The team that vanished

In the towns and villages of rural Wales, a stranger stands out like, well, a French-speaking West African rugby player in a Day-Glo tracksuit. So how did 12 players from the Ivory Coast melt into the mists of the Black Mountains?
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At the Pets in Need charity shop in Llandovery high street, a couple of homemade posters have been Blu-Tacked to the window. Both are forlorn appeals for the public's help. "Jack Russell terrier called Bron lost at Myddfai. Children grieving. pounds 100 reward," reads one. The other, scrawled in fading green marker pen, seeks the return of a mislaid teddy bear: "Grubby grey towelling. Four inches tall. Wearing a black-and-white bow-tie."

But dogs and cuddly toys are not the only things to have mysteriously gone AWOL in Llandovery of late. Last week, the small south Wales town misplaced 12 members of the Ivory Coast rugby team who were taking part in the under-19 world championships. Due to board a flight home from Gatwick to Abidjan last Thursday, half the squad decided to extend their Welsh sojourn indefinitely, vanishing from the local college which served as their base. The Home Office issued a statement saying all 12 had overstayed their visas and could now be arrested and deported.

But that was a week ago, and despite a few close calls, the authorities remain one step behind. On Saturday, a sharp-eyed motorist spotted two black men hitch-hiking along a road near Lustleigh in Devon. In their identical tracksuits with "Ivory Coast" emblazoned on the top, they seemed to fit the description of the suspects. But by the time the police flooded the area with officers, the men had disappeared. Today, the Dyfed Dozen are still very much at large.

Not that you'd know Llandovery was the nerve-centre of a massive immigration operation when you first arrive at the sleepy backwater which stands at the foot of the Black Mountains. There are no choppers circling the River Towy. There are no snarling tracker dogs clutching tracksuits between their drooling fangs. Not even a police chief in mirrored sunglasses barking orders. On a wet weekday lunchtime, the only people on the streets are morose schoolboys hanging round the telephone boxes and a pair of walkers in cagoules who are cheerfully photographing the cenotaph.

In theory, a dozen muscular, French-speaking 18-year-old Africans in electric-blue sportswear should not be too hard to track down in a town with no black residents. But down at the pebble-dashed police station, Sergeant Huw Jenkins admits the Dyfed-Powys force has yet to make any real breakthrough.

"We haven't conducted any house-to-house searches, but we have circulated all the relevant details to surrounding forces," says Sergeant Jenkins, breaking off from brewing a pot of tea. "I was very surprised when they just disappeared but there's not a lot we can do really. I can't imagine they're still in Llandovery. If they were, we'd certainly have apprehended them by now. They'd stand out like a sore thumb round here."

His self-belief is slightly undermined by a bar chart on the wall behind him which shows the station's crime detection figures to be a modest 56.7 per cent. Perhaps the Dyfed-Powys force should have apprehended the danger signs. Last year, four members of an Ivory Coast rugby team absconded when they were playing a tournament in France and have yet to be found.

In the 40 years since it gained its independence from France, the Ivory Coast has been the most stable country in West Africa. Unlike its neighbours Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Liberia, it has never suffered a military coup, military rule or civil war. Even so, beneath the mask of democracy a sense of helplessness prevails, particularly among the numerous unemployed young men - 60 per cent are out of work - and many have turned to drugs and alcohol to pass their time.

According to Unicef, 140,000 children now live in the streets, while a recent study by the World Bank reports that 60 per cent of Ivorians live in poverty without any hope of improving their lot. The economy, which carries a debt of $19bn, has been placed under further pressure from the 700,000 refugees who have crossed the border to flee civil war in Liberia.

So great is the impulse to escape the poverty and corruption that over the past few years, thousands have stowed away on ships out of the port of Abidjan. In 1997, four Ivorians suffocated or starved after hiding away on cargo vessels bound for the UK; last year, a Danish captain admitted manacling a teenage stowaway and throwing him overboard to certain death (the captain was imprisoned for 10 months for maltreatment). For those who do make it to Europe, the chances of asylum are slight and Interpol suspect that organised networks of friends and relatives keep them from being discovered.

In Llandovery's wind-lashed streets, there is no shortage of amateur detectives willing to share their theories about the team's whereabouts. Most favour the official view that the Africans have forsaken the town for the metropolitan anonymity of London or Merthyr Tydfil. But others prefer to think they've fallen for the charms of the Brecon Beacons.

"They were lovely, lovely lads," says Pamela Wheal, warming herself in front of an electric fire at her charity shop. "Very polite, well-behaved fellows they were. Put our rugby lads to shame. They came in here quite a few times looking at shoes and shirts. They even bought some old Welsh bonnets - they kept on saying `chapeaux, chapeaux'. If you ask me, they've loved being in Wales so much that they just wanted to stay on for a holiday."

Over at the Heritage centre, tourist officer Joan Snaith pauses from her paperwork to confide a piece of evidence: "The day they disappeared, one of them came in here with a bongo drum he was trying to sell," she whispers. "I got the distinct impression he was trying to raise some money. Bongo drums aren't really our thing here, so I told him to try the craft centre across the road."

Slowly, the puzzle is being pieced together. While some of the team have hot-footed it to Devon, others have obviously gone to ground nearby, disguised in Welsh national dress and with just enough local currency to keep going until the search eases off. But where would they lie low? No clues can be gleaned from the surly shop assistant in the local Costcutters store who claims not to have noticed any furtive bulk buying. The Mayflower Chinese takeaway reports no suspiciously large deliveries to remote barns.

At the Erwlon Caravan Park on the edge of town, the wizened proprietor, Cyril Rees, hasn't rented any more caravans than usual for the time of year. "Saw them play rugby at the stadium, I did. Very good, too, but they haven't been here, son," he says, scratching his head in recollection. "We did have some black people last year, though. Can't remember where they were from, but it must have been very far away because they were really black. If you're looking for the rugby boys, you could try the cave, though. That would be a smashing place to hide out."

The cave. But of course.

Along with the Hamster Museum's collection of prize-winning rodents, Twm Sion Cati's Cave is renowned as Llandovery's premier attraction. A quick flick through the tourist brochure - "the cave hideout of outlaw leader Twm Sion Cati, Wales's 16th-century Robin Hood" - confirms its position as the ideal bolthole for bandits, hermits and other misanthropes.

Yet half an hour spent rooting round the gloomy cavern fails to unearth any clues. There are no studded boot prints or discarded jock straps on the muddy floor. The air hangs heavy with the pungent odour of damp bracken. Night is falling. It is time to concede defeat. The trail has gone stone cold.

Surprisingly, the players' continued evasion is greeted with some pride back at The Greyhound, the local rugby pub. "They're just down the coast from Rwanda, aren't they?" suggests one of the locals, keeping an eye on Sky Sports. "It can't be too easy for them over there. You can't blame them for wanting a better life. They were a nice bunch of blokes. Enjoyed a few drinks with us - nothing too rowdy. Good luck to them."