World Cup kept away from mere mortals

CNN's Ben Wedeman checks the World Cup is not getting a better seat than him.
I’m traveling with a chunk of gold — the World Cup Trophy — from Zurich, Switzerland to Cairo, Egypt.

When CNN Johannesburg Bureau Chief Kim Norgaard suggested I fly from Zurich to Cairo to cover the arrival of the World Cup trophy in Africa in the lead-up to the games in South Africa next summer, I thought he was joking. Kim, an unabashed football (soccer) fanatic, knows I’m, well, skeptical about a group of grown men paid hefty salaries to kick a little ball around a big field. But variety is the spice of journalism, you might say, and Kim is a friend with whom I needed to settle an old debt from Turkey, so I agreed to give it a try. Football isn’t a subject I know much about, so I realized I would have to cram. As it turned out I didn’t have much time to prepare because someone broke into our house in Cairo the day before I was scheduled to depart. Rather than study World Cup football, I had to deal with the police, change locks, etc. Whoever it was didn’t steal much, but here’s an odd aside: the thief left behind his (or hers) battered black running shoes, making off with my 15-year old son Christopher’s brand-new trainers. Preparing, perhaps, for a career in football Watch CNN’s journey with the World Cup.

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Flying from Cairo to Zurich, where FIFA or the International Federation of Football Associations is headquartered, I finally found time to learn a few things about the object that would be my travel companion from Switzerland back to Egypt. The trophy is made of more than five kilograms of 18 carat gold, with two bands of malachite running around the bottom. Probably for good reason mere mortals such as myself and Beirut cameraman Christian Streib, who is with me on this trip, aren’t allowed to touch the trophy. According to FIFA regulations, only heads of state and members of teams that won the World Cup have that privilege. The trophy’s guard can handle it, but must wear special white gloves. The trophy is worth a fortune — for its symbolic value as well as its gold — and is protected around the clock. But the trophy on tour in Africa is not the first — it’s a replacement created after Brazil were allowed to keep the original when they won the tournament for a third time. And it’s that one currently in circulation, and presumably in the back of the plane we’re flying to Cairo in, packed away in a simple aluminum case. While on tour the trophy is under constant guard, though as we passed through security at Zurich Airport to board the charter flight to Cairo I saw it go through the x-ray machine — a big black mass of metal on the screen. The airport security personnel asked the guard to open the box, and that was the closest Christian or I came to it. We resisted the urge to get our grubby hands all over it, however. The chances are slim that either of us will ever be on a winning World Cup team, and slimmer still that either of us will become head of state. I’d share more information about how the trophy is transported, but the tour organizers are worried that too much detail might endanger the cup and those guarding it, especially in some African countries where crime is rife. According to the plan, after Cairo the trophy will be flown to almost every African capital before ending up in South Africa. The Coca Cola Company is covering the cost of the trip. There is one African capital it probably won’t be going to, however, and that’s Mogadishu, in Somalia. The city has been a battlefield on and off for the last 20 years, the airport often bombarded by mortars and artillery. FIFA and Coca Cola have yet to officially turn down the request by the interim Somali government to bring the trophy to Mogadishu. If peace suddenly breaks out, they might actually do it. Here is a personal World Cup footnote. Thanks to Italy’s defeat in the 1990 semifinals of the World Cup in Italy, the birth of my daughter Amira was uneventful. My wife Yasmine and I were in Rome that summer when Italy and Argentina had a semifinal match. Yasmine, a native of Rome, was nine-months pregnant and then some, and went into labor shortly after the game ended, thankfully, with Italy’s defeat.

If Italy had won there would have been celebratory chaos in the streets until sunrise, and my wife would have ended up delivering in the back seat of the car. As it was, the streets were empty. Italy was in mourning. And I was relieved.