JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Anjali Nayar has dribbled her football through the streets and slums of every country in sub-Saharan Africa on her way to the World Cup.
She has engaged thousands of kids in impromptu games, juggled her ball for crowds, and met famous and unknown football fanatics alike on a continent in love with the Beautiful Game.
Now the Canadian soccer-lover has at last reached South Africa for the World Cup finals at the end of an amazing one-woman journey.
“The basic concept was to have a football and play every day,” the 29-year-old, who has been playing the game since she was four, told Reuters in Johannesburg.
“My main rule was to go wherever people said it is was too dangerous and prove that with a football you can do it. Everyone said it was crazy, I would be assaulted, robbed, massacred or kidnapped. But I just got out my ball, and people joined in.”
Nayar left her home in Kenya on April 10 and spent six weeks wending her way — with a mosquito net and ball in her backpack — mainly by bus, car, ferry and on foot through Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and, of course, South Africa.
The only qualifying nation Nayar, who is a freelance journalist, missed was Algeria, above the Sahara. She added Togo and Benin for good measure.
“Sport is just such a fantastic in. I was this random foreign woman showing up and juggling my ball or kicking it out to start a game. Everywhere I went, there were crowds playing within minutes. The ball is a great facilitator.”
In a seedy street in Yaounde, the Cameroon capital infamous for pickpockets, Nayar was delighted to get the crowd going.
“I’d been there before, a very shady place, so I was determined to go back. I started juggling the ball, and hundreds of people made a circle, then others came in and took turns to show their tricks.
“The amount of skill is amazing. The security guard, the gangster, the vendor on the street, everyone knows how to play. In Yaounde, we even had a woman who was a supermarket cleaner pulling some amazing moves.”
In Johannesburg’s famous Soweto township, one schoolboy was hanging back when Nayar struck up a game. When he finally came over to play, a gun dropped out of his pocket.
“He kept shoving the gun back into his pants as he played. His name was Bule and he moved with such skill,” Nayar said. “I told him ‘you are a little Drogba but Drogba got people to put down weapons not pick them up’. He nodded.”
One of the world’s best strikers, Chelsea’s Didier Drogba has championed peace in his home country Ivory Coast.
Beyond just playing football, Nayar’s intentions were to tell the stories of everyday Africans in the build-up to the World Cup and to show the continent’s positive face.
“There’s little positive news about Africa. Everything is diluted into one-minute news packages that focus on the negative: poverty, famine, corruption, war.
“This is the first really big positive story to come out of the continent,” said Nayar, who worked for media, including Thomson Reuters, on her trip.
“Everywhere I went, people were talking about the World Cup. In all these countries, football is the one thing that goes beyond ethnicity, religion and politics to unite everyone.”
Although she kept her feet on the ground, Nayar bumped into several personalities like revered former Cameroon striker Roger Milla. She also had a close encounter with the country’s president Paul Biya.
“I went to a parade for the 50th anniversary of independence in Cameroon and had my ball a few centimetres from him!” Nayar said.