“It is here. Feel it. Touch it. It is here.” Says a Bafana, Bafana grandmother as she meets The Ball and welcome us to the World Cup.
The Ball has arrived at Soccer City, just hours before the World Cup Opening Ceremony. We kick The Ball to the stadium. We juggle The Ball with fans from around the world with the stadium behind us and the roar of hundreds of Vuvuzelas all around.
We call out “One Ball” and a crowd reponds in unison “One World”…
Then a Mexican fan takes charge… “When I say Una pelota everyone replies Un mundo… Una pelota… un mundo… Una pelota… un mundo…”. The crowd gathered is dancing. The Ball is held aloft and celebrated.
Next up is a French fan: “Une balle. Un monde”…
Finally a German fan: “Ein Ball. Eine Welt”…
Phil and Christian stand either side of Andrew, arms interlocked. Richard is up on Andrew’s shoulders. Christian and Phil pass The Ball to Richard. Richard lifts The Ball up in the air in front of Soccer City.
The Ball’s epic journey is over.
There are 32 teams represented at the World Cup. 32 panels on The Ball. 32 countries The Ball has visited in the past 138 days. Over 17,000 people have kicked or headed and signed The Ball.
With an African ball, we have learned that this is Africa’s World Cup. We’ve seen that people on this continent are generous, friendly and full of life. We’ve come to care passionately about Special Olympics’ and the fantastic work that organisation is doing across Africa.
It doesn’t matter if you are black, white, orange or red…. it doesn’t matter if you are old or young…. nor if you are male or female…. it doesn’t matter if you are good at football or not and it certainly doesn’t matter whether or not you have an intellectual disability… The Ball is for everyone…
One Ball. One World.
The Ball and the players are looking exhausted from 135 days on the road. The Ball has been a catalyst of love across Europe and Africa. It has brought smiles to the faces of thousands of people. It has been headed, kicked, kissed even licked. It has brought Special Olympics’ inclusive message to the attention of millions of people across Africa.
The Ball has made us (its carriers), not only aware of, but emotionally attached to the fantastic work being done by Special Olympics. Thank you to all at Special Olympics: from volunteer coaches, to parents and athletes you are doing fantastic work. You have shown us and The Ball some of the beautiful energy that this great continent has to offer.
Sometimes, when key players are injured, others rise to the occassion. While several SO South Africa staff were attending a world meeting in Marakesh, Thembile Mhlongo (Thembi) takes charge and impressively organises a fitting final Special Olympics event for The Ball at Signet Terrace Mall in Lenasia, Johannesburg.
The event starts with a short procession led by Special Olympics athletes carrying an Olympic Torch. Freestylers from Underground Soccer, show off their extensive range of ball tricks as the procession reaches its destination.
After short speeches and a song about The Ball (“This Ball is your Ball”), performed by Phil, it is time for the football to start. Let the games begin. First up is a match on center court between Underground Soccer and a unified team representing Spirit of Football. After this show opening debacle, we won’t mention the score, the real business of Unified Football begins.
At the end of the tournament there is a winning team, but everyone who participates has won. Local people have been made aware of Special Olympics, athletes have performed well in unified teams and been cheered on, SO volunteers have staged a succesful event, and The Ball has ben kicked and signed by many more people.
On behalf of Special Olympics. On behalf of South Africa as a whole. We want to say thank you to Spirit of Football for doing what they’ve done. Clearly you guys need to be given the highest accolade in the world in terms of your commitment to the love of the game, for bringing The Ball all the way from the UK down through Africa. For the simple reason that this World Cup belongs to Africa. If I was in FIFA or in SAFA you guys would have front row seats at the Opening Ceremony. It is one world, one football and one World Cup and it is but one humanity, one love in the world that’s all. Thank you.
— Kay Naido: Volunteer with Special Olympics South Africa
We enter South Africa in the late afternoon and pull over around 7pm near Rustenburg to do a live interview with the BBC World Service. Andrew speaks to the World Service, in the dark on a road through big 5 safari land, about the elation of arriving in South Africa, the 32nd and final country.
As Andrew speaks on the phone, Christian star gazes outside. We leave that random spot and head for Johannesburg. As we arrive later at a toll booth, Christian suggests that the toll booth attendant sign The Ball.
What ball? We realise we are missing something…. something very important… The Ball! It has somehow rolled out of the van. Panic. We search the van high and low. Andrew is beside himself. In 131 days to date The Ball has hardly left his sight. His reoccuring dream of The Ball being lost is suddenly a reality.
Richard, our driver, calms the situation: “I know where we stopped. We’ll find it.”
Andrew is not so sure. He’s starting to dream up a rescue operation that would include national guard troops and radio stations. He’s imagining us spending the rest of our time in SA looking for The Ball. Phil turns the video camera on and films as the action unfolds.
In the dark, in total stress, we turn back, hunting The Ball.
“That looked like something, over there” says Christian. So we turn around and slowly comb the roadside’s grassy fringe.
“It’s The Ball” screams Phil. “It’s The Ball!” And he bounds out of the van… and holds The Ball aloft. “Andrew, give that ball a kiss and promise you’ll never let it out of the net again.” Andrew roars with relief and kisses it.
Four grown men embrace. Close to tears…it’s a moment of pure emotion, pumped up with adrenalin and smoothed by Klipdrift – South African brandy.
What panic. What ecstasy.
The Ball is here.
Long live The Ball.
There is only one Ball.
One Ball. One World.
We sometimes wonder what we’re doing when we visit schools. Why are we here? What are the children learning? But sometimes, there is no doubt — and this rehabilitation centre for the severely disabled epitomises the certainty that we sometimes have.
The children in this school are too incapacitated to have been able to take part in the activities at the Kgafela Primary School in Mochudi earlier in the day. But Special Olympics wants to make them feel as much a part of the journey of The Ball as those who were able to make it to the school.
This is Christian’s first experience of mingling with those who are unable to play football and he takes it upon himself to make sure that each and every child gets to interact with The Ball in some way. The Ball has never been about football alone — and this visit is, to him, absolute proof that participation trumps competition.
The smiles of recognition are reward enough. The Ball is signed in new and previously unknown ways. Making a mark is more than adequate as The Ball makes its way around the children. Previously, Christian has been liberal in issuing yellow cards to those who deliberately handle The Ball. But here, he makes an exception — here, everyone is an honorary goalkeeper.
The Ball is greeted in spectacular style at the latest school visit here in Botswana. So far, it’s been schools, schools, schools all the way in Botswana — Special Olympics seem determined to show us what they are doing on the ground here, and we are duly impressed by what’s occurring.
Suburban Gaborone seems, on the face of it, to consist of endless strip-malls selling the usual corporate South African stuff, mostly shoes, it seems. But this school seems to want to show us what makes Botswana special.
We’ve been brought to schools which integrate those with special needs and are impressed by the professionalism and dedication of the staff towards their charges. This school is no exception.
Wer are greeted by traditional singing and dancing by the children, their voices filling the air with harmony and rhythm. Special needs pupils are part of the reception, not apart from it. Our hearts are warmed and our feet are tapping.
When football is used to its full, there seem to be no limits to the barriers that it can bring down. Everyone plays their part, everyone gets involved — and everyone is important in this process.
It’s an early start after a crazy dash through the Kalahari where we got excited by our first South Africa street sign…
Our first school visit takes us to Segopotso School in Kanye, where 700 school children are eagerly awaiting The Ball. Christian is determined that every single one of them should have the chance to sign it. Time constraints don’t allow this, however, and a scrum develops as each and every child wants to sign The Ball.
We move to the football field where a Unified Football team of pupils with and without intellectual disabilities play against a team of teachers. It is a lot of fun and the game ends in a draw.
Dov Weintraub, diamond cutter extraordinaire, simply has to sign The Ball and have his picture taken with it. He’s completely mad about football. He’s got tickets to the Opening Ceremony of the World Cup.
Here in Windhoek, Dov runs Almod Diamonds of Namibia and invites us over to look at a special diamond that they’ve been cutting. “Have you ever seen a diamond that looks like a football?” he asks us. “No, but we’d like to,” Christian replies.
Dov shows us a diamond weighing six carats that he reckons looks like a football. We pass him a football that we reckon is a peerless gem.
Every diamond has a value attached to it — and usually an eye-wateringly high one. We’ve been offered money for The Ball countless times en route. But even if we were offered an obscene amount of money for it we’d have to refuse. The Ball is not for sale. It is priceless.
We arrive at the school with The Ball and a giant replica. Alarmingly for us, the teachers are nowhere to be seen. Andrew talks to the kids about The Ball, but struggles to make himself heard above the cacophony of chatter.
The children crowd around to sign both balls. And game on… The Ball is kicked around the school-yard in an unruly fashion harking back to the days of village football in England or even the Wall Game at Eton. A huge punt by one young lad and The Ball’s on a classroom roof.
But what’s that? Oh no. The Ball meets a spike on the roof head-on and flops back to earth limp, lifeless and deflated. It needs urgent repairing. We’re a long way from an Alive & Kicking stitching centre and even further from The Ball doctor in Douala. What to do?
We’re recommended a cobbler and that seems like the sensible solution until we hear about a technique for fixing bike punctures. The answer is simple — pump a white sticky substance into The Ball with a syringe.
Shake The Ball about, pump it up, bounce it around. And hey, presto, it rolls again…
The Ball was dead. Long live The Ball.