Ewood Park, 9:45pm, September 11th 2002
GOAL! Zola receives the ball, deftly cuts inside his man and unleashes a curler into the top corner to make it 3-2. The winner, surely. That makes the long journey worthwhile.
Kabul Airport, 3pm, September 10th
Six hours into my journey from Kabul to Ewood Park, a distance of some 4,500 miles, I’ve made a little over four miles. After an early morning briefing for my successor working on the banalities of civil service payroll, I left the Ministry of Finance for the airport at 9 o’clock this morning. Security is heavy and we cross several military and police checkpoints before finally being allowed to approach the airport terminal. The sound of helicopters has become almost mundane the last few days.
Bad news. The 11:30am Ariana Afghan Airlines flight to Dubai has been delayed. Information is hard to come by for those of us who haven’t bothered to learn Dari, the main local language, but an Ariana pilot confirms the flight is now scheduled to leave at 3:30pm – or maybe 4:00pm…
At least it gives me time to head back to the ministry to give additional briefing to Latif, to whom I had handed over my project hours earlier. The day before, he had arrived back in Afghanistan for the first time since he escaped from the Soviet invasion in 1980. His eyes were full of tears as he surveyed the devastation around him, and yet delight as he recognised familiar places. I didn’t join him to visit his mother for the first time in more than 22 years, it wouldn’t have been right. And then today we discovered that two members of the team he will be managing are nephews he had never met.
So now here I am back at the airport, past the security checks (they’ve even switched on the x-ray machine for this auspicious period!) and the subdued chaos that is the check-in, immigration and customs. I watch the occasional Special Forces helicopter swoop low over the airfield and wait for what passes as a boarding call in these parts. And thinking, it’s a little more than 30 hours until kick-off.
Somewhere over Iran or Turkey, morning, September 11th
At 5pm we eventually took off for our dusty, bumpy plane ride over the fag-end of the Hindu Kush, over the desolate areas of southern Afghanistan and Iran. I arrive in Dubai some five hours late. It’s a strange transition flying from Kabul to Dubai, from perhaps the poorest country in the world to possibly the richest, but nice to be able to indulge in a few simple luxuries like getting cash out of a hole in the wall, picking up a telephone and dialling someone in the same town, air conditioning, hotels and swimming pools. The comfort of Le Meridien eases me back into the real world.
Early on Wednesday morning I make it to the airport for the flight to Heathrow. Business class on Emirates really is a pleasant way to fly after a couple of weeks in Afghanistan. (Well I had to get the sponsors in there somewhere!) Despite the temptation I don’t have any champagne with my breakfast as there’s some driving to be done this afternoon.
Tonight’s game begins to cross my mind more frequently. With limited internet access in Kabul I don’t know who’s fit, who played in internationals or who’s still travelling back. Only a fool would get off a plane and drive north for an evening kick-off still with the luggage in the boot. Time for some sleep.
The Chilterns, 2pm, September 11th
Met by my relieved wife Sarah at Heathrow. It’s been a tough couple of weeks for her, seeing countless over-hyped news reports from Afghanistan. A leisurely drive to a country pub and a lovely meal in a quintessentially English garden seem a world away from the past few hectic days. In the background the memorial services from New York and elsewhere are being played out. It’s nice to be somewhere tranquil.
Ewood Park, 8pm, September 11th
A minute’s silence. I remember John, my friend of 20 years, who happened to be giving a seminar on the 104th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Centre. I think of his widow, a friend for just as long, and his three children, one so young she’ll never have anything of him to remember. I also think of Habib, my translator in Kabul, who lost his father and brother in the civil war there; of Omar, whose new wife died in the American bombing; of the victims of last week’s car bomb just up the road from the ministry; and of all the amputees, homeless and refugees struggling to make a life in the aftermath of more than 20 years of war.
And I think of Latif and his re-discovered family and hope his uplifting few days can be the future.
Then the whistle blows. Come on you Blues…!