|UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador David Beckham greets players at a roadside football game that he spontaneously joined in the Aberdeen neighbourhood of Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone.|
By Thomas Nybo
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone 18 January 2008 – A group of Sierra Leonean football players received the surprise of their lives recently, when football star and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador David Beckham joined their informal game at a roadside pitch.
Mr. Beckham was returning from a tour of UNICEF-supported programs in Bombali District and noticed the players as he drove to his hotel. He signalled his driver to circle back and return to the pitch, then quickly walked down a dirt path and greeted his brothers in sport. The players were completely caught off guard.
Polite handshakes with a couple of the players quickly led to a frenzy, as they realized one of the game’s most recognizable stars was indeed standing among them. The encounter easily stood as Mr. Beckham's most spontaneous move on his unannounced visit to Sierra Leone, a country that has the highest rate of infant mortality in the world.
“Beckham! Beckham!” the players shouted repeatedly. It wasn't enough just to shake his hand; they also rubbed his head, as if to prove that this was indeed the real thing, and not an impostor.
‘I love him so much!’
After the spirited introductions were complete, the group played a game of football. Mr. Beckham, in the spirit of his role as a UNICEF ambassador, ceded the spotlight to the best local players, some of whom played the game with no shoes.
One lucky player even walked away with Beckham's black UNICEF T-shirt, which he received as a gift.
After watching Mr. Beckham take off the shirt, the fans looked on with great fascination at the gallery of tattoos covering his body, including his entire right arm. He played the rest of the match shirtless.
“I love him so much!” shouted one young woman, who watched Mr. Beckham’s every move with unrivalled concentration.
No shortage of mobile phones
Even though Freetown has struggled with poverty and electrical black-outs for years, there was no shortage of mobile phones among the gathered fans. By the time the game had ended, friends had phoned and sent text messages to other friends, and a large and growing crowd was on hand as Mr. Beckham walked back to his vehicle.
Fans swarmed around him, shouting his name, wrapping their arms around his shoulders.
About an hour later, Mr. Beckham would be cleaned up and meeting with Sierra Leone’s new President, Ernest Bai Koroma. But for now, he was among the people, and he was king.