26 June 2018

From India to Russia: A cyclist's dream of meeting Argentina's Lionel Messi

It took Francis 105 days to arrive in Moscow after he officially set off from Iran.
After a shock 3-0 loss to Croatia and only one game left to redeem itself, could Argentina be out of the World Cup? Clifin Francis certainly hopes not.

After all, the 28-year-old mathematics teacher from southern India has cycled more than 2,900 miles to Russia to get his bike signed by Argentinian superstar Lionel Messi.

While Francis initially planned to ride his bike all the way from his home town in Alappuzha, difficulties in getting a Pakistani visa forced him to start his journey in Iran.

After setting off on March 12 from Bandar Abbas in southern Iran, Francis finally arrived in Moscow on June 25 -- 105 days later.

"This trip turned me in to a better human being, made me more humble," he told CNN Sport.

"Every day is different, you meet new people, you see new landscapes."
After setting off on March 12 from Bandar Abbas in southern Iran, Francis finally arrived in Moscow on June 25 -- 105 days later.

From software engineer to part-time traveler

Francis once worked as a software engineer, at least that was until he realized how much he loved to travel. In 2014 he quit his job to take up part-time teaching so he had more time to visit new places.

"I realized I had a passion for traveling, so I thought I needed a job
Francis was made to feel welcome by complete strangers throughout his journey.
where I can work for six months and travel for six months. I like teaching as well, so I gave it a try," he said.

In the first year of quitting his job, Francis traveled around India, to Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

Traveling and discovering new places isn't his only passion though -- there's football and of course, Messi too.

"The way he plays the game is like writing a poem," he says.

Eyeing the start of the World Cup, Francis decided to combine his two great loves with his plan to cycle to Russia. Since leaving India, he's now been on the road for more than four months.

"I was planning for a journey that I would remember and it could inspire people. So I combined my passion of traveling by cycle and football. I thought it was the perfect blend."

He says his bike set him back $700, and another $1,000 was required for his journey.

'People everywhere were nice, regardless of politics'

It's been an eventful and eye-opening journey, he tells CNN, as he cruised through cities, small towns and villages. Everywhere, he says, he was made to feel welcome by complete strangers -- with Bollywood becoming a frequent ice-breaker, especially in Iran and Azerbaijan.

"When they figure out that I am from India, they ask me how is Salman Khan, Raj Kapoor, Mithun Chakraborty. They are big fans of Mithun Chakraborty. They like Hrithik Roshan as well," he says, naming the various stars who have come up in his conversations.

He says that his this trip has broadened his horizons, that people regardless of where they came from, despite the language barriers, were nice to him.

"In the countryside people don't speak English, so it was a little hard for me to communicate, but I was able to manage after a few days," he says of his time in Azerbaijan.

Francis entered Russia via the restive Russian Republic of Dagestan. Though he was worried about his safety when he first got there, he says he soon changed his mind.

"When I went there, people invited me over to their homes," he tells CNN. "People everywhere were nice, regardless of country politics, they are normal humans, they have the same emotions and feelings."
Francis travelled nearly 3,000 miles on bike to get to Russia.

"I don't know why people showed that much love to me," he said.

"I was a strange man in their country and they just took care of me, they treated me like their own son, gave me food and everything. I feel that when I go back home I should do the same."

From the World Cup to the 2020 Olympics
Francis says after Russia he's going to start saving money to travel to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

On June 26 he's heading to watch France play Denmark in Moscow. "It's my first time, watching a World Cup match live, so I am very excited for it. I want to feel the World Cup festive mood and celebrate it."

But what he really wants is a chance to meet his football hero.

In fact, he's been so preoccupied with meeting Messi that he hasn't even worked out when or how he's going to get back to his homeland.

"I am not sure about that, my budget is almost over ... I don't have any exact plan, that's the thrill you know?"

Once he finally arrives back in India, he says he is going to start saving money to travel to Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics.

And how does he plan to reach Japan? On his bike, of course.

"It is the healthiest way to travel."