Outside Guinea’s Presidential palace a guard at the checkpoint leers at us through thick designer sunglasses, his gun slung over his shoulder, showing off his strong arms, and his brow dripping in the thick air. “What are you doing here?” he barks.
“We have an appointment to see the President,” my assistant Muhammad replies nervously. But we aren’t on the list of expected guests. We show our IDs and ask him to call his superiors, but he won’t budge. We protest for nearly half an hour and I can feel his temper rising.
Suddenly his rifle drops from his shoulder. He takes a short run up then kicks the ground in front of us. A fellow soldier joins in. Muhammad winces. I start to think it’s game over.
Then they both turn to us, laughing, and point at Muhammad’s notebook, which has a huge picture of Cristiano Ronaldo on the front cover. Luckily for us, the Real Madrid star had scored a match-saving penalty in the Champions League the night before. Conakry, the capital of Guinea, is normally a jangling metropolis but it had been uncannily quiet for the game. But when Ronaldo scored in the final minute, a roar echoed through the dark streets from every packed bar and restaurant, like a Friday call to prayer.
After trying our own re-enactments, we chat about the game and I stretch my feeble football knowledge to the limit, analysing the mixed fortunes of the English Premier League. It works. The tension dissipates and they eventually decide we aren’t a threat. They wave us through to the next checkpoint. I grin at Muhammad who’s sheepishly hiding his schoolboy-style fan-art. In west Africa well-timed football banter can get you a long way.
The region has produced some of the best players in the world and many people are extraordinarily passionate about the game. After the patriotic fervour and jubilation at the final whistle when Senegal beat its former colonial master France in the 2002 World Cup, the President declared the next day a national holiday. Players who make it internationally are revered back home as heroes and can have a huge amount of influence. This year Guinea’s neighbour, Liberia, elected one of the greatest footballers of all time, George Weah, as President. In 2006 in neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire, Chelsea striker and national captain, Didier Drogba played a crucial role in getting soldiers to lay down their arms after five years of civil war.
Football gives many boys and young men with no options in life hope that they can be something else and achieve international glory, says Mathieu Chupin, who runs Dakar Sacré Coeur, one of Senegal’s footie training camps, and helps many people to feel part of something bigger than themselves. Such love can work to a traveller’s advantage. A bit of football chat works wonders building warmth with many people you have otherwise little connection with; it can even put you on the same side of a bitter rivalry.
Travelling in west Africa poses challenges I haven’t found elsewhere. On the road from Guinea’s capital to Freetown in Sierra Leone there are about a dozen checkpoints where armed men take it in turns to extract as much money as possible from passers-by. On a recent trip, one accused me of having the wrong papers, another that the window tinting of my car was illegal, yet another said my bag looked suspicious. I was robbed five times before I began to develop a rudimentary evasion strategy.
So I’ve started using football to help me out of a corner. When asked where I’m from, I now get the conversation onto football by any means I can. Then I act exuberantly surprised when I find out their team and pretend to be a fellow diehard fan. For good measure I throw in a few insults of the main rival. Where possible, I do this before anyone has had a chance to “fine” me.
I tested the tactic 30 minutes into Sierra Leone. A young man called Junior with bloodshot eyes and a Kalashnikov hailed me down. He took my passport and began to fuss at the visa. “You’re from the UK?” he asked. When I saw a flash of a red Manchester United shirt underneath his khaki jacket I jumped into action. I pointed at the insignia: “I was born near Old Trafford,” I said, lying through my teeth. “I grew up watching United!” He smiled, and we reminisced over Wayne Rooney’s glory days. After several fist bumps and laughs, I had my passport and was given the pass to get back on the road.