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Unforgettable

The Times football editor Tony Evans on a memorable trip to Gabon for the African Cup of Nations final…

By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES

THERE WILL never be a trip to beat Istanbul, May, 2005 when Tony Evans saw his beloved Liverpool win their first Champions League final.

But Libreville, February 2012, will be a close second in the Evans memoirs. He may not have seen Steven Gerrard lift European football’s most sought after trophy in Gabon but in Turkey Evans didn’t have to wear the same clothes for 36 hours, endure squeaky bum time as his plane circled over Libreville airport for an hour with the fuel gauge almost on red alert, try to outrun a security guard half his age and weight plus eating bush pig. In many respects Istanbul could not compete with Libreville.

The final of the African Cup of Nations provided one of football’s most truly remarkable stories as Zambia, 63 places below their rivals in the FIFA rankings, beat the Ivory Coast 8-7 on penalties 19 years after a plane crash 500 yards off the Gabon coast killed the entire Zambia squad. The football gods determined a wonderful story that eclipsed football though Evans’ magical mystery tour on his first visit to Africa was an unforgettable sideshow to Zambia’s heroics.

The trip started badly…and got worse. Evans said: “I had ordered a cab to take me to Heathrow at 4.30am. When the car hadn’t arrived after 15 minutes I flagged down a black cab to take me to the airport which cost me £70. I was just walking into the terminal when my phone rang. It was the driver saying ‘I’m outside your house.’

“I replied ‘well I’m outside Heathrow.’ It was claimed the delay was due to an accident or something. Yeh, right.

“Heathrow was manic and by the time I reached check-in I had to be fast-tracked through or else I would have missed the plane to Paris.”

The breathless Evans just made the flight but the plane sat on the runway for an hour. “I was now worried about missing the connecting flight to Libreville because time was always going to be tight in Paris. Luckily that flight to Gabon was delayed for an hour and a half.”

Evans relaxed and enjoyed the flight to Libreville, hopeful all the early problems were behind him. In fact they had barely started.

He said: “We were above Libreville airport when the pilot announced that a plane had broken down on the runway, yes runway singular. ‘Don’t worry, I still have 90 minutes’ fuel left,’ he said. ‘We may as well circle round to see if they can remove the broken down plane.’

“After an hour and five minutes we were beginning to become a little concerned. I was wondering where the nearest airport was. With 15 minutes to go until the fuel ran out the pilot was able to land the plane though he did come down with unseemly haste.”

Evans then had his first experience of an African airport where, some might say, the chaos is part of the fun.

“I arrived at the carousel and the baggage started to come through.”

You have probably guessed what happened next. Or rather, what didn’t happen.

“My suitcase wasn’t there. I reported it missing only to be told by the woman that they knew in advance it would not be on the flight as it hadn’t been loaded.

“She said: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get it to you tomorrow.’ Pause. ‘Tomorrow night.’”

By then Evans had been in the same clothes for 14 hours and the clock was ticking. Buying alternative clothes in Libreville is easier said than done. There was some good news, however. “The hotel was excellent,” he said. “It used to be owned by the Libyan Sovereign Wealth Fund and apparently it was a shambles. After the fall of Gaddafi it was taken over by someone else and had air conditioning, it was fine. No Sky Sports though, just Canal Plus.”

After a welcome shower, a good night’s sleep and another shower Evans reluctantly put on yesterday’s clothes.

“The organisers took a few of us to a resort just north of Libreville which was very nice. It was about 30 degrees and those lucky enough to have their cases went swimming. I just sweated before taking a walk in the jungle to get a sense of the wildlife. Then off we went to the game.”

As a guest of the Organising Committee, Evans was taken on a tour of the media centre “which was as good as any I’ve seen” and then thought he’d be directed towards the VIP section. Evans was rather concerned about meeting dignitaries wearing by then 36-hours-old clothes. He need not have worried.

“Instead of corporate hospitality I was taken to the cheap seats. That wasn’t a particular problem apart from the fact I had to file my report. I’d told them in advance I’d need facilities to do that and was assured that where I’d be sitting it would be all right.” It wasn’t.

Writing with a lap-top on your knees is not too unusual for football writers in far flung places, all part and parcel of the job. When he tried to get a line via his dongle Evans was unsuccessful.

“I had to go to the media centre to file and after some confusion they found someone to take me. Problem was, he didn’t know where the media centre was. I’m telling him where it is and he doesn’t believe me. I ended up leaving him because I had 10 minutes in which to file. I’m normally the man in the office who screams at people if they are late filing so I couldn’t be late with my copy and people saying ‘oh he couldn’t do it under pressure.’

“The guy who was with me originally spotted me and as I was running towards the media centre he was chasing after me. He was in his twenties and a very lean African. I’m a 50-something and just slightly overweight, carrying a lap-top bag. There were police and troops with guns around trying to stop me getting through.”

Not for the first time abroad a cry of “Her Majesty’s working press” and flashing a press card did the trick. “I managed to file before the deadline,” said Evans with understandable professional pride. He watched the penalty shootout and filed his rewrite for the second edition. Mission accomplished except by now the clothes he’d been wearing for the best part of two days were almost crying for freedom.

At midnight and work finished Evans wandered to the car park to be taken back to the hotel which was 10 miles away. A police escort maybe? Either way, should be back in 15 minutes.

Make that two and a half hours. “I have never seen traffic like it,” said Evans. “There were cars going the wrong way, pick-up trucks were swamped with people jumping on the back, the Highway Code as we know it has not reached Libreville. Many people had walked 10 miles and more to see the game which says everything about the Africans’ love of football.”

Evans eventually reached his hotel at 2.30 – “and 30 minutes later my bag showed up.”

Monday was a free day and the freshly-clothed Evans side-stepped the opportunity to meet local ministers at a buffet function. “Talking to government officials about economics and the regeneration of Gabon are worthy topics but being a football man I ducked out. I took the chance to see a bit of the real Libreville to try some local dishes…

Vegetarians and vegans look away now.

“…such as bush pig, wild boar and gazelle…it was great. “ The unusual delicacies were washed down with a bottle or two of the local beer, Regab. “While it’s not the sort of thing you’ll find me drinking in the Cask or the other fine beer drinking establishments I frequent in London and Liverpool, it certainly filled a hole.”

It also proved to be a memorable trip for Mrs Evans who, for Valentines Day, was given a wood-carved gorilla and some Gabonese salad bowls.

Tony Evans is the author of Far Foreign Land – Pride and Passion the Liverpool Way

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