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Children with an Alive & Kicking ball

Category: The Journey

Special Olympics Malawi

Blantyre welcomes The Ball in style with a parade to the stadium from the polytechnic, DJs blaring funky music from a truck, Special Olympians leading the way with friends, family and supporters in tow.

Marching from the polytechnic to the stadiumMarching from the polytechnic to the stadium
Be a fun of The BallBe a fun of The Ball

The national stadium is the venue for the latest installment of the publicity drive that the national Special Olympics programmes are undertaking with The Ball as their catalyst and their story.

The Minister of Sport checks his notes while Andrew speaksThe Minister of Sport checks his notes while Andrew speaks

The Minister of Sport is the guest of honour, attending despite a very tight schedule on this national holiday in Malawi. Although not as forthright in his support as we would all like him to be, it sounds like he’s urging Special Olympics Malawi to redouble their efforts in producing results at international competitions before offering his full support. Still, conditional support is better than none, and SO Malawi take up the challenge and promise results.

Speeches over, it’s time for some football. A Unified football game precedes the main attraction of the day — a match between two of Malawi’s top teams: Escom and MTN Wanderers.

A Unified Football team prepares for the matchA Unified Football team prepares for the match
Barefoot kickoff in the Unified gameBarefoot kickoff in the Unified game

While the Unified game is underway, Andrew gets down to the, ahem, serious business of getting signatures on The Ball. He’s determined that all the Special Olympians present should leave their mark on it and so he heads for he stands where they are all gathered. An hour later and he’s completed his mission.

Special Olympians Mikakh Chikanga and Balire Kudzala sign The BallSpecial Olympians Mikakh Chikanga and Balire Kudzala sign The Ball

The professionals take to the field to much applause and cheering from the stands. It seems like their supporters have turned out is force, despite the game being a friendly.

First half expectancy in the crowdFirst half expectancy in the crowd

The enthusiasm starts to fade in the second half, however, as it looks like the professional teams, minds probably on upcoming cup fixtures, are happy to grind out a 0-0 draw.

Second half lethargy in the crowdSecond half lethargy in the crowd

Many positives can be taken from this event. The organisation has been impeccable, SO Malawi are up for the Minister’s challenge (and will no doubt rise to it), there has been a great turnout from the public, and the SO athletes have had a wonderful time in the limelight. Which, in the end, is as it should be.

Michael Ballack rues his injury

Michael Ballack rues his injuryMichael Ballack is spotted doing a bit of commentating in Blantyre, where he is convalescing after the injury that’s kept him out of the World Cup.

Visa, what visa?

“Look over there”, says Kirstin, ” do you want to stop?”. “Na Klar (yes, of course)” we say in unison as we spot children running around a field kicking a football. It’s time for The Ball to work its magic.

It’s a national holiday in Malawi and we are on our way to Blantyre. We’ve followed Kirstin’s suggestion and taken the scenic route. Its been a fabulous decision thus far as the scenery is nothing short of spectacular. Our mission is to make it to Blantyre by early evening and to take our time today, hoping for random football encounters en route. This is the first encounter of the day.

The Ball meets some fighting fit childrenThe Ball meets some fighting fit children

We pile out of the car and boot The Ball into the field. The children go bananas. They kick and chase The Ball across the field. As we talk to the kids, we get the feeling that something is out of the ordinary here. Something is different. They are more shy than the children we’ve encountered in Malawi thus far and they appear not to understand English.

But for now there is an international language in use and Christian is bending fantastic balls into the box for the kids to scramble into the goal. Andrew see’s Kirstin waving frantically from the other end of the field. He runs over to her.

“We are in Mozambique” she says.

The first signature in MozambiqueThe first signature in Mozambique

The people who live either side of this road (some in Malawi, others in Mozambique) share a common language, common customs, geography and history and are indeed members of the same tribe — the Chichewa. But they live in different countries.

With The Ball at our feet and British passports in our hands, it’s been relatively easy for us to cross these European-defined “African” borders but we’ve always needed a visa stamp. Not this time. We have accidentally stumbled into country number 26. Visa, what visa?

Der Ball geht in die Schule

In December 2008, I travelled to Munich for the top-of-the-table Bundesliga match-up between Bayern Munich and Hoffenheim. My friend Stephan Hoefig wanted me to meet his brother Michael, who heads up the Goethe-Instutut’s language department in Atlanta, Georgia.

Michael and Andrew in AtlantaMichael and Andrew in Atlanta last year

Michael is one of those characters, who one assumes never sleeps and dreams up creative education projects for fun. He’s a live wire football-freak, and he jumped all over The Ball’s mission with the result that Spirit of Football CIC and Todo Aleman signed a strategic partnership.

Be knowledge-a-ballBe knowledge-a-ball

Michael connected us to Goethe-Instituts in Sub-Saharan Africa and here we are at the Bambino School, with Kirstin Pagels, Director of the Goethe Institut in Lilongwe. We quiz the packed auditorium on their (German) football knowledge:

Packed auditorium at the Bambino school, LilongwePacked auditorium at the Bambino school, Lilongwe

“Where is the next women’s World Cup?”
“When has Germany won the World Cup?”
“Which historic walls was The Ball 2002 kicked over?”
“Where did The Ball’s journey begin this year?”

Goethe-Institut encourages learning through footballGoethe-Institut encourages learning through football

We’ve learned on this journey that many children in Africa have a strong knowledge of football. They know the teams that play in the top leagues in Europe. They know which country a top player comes from and can even point to where that country is on a map. We’ve visited academies like Right to Dream in Ghana, that has an entire curriculum based on football.

The entire Bambino school as one big teamThe entire Bambino school as one big team

The Ball is an educational opportunity. Young people love football. We want to develop a comprehensive, interactive fun education experience based around The Ball. Children can learn about the histories, geographies and the cultures of the places that The Ball travel through. They can be introduced to important social messages (such as the work of Alive & Kicking and Special Olympics) at the same time.

Social messages are passed on through footballSocial messages are passed on through football

In Johannesburg, during the World Cup, we are due to lead workshops for 80 children that the Goethe-Institut are bringing in from all over Africa. We hope that each and every one of us can have fun together and learn something too.

Linesmen of the World

We bid farewell to Blaise and get on the bus, heading out of Dar es Salaam. It’s not just any bus though, it’s a Chinese special. No-one has told us that in order to fit on this bus we’ll have to cut our legs off at the knees. Andrew’s legs don’t fit into the tiny space at all and, with no saw in sight, he takes the aisle seat and stretches out as best he can.

Christian contemplates the next 14 hoursChristian contemplates the next 14 hours

14 hours later and we arrive in Kyela, within touching distance of the Malawian border. At the border, many locals have heard about The Ball and we’re allowed to film The Ball being stamped out of Tanzania and kicked across the bridge that separates these two nations.

We’re expecting a friendly reception in Malawi, which touts itself in tourist brochures as “the friendly heart of Africa.” Our first experiences are, however, don’t match this cosy image. At immigration, we’re told, in no uncertain terms, to stop filming immediately. A visa stamp for The Ball is refused and there are no smiles whatsoever at the immigration desk.

We explain time and again that The Ball has been stamped in and out of every country in sub-Saharan Africa. We even show pictures of The Ball being stamped out of Tanzania just a few minutes earlier. But the Malawian customs officials aren’t persuaded. Not in the slightest.

“If you don’t give The Ball a visa stamp then it can’t come into Malawi” Andrew says.

“Are you sure that you want Malawi to be the only country not to give The Ball a visa?” asks Christian before he lists off the countries that have given The Ball a visa.

Finally, the customs boss relents and stamps The Ball, perhaps thinking that this might be the only way to get rid of these strange guys, but there is no way we’re going to film the stamping.

An anonymous linesman stamps The BallAn anonymous linesman stamps The Ball

Borders are a strange concept, particularly so here in Africa where, some time ago, some men sat down somewhere (perhaps in London) with sharp pencils, long rulers and lots of tea and divided this continent up. Border posts followed — and with them border guards, who we affectionately call the linesmen. Thankfully, the linesmen haven’t flagged us offside yet.

The Ball takes a light-hearted poke at the strange concept of borders and nations as it makes its way to the World Cup, paradoxically a tournament that celebrates and sometimes even shapes perceptions of nationhood. The Ball, we think, is about making connections between people regardless of their nationality. In fact, we’d take that one step further and say as we always do… One Ball. One World!

If the kids are united

It’s the grand finale to The Ball’s presence in Tanzania — a seven-a-side tournament of Unified Football for children drawn from schools all over Dar es Salaam. Transport is paid for, there will be prizes of footballs donated by the Brazilian embassy and everyone will get a square meal at the end of the event. It’s an irresistible prospect.

Waiting to kick off the tournamentWaiting to kick off the tournament

It is mayhem in the stadium. The children are running about playing football, jumping around gleefully on the bouncy castle and dancing wildly to the Congolese music blaring from the cavalcade truck. Blaise, Christian and Andrew join in the fun, while assorted dignitaries look on with barely concealed delight. For children who, by-and-large, live lives deprived of such simple pleasures, this event is like sunshine on a rainy day.

A player is proud to hold The BallA player is proud to hold The Ball
The king of the bouncy castleThe king of the bouncy castle
The balls from Brazil are distributed to schoolsThe balls from Brazil are distributed to schools

“This kind of thing has never happened before,” Sunday from the TFF says to Blaise. For Christian and Andrew, it’s one of the most encouraging moments of the trip when Sunday then suggests that this event become a monthly fixture.

The grand finale is finally overThe grand finale is finally over

When people use the presence of The Ball to bring people, companies, football federations and NGOs together, it seems that “the unlikely” becomes “the possible.”

The Balls from Brazil

When we met up with Francisco Carlos Soares Luz, the Brazilian Ambassador to Tanzania, in his office in Dar es Salaam, we asked him to say a few words about the Spirit of Football. He didn’t want to answer immediately. For a Brazilian this question goes right to the heart of the national obsession.

Brazilian Ambassador Francisco Carlos Soares Luz and The BallAmbassador Francisco Carlos Soares Luz and The Ball

Three day later, he arrives in his kit, ready to play for the EU Flames against Albino United. He’s brought along 20 Brazilian balls. But not just any balls. These balls are made by prisoners and donated to schools. Each of these “social” balls is stitched by an inmate, who gets one day off their prison sentence for each ball produced.

Children love their ball from BrazilChildren love their ball from Brazil

“I am ready to tell you about the spirit of football” says Francisco. “I remember, a small story from 5 years ago when Brazil played against Haiti. We had just taken the lead in the UN peacekeeping force in that country. We concluded, that the only fun, the only happiness, the Haitian people would have was if we would take the Brazilian national team to play against them.”

“There were more or less 500,000 people in the streets to greet the Brazilian team and they were on the top of a military tank on the way from the airport to the stadium. The result of the match, was the least important thing, the happiness that those people had in that moment is the spirit of football.”

Albino United

“The pitch we booked at the Gymkhana is waterlogged,” says Tim Clarke, head of the EU delegation in Tanzania. “We’ve got a match planned between a team of ambassadors and a team of albinos and now we’ve nowhere to play. Can we work together?”

Albinos, Tim tells us, are one of the most discriminated-against groups in Tanzania — so much so that they are often killed in ritual sacrifices because it is considered by many to be good luck to have a piece of an albino in the family home. Shuddering at this thought, Blaise offers the pitch at the Uhuru Stadium as a substitute venue for the game.

Albino United are ready for kickoffAlbino United are ready for kickoff

Albino United, dressed in an all white strip, take to the pitch. Facing them is the team of ambassadors, looking less than confident — there’s no diplomatic immunity on the football field — but still up for the challenge.

Albino United play the game diplomaticallyAlbino United play the game diplomatically

Straight from the kick-off, it’s clear that the diplomats are outclassed on the pitch, and the crowd cheer overwhelmingly for Albino United. But the ambassadors are honourable in their attitude to their inevitable defeat. Today is not about them, but about their opposition, who match the diplomats with their grace in victory.

The EU Flames and Albino United, unitedThe EU Flames and Albino United, united

Boots and water bottles

Maximo was right. It’s 7am on Saturday morning and children from all over Dar es Salaam are assembling at the Tanzanian Football Federation’s artificial turf pitch. Children from as young as six and up to twelve arrive carrying their boots and water bottles, ready for a morning training session.

Booted up, children line up for roll-callBooted up, children line up for roll-call

TFF trainers start working with the older children, Christian heads off to play keepie-uppie with the youngest, while Blaise and Andrew jump in with corner practice for the rest. Blaise’s goalkeeping prowess is soon receiving plenty of praise and the children ask him if he’s a professional. It’s hard for him to conceal his pride at the very thought of this.

A Blaise of GoalieA Blaise of Goalie

Blaise seems genuinely touched by the passion and commitment of the children and, as the session comes to close, asks whether the children can join us at the Uhuru Stadium for the seven-a-side tournament that has been organised for local schoolkids. It’s a deal — they will all be coming along.

Grabbing The Ball by the panelsGrabbing The Ball by the panels

Ngorongoro Stars

The first of our visits to the Uhuru Stadium in Dar es Salaam is for a game of Unified Football that will be the curtain-raiser for a friendly clash between the Ngorongoro Stars (the Tanzanian Under-20 team) and league high-fliers Azam United.

Uhuru Stadium in Dar es SalaamUhuru Stadium in Dar es Salaam

Uhuru Stadium lies in the shadow of the much larger National Stadium which has recently (and unsurprisingly) been built by the Chinese. But it’s no slouch of a place, fitted as it is with artificial turf and a decent stand.

By now we’re pretty used to the way these events pan out and dive in to our respective roles. Andrew gets ready to play. Christian schmoozes with the dignitaries and films what he can.

Eileen from DHL and Andrew, the National Stadium behind themEileen from DHL and Andrew, the National Stadium behind them

Although Special Olympics put the emphasis on participation over competition, this does not mean that the players are any less passionate about the game. It’s a good match, properly contested, good to watch.

Unified teams are unified for the team shotUnified teams are unified for the team shot

Top of the bill is the game between the Tanzanian Under-20 team, fondly referred to as the Ngorongoro Stars, and Azam United, a professional team which, like so many in Africa, is a company team — in this case drinks manufacturer Azam.

Ngorongoro Stars kick off with The BallNgorongoro Stars kick off with The Ball

During the game, we spot Maximo, the charismatic and popular Brazilian coach of the senior national side. He volunteers to kick and sign The Ball and then tells us with pride how he has changed the way the whole country plays the beautiful game.

Christian and Maximo share a jokeChristian and Maximo share a joke

Tanzanians used to play an English-style long ball game. Maximo reasoned that Tanzanians weren’t really physically suited to that style and immediately told his team to keep the ball on the ground. His instruction seems to have filtered through to every level of the game and he is now an iconic figure in Tanzania, the third most recognised person in the country.

Blaise and Christian outflank the Ngorongoro StarsBlaise and Christian outflank the Ngorongoro Stars

As he leaves, Maximo tells us that we really must come along to the Tanzanian Football Federation’s training ground early on Saturday morning to see the young children who make their way there, often on their own, fro all over the city — football boots slung over the shoulder and water bottle in hand. “Then you’ll understand the passion for football in this country,” he says.

The Ball 2018 left England on 25th March 2018 and travelled to the World Cup in Russia.

The Ball 2014 kicked off from England on 9th Jan 2014 and headed to the World Cup in Brazil.

The Ball 2010 left England on 24th Jan 2010 headed to the Opening Ceremony in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The Ball 2006 travelled from London to the Opening Ceremony in Munich, Germany.

The Ball 2002 was carried 7000 miles across Europe and Asia to the World Cup finals in Korea & Japan.