All aboard for the trip of a lifetime

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 June, 2012, 12:00am


The route is long and the monotony of the road through the heartlands of West and East Europe soon starts to play tricks on the mind. The relentless chug-chug-chugging of the diesel engine and the mono growl of the kilometre-gobbling tyres on the German autobahn (southern England, the English Channel, France, Belgium, Holland and half of Germany are in my rear view mirror), induces a hypnotic effect whenever my iPod runs out of steam.

The ambient mechanical noises kick in and take on personalities as I listen for worrying engine knocks. After 1,100km and with 800 more to go, one of the rhythmic components under the hood - it could be the cam belt - is issuing to my Beijing ears a distinct Chinese shibboleth. 'Jiayou! Jiayou!' The chant literally means 'Add oil!' and it's the terrace mantra of the masses who intermittently tag 'Zhongguo/China!' on the end, so is best translated as 'Go, China, Go!' It is religiously repeated - over and over - at every sporting event and it can drive you nuts if the slogan parks itself inside your head.

Somewhere around Hanover, with the stereo silent and the engine noise casting its spell, my Beijing bugbear piped up. 'Jiayou! Did you top up the brake fluid? Jiayou! You should have checked the oil seals! Jiayou! Did you remember the spare keys? Jiayou! Keep at 100km/h - conserve fuel! Jiayou!' it nags.

'Jiayou! You'll never make it to Donetsk and the England v Ukraine game if you go watch the Ireland v Italy game in Poznan - that's 1,770km! Jiayou! What about the train, you fool?' it mocks.

Ironically, the greasy incantation is apt for this epic trek to all stadiums east of Berlin. Lubrication has been crucial during the prepping of my vehicle, a Land Rover 110 Defender 300 Tdi. It's a trusty steed if a little noisy and drafty, and is kitted out to full African expedition specs. It spends most of its existence in storage in the UK while I dice with death on a battered bicycle in my adopted home, the Chinese capital.

But old as it is (DOB: 1998), my 'Landy' starts first time, every time, whenever I take it out of mothballs and grease it up for an odyssey. It has traversed the Sahara Desert thrice and never missed a combustible beat during a Cairo to Cape Town jaunt, sloshing with ease through Serengeti rains and grinding over the shifting sands of the Sudan.

And despite the best efforts of a drunk bus driver in Mali, this same vehicle once took me from London to Timbuktu and home again with just one puncture and a shattered brake light recorded in the log. I am not sure of its worth in this fragmenting age of contentious red Ferraris, Porsches and the other marquee models that help clog the bitumen arteries of Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqinq, but its sentimental value is impossible to tally - my son was conceived in it somewhere in Zambia nearly eight years ago to the month.

Today, as the Polish border approaches and I count down the miles to Warsaw and the hours to the opening ceremony and the first game on Friday - Poland v Greece in the National Stadium - the engine is hypnotically purring. Over the next month it will power me on a mazy drive - akin to Ricky Villa's 1981 FA Cup Final wonder dribble - around the host nations. I will be navigating to Gdansk on Poland's north coast and to Donetsk (flirting close to the the Crimea) in Ukraine's south east plus the venues in between - where time and distances allow. Uefa has accredited me at 11 games, including Germany v Portugal in Lviv, Ukraine's opener against Sweden in Kiev, Spain v Italy in Gdansk, Ireland against Italy in Poznan and Poland v Russia in Warsaw.

And there's the foreboding expedition to the lion's den, Donetsk. There on June 19, Ukraine will take on England in the final group game that could prove to be a tinderbox decider for the knockout stages. After the group games I will be allocated quarter-final and semi-final matches, which are spilt between the two countries. Then it's back to Kiev for the final on July 1 to see who will hold aloft the Henri Delaunay Cup in the Olympic Stadium.

As tradition dictates, ahead of the tournament off-pitch issues are making headlines, including racism, political snubs, human rights, the rich yet often troubled history and culture of the hosts, the price fixing cartel of oligarchs etc. I'm sure they will bump into me somewhere down the road.

Crucially, there is Uefa's brazen decision to push the 14th edition to eastern edges of Old Europe in these worrying times. Yet as divisive, broke and poised at the edge of the abyss as the continent stands, Europe still produces the world's best football - and fans - on the planet.

So pull up a pillion seat and join me on what promises to be a bumpy but fun ride.