On tour with

Ol' Big Ears

Six destinations around the world with some of football’s most famous faces – going on tour with the UEFA Champions League trophy was a tough job, but somebody had to do it. Joe Walker describes the highlights

As Ronaldinho emerged from a lift in Mexico City, there was the usual furore surrounding a celebrity in a hotel. People hurried with their phones, trying to snap the former FC Barcelona star, while awe-struck autograph hunters fumbled with their pens. However, in among the clamour, there was one moment that encapsulated for me what the UEFA Champions League Trophy Tour is all about.

 

First came a scream of pure joy and disbelief. Through the crowd emerged a young boy so overwhelmed that he burst into tears as he made a beeline towards his idol. Ronaldinho responded by hugging him – and providing a moment the youngster will never forget.

Ronaldinho caused a stir in Mexico City

“I can’t even express the emotion when, after hanging up my boots, I get the kind of warmth I’m treated with,” said the 2006 UEFA Champions League winner. This fervour is evident every time the Trophy Tour touches down in a new part of the world – and it never ceases to amaze me, for example, to see people waking up at 3am to watch UEFA Champions League football before setting off for a full day’s work.

 

In this 12th year of the tour, over 200,000 fans came out for a closer glimpse of Ol’ Big Ears on its itinerary of six new countries. For many, the opportunity to get up close to players and a trophy they have only ever seen on TV is once-in-a-lifetime stuff. “For us guys, it’s an honour too,” insisted three-time European champion Fernando Morientes, an ambassador in Mexico along with Alessandro Del Piero, Ronaldinho and Míchel Salgado.

Ronaldinho, the coolest man in football, was guest of honour at a mega-event in a Mexico City park where tens of thousands clustered to

see the trophy. He delighted them all by donning his boots and showing off his skills in a five-a-side game – proving beyond doubt that he has still ‘got it’.

A searingly hot weekend in Abidjan followed – and the passion for the game, evidenced by the sheer number of people in football shirts, was no less intense in the capital of Ivory Coast. Tribal dancers greeted the visiting party with a traditional Ivorian dance that actually made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Not wanting to be left out, Del Piero – known affectionately as “Del Pi Pi” by Ivorians – got into the spirit of it all, emerging from the darkness in garments traditionally reserved for an African king.

Former Barcelona captain Carles Puyol joined the tour in Paraguay before Ruud van Nistelrooy did likewise in Cambodia, where one of his old clubs, Manchester United FC, have a huge following. Van Nistelrooy was presented with a traditional Cambodian wreath to wear around his neck on arriving at the airport in Phnom Penh. After putting on a coaching masterclass for a national youth team, he boarded a tuk-tuk and took part in a question-and-answer session. His presence was deeply appreciated in a country eager to develop a sport that is already No1 in terms of popularity.

 

It was left to Ronaldinho to then close the tour – first amid the soaring towers of Kuala Lumpur and then in Addis Ababa, which came to a standstill, quite literally, for the iconic No10. “I never imagined receiving so much warmth in my life,” he said after causing a stir in Ethiopia. “To come to a country with a special way of life, with cultures and habits so different and particular, and to be received like this … it makes every minute I dedicated to football worth it.”

The UEFA Champions League Trophy Tour, presented by Heineken, took place from 5 March to 15 April, and visited Mexico, Paraguay, Ivory Coast, Cambodia, Malaysia and Ethiopia

Kuala Lumpur and Addis Ababa; Ruud van Nistelrooy learns new skills in Phnom Penh

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