Race to Istanbul to watch Ireland play, in Japan

I’d thought about the drive many times and when buying a car knew it had to stand up to the trip. A BMW 520i was the most reliable, I was told, and after some minor engine repairs, I plotted my route. I was going to meet Dad in Istanbul.

He would fly in the day previous, enjoy some strolling about the place and then we’d get down to the hard road. My goal – be in Dundalk by Tuesday evening to play in the Armagh Hurling League for Naomh Moninne Hurling Club. 7000kms, crossing the Middle East and Europe, to play a game of hurling, but importantly, find a place to watch Ireland play Cameroon on the Saturday.

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Off into the desert

I grabbed a few hours sleep on Wednesday before waking up at 1am on Thursday morning and going to the petrol station near our compound. Grabbing a paper cup of strong, sweet coffee I set out north from Jeddah with the goal of hitting the Jordan border before midday. I took the coast road as I was told it’d have less traffic at that hour and before swinging inland near Al Wajh I felt a little dozy and also doubted if I was doing the right thing. I turned up Creedence Clearwater Revival and ploughed through to the Halat Ammar border post was the head was piling on. I passed by World War 1 train carriages lying on the Saudi sands as I got closer to the border, a reminder that Lawrence of Arabia’s calling cards were still about.

It was midday when I crossed into Jordan and I was wrecked. I had the odd idea to put a bottle of water on the roof of the car to boil it a bit so I could add it to a lunch pack. I covered the windscreen with a reflective shield and lay back to sleep. I was out like a light but awoke 12 minutes later bathed in sweat. The temperature was a balmy +38 in the Southern Jordan desert. I also found that the bottle (plastic) had almost fully melted so I made do with some water, a banana and some dried fruit.

I changed my t-shirt and got back on my way. My immediate goal was to find a phone, call Dublin and try make contact with Dad. He’d flown through Vienna to Istanbul and in a time when mobile phone roaming charges meant taking out a mortgage, my Mam was to relay messages. It was nearly 5pm Thursday when I got to Amman and try as I might, I couldn’t find a working telephone. Starving, tired and road worn, I saw a McDonald’s. Inside was lovely and cool, because I forgot to mention my air conditioning packed in once I left the Kingdom. I walked up to the counter, a smiling, uncovered (head and face) woman welcomed me and asked me for my order. I stood there open mouthed and confused, like a Meath person having fair play explained to them. A woman, with a face, and hair, albeit it under a hair net. And she was asking me what I wanted to eat. Seconds turned to more seconds and a red haired man smiled and offered to take my order. A barely clothe woman (in Saudi terms) and then a redheaded man, this was what mirages were.

Anyway, once I got over my shock, ordered a hamburger and chips, plus a cold Sprite, I sat, ate and then headed on up the road. I should say that given my tiredness, Amman to Jerash was a bit nervy given the curving roads and hilly terrain, however I made the Syrian crossing at Jaber as the sun was beginning to go down and got another shock. From clean, crisp uniformed border guards in Jordan to rather more chilled out dressed officials in Syria, coupled with the lack of haste to do anything, while set in a lovely green mountainous setting. I navigated across and through Daraa, trying to figure how to find out where Dad was staying and how we could meet.

Syria was confusing with road signs and my mistake I strayed into the centre of Damascus during rush hour, though it was almost 10pm. Opening my map out as I was idling in traffic, I lifted my foot off the break and gently bumped into the Mercedes in front of me. I looked up and almost evacuated my happy meal when I saw giant burly men climb out of the black windowed beast. I hopped out and followed them in looking at the damage. The biggest guy, Hamed, laughed and told me I needed to sleep. His brother, Jawad, said no, that I was to come to the Hammamm with them. Like a lamb I followed them two blocks away to a proper Ottoman hammamm and for a full two hours got scrubbed, battered and drank sweet mint tea.

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Kicking on to Istanbul

While fresh and relaxed, I got as far as Homs and pulled into a truck stop. The busy cafe there served hot Syrian pizza which I wolfed down before going back to the car and catching a couple of hours sleep. I’d racked up almost 2000kms in 24 hours and the fear was long gone, well, fear of the journey. I still had to get to Istanbul by Friday night and see Ireland play saturday morning!

After a couple of hours sleep I pulled away and headed to the Turkish border. I’d been advised to cross at Reyhanli and despite some tricky navigation through Hama and Idlib, I was crossing the border by 8am. I was glad to get away from the smell of diesel in Syria and stopped just past the border post in Turkey to have some breakfast, ending up being given a stern talking to by Turkish soldiers on patrol, before they offered me a protein bar.

The drive from Reyhanli to Iskanderun was spectacular. Rising from the borderlands up over the Nur mountains and then catching sight of the Eastern Mediterranean, it put wind in my sails. I stopped to soak in the sights and rays, before dropping down towards the coast and heading inland to Adana. The scars of a 1998 earthquake were still visible around Adana and I was happy to be back up in mountains again, emerging from one pass into luscious, green fields where I tried fresh local bread and filled my tank. I figured I was properly away from the desert or barren part of my journey, yet I was surprised by the landscape I was about to enter.

Listening to Sting’s “Desert Rose” on local radio, I rolled past the red lake of Tuz, feeling like I was on Mars. In the heat of the Anatolian plateau I was beginning to fade. Just past Ankara, I pulled in to eat and try recover some energy. I was able to get in touch with my Mam who gave me Dad’s hotel number. I called and was told he hadn’t arrived. It was 5:30pm and since waking at 7am Wednesday morning, I’d crossed three borders, covered just over 3000kms and had just over six hours sleep. I noticed that I had My Silent war, Kim Philby’s book that was given to me by a colleague and began to read. Within minutes I was out for the count and woke after 10pm. I was so tired that I figured I’d sleep a little more and then leave just after 2am. I regret doing so.

I was driving a few hours and after Bolu passed from a misty mountain pass to absolute devastation. Duzce was just piles of buildings with people sitting looking as dazed as the when the earthquake hit four years earlier. I wanted to stop and take photos, but something oppressive hung over the area so I passed quickly through and took the north bridge over the Bosphorus and past Istanbul.

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Turkish Delight

It was almost 8am and I’d an hour and a half until kick off. I pulled into a service area in Eyupsultan and found the Kofe Yusuf was showing football highlights from the night before. I asked if they were showing Ireland, I got a curt nod. Having called Dad and told him my location, I went in for a wash. It wasn’t well appreciated by the locals, who told me that it wasn’t Scandinavia! But a wash and shave later, I felt alive and ordered a burger and lemonade.

The game was on when Dad arrived and as we hugged we heard groans from neighbouring tables. The locals had turned from disdain for my ablutions to supporting Ireland, but maybe hugging my Dad had annoyed them. What annoyed them was Patrick M’Boma putting the Africans a goal in front. Cameroon were battering Ireland and Eto’o was sublime. At half-time our neighbours discussed African teams, the evening before title holders France had crashed to Senegal 1-0. They told us about Turkey’s chances and while not believing them, agreed that they could go far.

The second half began and memories of Saipan were banished when Matt Holland drove home a goal and the cafe erupted. Coffees were sent to our table, hamburgers on the house and Dad was handed packs of cigarettes. By midday we were told the petrol was on the house and we headed up the road to Edirne wondering that even without that gobshite Roy Keane, we might actually have a chance. It took me over 3500kms and 55 hours to get to a cafe to not drink and watch Ireland draw. And I still had the same distance and more and just over two days to get back home to play a hurling match. But with Dad alongside, our journey just got easier and weirder all at once.

The Author

Alan Moore

Russian based sports journalist and consultant, working with major clubs including Hajduk Split, Eintracht Frankfurt, Lokomotiv and Spartak Moscow. Current host of Capital Sports FM in Moscow, former international boxer and semi-professional footballer and commentated at the FIFA World Cup 2018.

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