“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.