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
Blaise de Souza, Managing Director of DHL Tanzania, has taken our partnership with DHL to a whole new level. An energetic, witty and (frankly speaking) highly motivated man, he has assembled a formidable team. Blaise gets things done by encouraging people to use their own initiative.
DHL’s part in The Ball’s journey has been to organise logistics in Sub-Saharan Africa (by whatever means), provide immigration assistance, bubble-wrap The Ball’s carriers, allow them access to DHL computers and to send video footage back to production partner Africa 10 in Los Angeles. DHL has been a fantastic partner and its staff have often gone above and beyond what is required — but Blaise lifts the bar a notch higher:
Together with Vanessa from ICAL, Blaise has taken control of “Operation Ball” in Tanzania. Sponsors have been acquired: Precision Air, Zantel, Azam, the Tanzanian Football Federation — each plays their role in one of the most ambitious set of events thus far. From airport reception and street cavalcade to stadium tournaments, Blaise has the interests of the most important people at heart — the children of Dar es Salaam.
The legacy of The Ball in Tanzania is that Blaise, Vanessa, the Tanzanian Football Federation and corporate partners will work to support underprivileged and marginalised children through grassroots football initiatives. The Ball keeps rolling, and its impact lives on.
Chester from DHL Ghana is at the wheel, driving The Ball, Amazing, the DHL team and Andrew to the Togolese border. Unusually, we are permitted to film at the immigration station and all the way across the border. When you have government support in Africa, anything is possible. The Ball is stamped out of Ghana and then in gets its Togo visa.
The Ball breathes a massive sigh of relief through its air-hole and seems proud of its newest stamps. On the Togolese side a party is going on; they have been waiting for The Ball for over an hour. DHL Staff, Special Olympics volunteers, many dignitaries and an expectant crowd are awaiting us.
We are caught up in the pandemonium; no one seems to know where to go. Traditional drummers and dancers, some on enormous stilts, accompany our delegation as we unveil The Ball in the DHL box to the crowd that has gathered.
The Ball’s police escort seems to know what to do. He recommends using white gloves to handle The Ball.
We are piled into a waiting car and led by the police escort, riding a huge, expensive BMW motorbike, to meet the Minister of Sport who is the first to sign The Ball in Togo after a bullet header — he was surely a footballer!
We have been in the DHL office all afternoon copying footage onto hard drives, writing for the blog, taking pictures with the DHL staff and The Ball. Our time in Senegal is coming to an end: an overnight DHL cargo flight awaits us. We are properly hungry by now so Bashir has a idea. “We have time to visit my mother, boys. She wants to meet The Ball. Then we are having some traditional Senegalese food for dinner. Rice and fish.” Okay, that sounds like a plan.
The flight is scheduled to leave just after 10pm. Bashir reassures us. “We have time. We don’t have to be there until 10pm at the very latest.” Great, we have time to eat. Or do we? There has been a power cut at Bashir’s; we find his house is candle-lit. All very romantic. The good news is that the food is prepared.
Just then, Bashir’s phone rings. It is Basile at the airport. “Where the hell are you?” he screams down the phone. Oh dear, there’s been some miscommunication — it turns out we had to be at the airport 20 minutes earlier. We might even miss the flight. No time for food now. As soon as we can, we head for the DHL depot at the airport. Frantic faces greet us.
We are escorted through the airport by Basile. “DHL (pronounced Day Hasch El in French) cargo flight,” says Basile as we jump the immigration queue. He repeats this as we go to the front of the security check-in line. In five minutes we have cleared security and customs and are on the tarmac. Basile has one more trick up his sleeves. He waves down a large airport shuttle bus, commandeers it and once more tells the driver “DHL cargo flight.”
We reach the plane and Phil takes The Ball and chips it Remi Gaillard-style first time on board and celebrates first by wheeling away, then coming over to celebrate with me. We celebrate not just the goal, but the fact that, thanks to Bashir and Basile, we’ve made the flight on time. We will be leaving for Mali today.
Time for take-off, up and away to Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania with Phil in the jump seat and Andrew back cargo-side in one of two other seats, sitting next to a distinctly non-talkative US government official. Our 15 minutes in Mauritania allow The Ball to be kicked on the tarmac and a single solitary Mauritanian signs The Ball.
Back on board and off to Mali, this time Andrew taking his turn in the jump seat. His first thought — to give The Ball to one of the pilots for an onboard portrait photo.
We arrive at 4am in Bamako and a friendly DHL employee is the first to head and sign The Ball in Mali. It is dry and it hasn’t rained here for months. It’s a reasonable 25 degrees right now, but the expected high later in the day is 45 degrees. We’re a little bit daunted by that figure. But there’s no time to dwell on weather reports as it’s off to our hotel where a surprise awaits us. More than 10 Special Olympics Mali administrators and athletes are there to greet us.
Fantastic! What a welcome. We’re overwhelmed by the reception. But for us it is time to get our heads down and sleep — at least for a few hours please?
After three hours sleep, we are woken by Bashir from DHL, enthusiasm bursting down the telephone line.
Bashir soon becomes our trusted confidante, helping The Ball in any way he can. A well-travelled Senegalese man, he studied in America but decided to return home after Senegal upset France in the 2002 World Cup opening game.
“I bought a ticket right after the game, and got my ass home. It was awesome.”
He realised that this country is where he wants to be based. It is his home. Since returning, he has travelled all over Africa. Now he’s very happy as sales manager at DHL in Dakar. A company, he says, that has human values that he believes in.
DHL will feature frequently in this story from now on as they are The Ball’s logistics partner in sub-Saharan Africa. They are organising most of our travel and many of the relationships with officialdom on our behalf. We are delighted to be working with them.