“I’ve been chased by wild dogs in rural Bulgaria and been knocked off my bike in Istanbul, Bangalore and the Australian Newcastle,” Thompson explained. “It’s also a very difficult challenge mentally, with long periods of not talking to anyone. I found I was talking to myself a lot. I developed an injury called Cyclist Palsy in Asia. Because the roads were so bad in India and Africa, and I was cycling every day without rest, I damaged the nerve in my hands which led to numbness and a lack of grip. A bit of rest and some flat roads sorted that out.”
The cycling football coach has developed an understanding of what he calls “the incredible kindness of strangers” during his journey, and admits he has been overwhelmed by the response from communities across a remarkably diverse spectrum of cultures.
“People have bought me food, invited me into their homes to eat and also passed donations for the charity through their car windows as I’ve been cycling along. There have been endless beds, floors and camping spots that people have offered up on the journey. Obviously the support from family and friends back home has been huge and more than anything, the knowledge that I am raising money for such a good cause makes it worthwhile, no matter how tough the days get.”
Thompson would do well to pass on some of his fighting spirit to Roy Hodgson’s England, who have been drawn in a particularly difficult group with Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica.
“I think Hodgson has to be brave and pick a squad for the future,” Thompson said. “If he does that I can see England reaching the quarter-finals and being more successful in future competitions. The positive thing about this World Cup is that there’s no real expectation for success, which will give England a chance to go and enjoy the occasion and hopefully play some good football.
“I think Brazil and the tournament itself will remind people why we love football. We saw the effect the Olympics had on London, I expect something very similar in Brazil.”
What lessons will Thompson take from the journey when he reaches Rio, and what message would he pass on to football fans and players the world over?
“Life is very simple,” Thompson concluded. “So many people in the world are living off nothing but are extremely content. The people with the least also tend to give the most.
“I have been in so many situations where I have felt that I cannot continue, the monsoon rain in Asia, the searing African sun, the madness of India and the altitude of the Andes. But in many of these situations you have no choice but to continue. I’ve learned that the human body and mind has an unbelievable endurance and if you put your mind to it, and don't look for a way out, anything is possible in life.”