OPINION: A cast iron reason to ditch the Pompey/Saints rivalry – Simon Carter

Fancy cycling from Portsmouth to Milton Keynes? About 112 miles if you're interested, and you've got to complete the journey in just one day. Fancy running a full marathon too, on the same day? All 26 miles and 385 yards of it.
Francis Benali is aiming to complete seven Ironman endurance events in seven days.Francis Benali is aiming to complete seven Ironman endurance events in seven days.
Francis Benali is aiming to complete seven Ironman endurance events in seven days.

And fancy swimming 77 lengths of the 50m Olympic-sized swimming pool at Portsmouth’s Mountbatten Centre? About 2.4 miles. Oh, and by the way, that’s on the same day as well.

If you do, hearty congratulations, you could one day take part in an Ironman endurance event, one of the toughest, most brutal, vicious even, sporting races to be found anywhere on the globe.

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But if, like me, you don’t fancy it then spare a thought – and perhaps some loose change – for Hampshire-born Francis Vincent Benali. For next week, he is aiming to complete SEVEN Ironmans in SEVEN days in a bid to raise money for the charity Cancer Research UK. Sometimes capital letters are not needed for emphasis, but here I believe they are.

Francis Benali training for his mega endurance challenge.Francis Benali training for his mega endurance challenge.
Francis Benali training for his mega endurance challenge.

I’ll do the maths for you. In total, that’s 784 miles of cycling (the equivalent of Bodmin in Cornwall to John O’Groats at the tip of Scotland), 183 miles of running (equivalent to running from Portsmouth to Derby) and the best part of 17 miles swimming (or 539 lengths of an Olympic-sized swimming pool). And Benali – at 50 years old, no spring chicken in the prime of his athletic life – is doing all that within a 168-hour timeframe. I’m guessing he would like to find the time to have a snooze too and something to eat and drink.

It’s fair to say that anyone capable of taking on such a gruelling, punishing schedule, one that will bring his body to the point of collapse numerous times every day, and all in the name of charity, is deserving of our eternal thanks and support.

There are tens of thousands of people raising money for charity every day up and down the UK, but not many would ever contemplate a week of Ironman events, each of which could take about 16-18 hours to complete. Not many would contemplate one, let alone seven in as many days.

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There are not many people about like Francis Benali, though. And to think thousands of Portsmouth people would call this hugely-generous man a ‘scummer’ …

(takes deep breath …) Yes, it’s time to introduce the dreaded ‘S’ word into this article. For those of you who don’t know, Benali was born in Southampton, grew up in Southampton and went on to play almost 400 first team games for Southampton FC.

Ok, cue abuse. So what am I doing writing about him on the Portsmouth News website, then? Am I aware of the fierce rivalry that exists between the two cities? Do I really think the Pompey faithful want to read about a former Saints star? Aren’t there people born and bred in the Portsmouth area who deserve to have their charity efforts promoted over those of a man many would have shouted vile abuse at had he ever played for his home-town club at Fratton Park?

‘Yes’, ‘probably not’, and ‘yes’ again are my answers to the last three questions.

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But please, put aside the poisonous rivalry for a few moments. Football is massively important for a lot of people, but Liverpool legend Bill Shankly was wrong when he famously quipped that the sport was more important than life or death. Cancer diagnosis, in contrast, is a life and death situation.

Here is a statistic –  one in two people in the UK born after 1960 will be diagnosed with some form of cancer during their lifetime. Females have the highest lifetime risk of breast, lung and bowel cancers. Males have the highest lifetime risk of prostate, lung and bowel cancers.

Sobering stuff, eh? I was born in 1969 so the chances of me one day being diagnosed with a cancer are the same as calling heads or tails and flipping a coin into the air and waiting for it to land. They could be your chances too.

Francis Benali is doing something incredible because he cares, and don’t for one second think this has nothing to do with Portsmouth. QA Hospital has a cancer department, and treats about 3,000 people a year. But child cancers and particularly rare adult cancers can be referred to Southampton.

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All the money Benali has previously raised for charity has gone towards Cancer Research UK’s work into immunotherapy. That includes significant work taking place in Southampton hospitals helping to develop more effective treatments better able to harness the power of the immune system to kill cancer. Cancer Research UK’s involvement spans from the very earliest stages of discovery in the lab, right through to clinical trials for patients. Forget football tribalism, Southampton hospitals are helping to keep Portsmouth area people alive. That’s the reality.

Notice the words ‘previously raised’ a few sentences ago. For this year’s fundraiser is the third epic endurance event Benali has taken on in recent times.

In 2014 he ran to all 20 Premier League football grounds, abouot 1,000 miles in all, and two years later he ran and cycled 1,400 miles in a fortnight while visiting all 44 grounds in the two top tiers of English football. As a result, he has already raised around £670,000 prior to embarking on his ultimate test.

The aim is to smash through the £1m mark for Cancer Research UK, and at the time of writing he has just broken through the £700,000 barrier.

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Yes, I have met Benali several times in my previous role as sports editor at the Southampton daily newspaper. Despite his local fame, he is one of the most down-to-earth, friendly, humble guys who has ever regularly kicked a football in front of tens of thousands of people during the cash-saturated days of the Premier League.

I am not asking you to donate to Benali’s IronFran challenge event, though if you wanted to that would obviously be great. I appreciate there are hundreds of charities all seeking your spare pounds and pence.

No, I have written this only to highlight Benali’s achievements so far and to shed light on next week’s truly extraordinary athletic feats.

At a time when some ex-football stars are a heart attack waiting to happen – Neil Ruddock springs to mind, given his recent appearance on Harry Redknapp's Full English TV programme – here is a person from the same era who has looked after their health in spectacular fashion.

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A quick look on social media will highlight the incredible amounts of anger so many people have for so many different things in the world today. If Pompey played Saints tomorrow, I wouldn’t have to imagine the levels of hatred I could easily find online today. I have seen it with my own eyes.

So by all means, some of you, dismiss Francis Benali with the word ‘scummer’ if you feel you have to. But remember this, as he readies himself for a week-long battle which will no doubt bring both physical and mental tortures the likes of which we mere mortals will never know, he is doing this for all of us. One day, you never know, someone on Portsea Island could have a bloody good reason to want to buy Benali a drink – possibly even those who would once have queued up to throw abuse at him.

Call me a dreamer if you want, but in these increasingly hate-filled days we live in we need to shine more spotlights on people like Francis Benali. There is no reason, no reason at all, why Portsmouth area people should not be aware of an amazing man just because he lives in an SO postcode area. We’re not really that insular, that parochial, that narrow-minded, when it comes to highlighting those that want to help end so many people’s suffering.

Are we?