I am seated at my desk on a Thursday afternoon. It is one of those slow days when you have all the time to think about the decisions you have made — still learning the ropes on what it means to go it on your own. Sometimes nothing is moving apart from ideas in your head and the people around you. So you refresh the inbox to see if anyone has shown interest in any of your carefully crafted emails. Something, finally!
We have an email from Football Heroes Awards. It must be another scam. I take a closer look, and it seems genuine. I read the email already excited. The Football Foundation for Africa has been nominated for the Football Heroes Awards. And if we win, we can send a representative to Moscow, Russia, for the ceremony.
Breaking the news. Family, girlfriend, Obama Cup team, FFA Cup team. In that order. The girlfriend showed no interest. I am single again. Life!
What followed was an exchange between myself and the organisers of the awards sharing more about my journey, and then they went quiet until the WhatsApp message, “Can I call you?” The rest, as they say, is history. Fully sponsored trip to the Russian capital, Moscow, to pick up my award “For Social Responsibility Activities” concerning FFA Cup 2018.
The Russian Embassy
I have very few days to get a visa to Russia, and in between, I have to squeeze in a trip to Dar es Salaam to make my debut as a speaker at the PMI Africa Conference. It is impossible to get information via telephone, so I visit the Russian Embassy. The security guard at the gate approaches as my Uber ride attempts to park. He shoos us away, but I insist on getting information about the visa procedure.
“Wanafunguwa Thursdays, rudi Thursday.”
I will have to apply for a visa when I come back from Tanzania. It will have to be an express visa.
We are ushered into the small house at the gate on the appointment day. I have to leave my laptop bag with the guard and then enter the next room, which is full. It’s a bed-sitter sized room with no windows and not enough seats. Some of us queuing to go to Russia have to stand. A metal door is opened after every 15 minutes, and there is a mad rush to state your case. The Russian has only two ears, which he makes clear by choosing who he will listen to and usher into the next ‘room’.
The lack of a ticketing system is causing discomfort. Some applicants claim they were there much earlier than some who have been served. We quickly decide to queue up and be civilised – you know who was here before you. When my turn comes, I am surprised that the ‘room’ is just a desk in the open where the embassy officer takes your details and checks your documents. Mine is an express visa, and within 30 minutes, I have my passport with a two-day visa, literally 48 hours. I am excited, the below-standard treatment at the Embassy notwithstanding.
We fly through Cairo, where there is a slight delay. Ever since my uncomfortable first flight, airports and planes don’t fly for me. I prefer destinations. I am lucky to have one of the front seats for Cairo to Moscow, which means I am first to disembark when we arrive. Always a good sign. It’s all clear as I make my way to the counters. Again I am first at the counter, and I hand over my passport for the usual checks. The lady asks the usual questions, Why have you come to Russia? Football Awards. For how long will you be staying in Moscow? I leave tomorrow.
She hands me back the passport and signals me to follow a uniformed officer. I did not see him approach, but he was there right behind me. He asks for my passport, which I obediently hand over and follow him. Again I am the first person in what looks like no man’s land in the Russian airport. He asks me to wait and disappears to the back. I am quickly reminded of the embassy experience, only this time they don’t speak English.
People from the motherland soon join me in no man’s land, all not sure why their passports need extra checks. After about an hours wait, the officer starts calling us one by one. Just like at the embassy in Nairobi, there doesn’t seem to be any order. People are randomly interviewed and asked to retake their ‘seats’ as the officers disappear and reappear at will, conversing on the walkie-talkies, “Nyet Nyet“. I arrived in Moscow at around 2 pm, and the event is scheduled to start at 7:30 pm. After two hours, I got a bit concerned as none of the officers had approached me. A few of the ‘detainees’ have been released to proceed to their destinations. Most I gathered were students.
After 3 hours, I decide to ask the officers what is happening and inform them that I have an event in a couple of hours. The officer retrieves my passport and asks me to follow him to another section of the airport. He inquires about the purpose of my visit, to which I respond with all documentation. In between our conversations, he gets on the phone and responds, “nyet nyet”. I am only carrying hand luggage. He asks to search through my bag. I oblige. For a 48-hour trip, there is really nothing. I am not carrying any form of flour. I am asked to unlock my phone. Now I get a bit worried, but since I want to leave the airport, I agree. I am not liking Russia. “Nyet nyet”. He asks to see photos from my gallery. I show him a couple from wintery Switzerland. “What do there?” “Work”.
Welcome to Moscow
I think at this time, some of “nyet nyet” has revealed I am a man in good standing. So they ask how I will get to the event’s venue with just over an hour left, having spent about five hours in the airport. I inform the officer my escort is outside waiting, “Okay, you go. That way.” It takes me another ten minutes to find my escort, a lovely blonde girl from Spain. She apologises profusely for my experience as she hurries me to the waiting car. We are running late.
We get to the hotel; she helps me check-in and then hands me over to one of the hotel attendants. She will wait for me in the lobby as I freshen up and suit up. The venue is next door. When I got to my 5-star room, I promised myself that that night I would SLEEP 5-star. After the event, I would come back and use everything usable before spreading myself on that bed. I quickly snap out of my excitement, jump into the shower, then out, and into my blue suit, 10-year old brown belt to match my brown shoes. Within 15-20 minutes, I am in the lobby, following the lovely blonde girl.
The venue is literally three minutes from the hotel. We arrive and find one of the hosts anxiously waiting for us. She informs me I am up next and signals to the event host, Allan Moore, that I have arrived. He goes ahead to announce the nominees for my category, and then magic happens.
“To present this award, we would invite Francesco TOTTI!”
I almost broke out in Isikuti dance. Ever since I knew Totti would be at the event, my goal was to get a photo.
“And the winner for Social Responsibility Activities, The Football Foundation for Africa!”
I contained myself and walked up to the stage. The lovely Victoria Lopyreva welcomed me. And then the firm handshake and eye contact with the legend. I heard a “Welcome to the world of football. You belong here.” I was handed the microphone gave my short speech, dedicating the award to my friend Allan “Obama” Onyango and talking about the need to create more opportunities for the abundant talent in Africa. We remained on stage for about five minutes, fielding questions by the host, then descended to join our tables.
The pleasantries and speeches continued for a bit as I indulged in food and drink. When the official function was over, we stayed on taking photos and networking. At some point, the lovely blonde girl walked up to me and told me, “You are a nice guy, you speak honestly. I liked your speech”, to which I replied with a nervous but honest, “Thank you”.
I remembered my 5-star bed waiting for me, but then Moscow had other ideas. One of the organisers told me I could join the after-party at a discotheque close by. Confusion. I will join for an hour then head back to my hotel room—poor decision-making. I went back to the room, took off my tie and again back in the lobby and to the discotheque.
As we were installing ourselves, the Vodka bottles started to arrive. So did the playful Morientes, the amiable Aldair and the commanding Hiero. A part of me was extremely excited while a part kept interrupting, wondering whether this was IT. The silent Totti joined the party. I was out with people I was only used to watching on TV.
Soon the Vodka shushed the party pooper in me, and it was all systems go. I was woken by the hotel room phone. “Your ride to the airport is here, sir. You need to hurry.” I pulled myself out of bed, wishing they would allow me to leave my head behind.
So much for my day in Moscow.
Oh! She asked me which team I used to play for. I started to explain that I was not one of the legends, “I run The Football Foundation for Africa. It’s an organisation…” I should have told her I played for Leeds United.