“We are very happy that young people thought of this idea of taking The Ball around Africa. It makes us all feel part of the game. Today was the worst day you could have come to State House. We have cancelled all of the things before and after your visit. All of my ministers are here with many things to do. But we thought that it was so important, that we must attend to this.”
— Rupiah Banda, President of Zambia
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.
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.
“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.”
Deputy Minister of Sport Joel Bendera coached the Tanzanian national football team for 10 years. He is the only coach to have taken Tanzania to the Africa Cup of Nations, and was himself a former professional footballer. He officially welcomes The Ball to Tanzania and recognises immediately what The Ball is all about.
“I’d like to take this opportunity on behalf of the government to welcome you Andrew and your colleague (hmm, that would be Christian) to Tanzania. We feel proud and actually everyone is happy that you are giving us this opportunity to bring this ball to Tanzania. We really appreciate your job and praise God for you coming to Tanzania.”
He goes on to pledge support Special Olympics Tanzania long after The Ball has gone. Responding to Andrew’s challenge, he also pledges that Tanzania will have more signatures on The Ball than any other country. He finishes by saying: “One Ball. One World.”
The Tanzanian Daily News (amongst many others) has a full report of the event, but here’s an exclusive for you, our dearly beloved readers…
“The spirit of the game of football, especially in Tanzania, has made all Tanzanian’s to be one. We may have a lot of difficulties and problems, but when it comes to football everybody has a passion, a love. It has made us to be one as a nation. When it comes to togetherness, friendship, brotherhood, football has done it.”
“The bigger issue that football has done is for people to be happy. Most young people in Tanzania have a passion for football. So they are healthy. They play from morning to evening, after school classes, they really enjoy it. It has made us love this game more than any other.”
Andrew and The Ball are taken to Hotel de Ville (City Hall) where Andrew tells the Mayor of Lomé that he, like anyone else, may sign The Ball but that there is a condition: he must head it or kick it first. The Mayor replies: “I have a head and I have a foot” and proceeds to head and kick The Ball before signing it.
And with no further prompting, save Andrew’s proud smiles, The Mayor continued:
“It is a pleasure and an honour to welcome you and your organisation Spirit of Football to Lomé and to receive The Ball of the World Cup in Lomé. I am honoured that you have chosen the city of Lomé and Togo on your route. The day you have arrived in Togo coincides with a day after the election and just before Easter, it is very good timing as we are also celebrating the 50th anniversary of Togolese independence. I am wishing you well and I hope that you feel at home in Africa. This ball that has been made in Africa, by Africa and for Africa is an honour for Africa and I wish that an African team will be world champion. But as they say — let the best team win. I wish you a welcome to Togo and as the Mayor of Lomé I am symbolically giving you the key to the city of Lomé so that you can open all doors here.”
— Mayor of Lomé
The next stop for The Ball is a private reception with the Prime Minister at his residence.
“Let me make it clear. This meeting was not planned but I had to make myself available for this because our government gives high importance to sports. It is not only the government but all of the Togolese people. And the government of Togo has an obligation to the well being of intellectually disabled people and to providing social welfare of those people. In 2008 the government set up a fund to support the welfare of mentally challenged people. I would like to thank Spirit of Football, Special Olympics and all partners of The Ball for coming to Togo. We are delighted that you chose Togo as a point of destination on your noble journey to South Africa. The government will try and do everything in its powers to make sure that sport is supported in Togo. I would like to encourage you in what you are doing. It is a noble cause. Thank you for coming to Togo and I wish you well in your continued journey.”
— Prime Minister of Togo, Gilbert Houngbo
“The spirit of football to me is very simple. It is to bring all of the world together in serving as a base for peace but also for development in reducing inequalities in our world.”
— Dovi Amewome, Director of Special Olympics Togo
“Let The Ball roll free through the streets of Lomé, let it bounce freely along Lomé’s beautiful beaches and be allowed to be kicked and signed by all citizens of Lomé.”
— Mr. Issa Amenuyan, Chairperson of Special Olympics Togo
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!
Today we are off to meet an ex-goalkeeper, but not just any ex-goalkeeper. This one is “the King of all Kings”, Mogho Naaba. “Mogho Naaba is more popular than the president in Burkina Faso,” says Patrick, our driver from DHL, as we head for a traditional ceremony that is open to the public.
Mogho Naaba is king of the Mossi tribe, an ethnic group that covers much of Burkina Faso and reaches into the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Togo. Mossi tradition dictates that the eldest son of the enthroned king must be banished from the royal court. And so, at the tender age of 7, the current Mogho Naaba was sent into exile in France, never to see his father again. When his father eventually died, he was called back to Burkina Faso and became king himself.
The ceremony that we witness takes place every Friday and dates back hundreds of years to the appearance of the first colonial invaders. Unfortunately for us, no photography of the event is allowed. At the start of the ceremony, the king prepares to leave for war dressed all in red, the colour of blood. His horse awaits him in front of the royal palace. But his ministers attempt to prevent him leaving, begging him not to go to war. The king listens to their appeals, goes back into the palace and minutes later returns dressed in white. Relief all round — there will be no war today.
After the ceremony, we are fortunate enough to go to the palace for a private audience with the king of all kings. The Ball is now covered in layer upon layer of signatures, more than four thousand in total. “No one,” we say, “king or layman, is allowed to sign The Ball without first kicking or heading it.” Phil throws him The Ball. Mogho Naaba catches it and says to us “But surely a goalkeeper is allowed to use his hands.”
And so from now on, thanks to the insight of a king, we have a new rule to accompany the signing of The Ball — a goalkeeper is allowed to sign it, but only if he or she catches it first.
Afterwards the king leads us on a tour of his private football museum, which is a treasure trove of memorabilia. It includes a signed Ivory Coast shirt worn by his friend Didier Drogba at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, a framed photograph of himself and Roger Milla taken at a celebrity football match, where he played in goal.
And his prized possession? A shirt signed by the entire Welsh national team. He leads us to it with a broad smile. This shirt, he tells us, was worn by Ryan Giggs, with the famous number 11 on it, and it appears to be the king’s favourite. Perhaps he is a Manchester United fan? Diplomatically, Mogho Naaba wouldn’t say.
The Ball arrives in Ouagadougou to find that a meeting has been scheduled with the Minister of Sport, M. Jean-Pierre Palm. The meeting has been arranged by Special Olympics Burkina Faso (SOBF) to welcome The Ball to the country and introduce it to the national authorities.
We are slowly beginning to understand and appreciate the rituals and formalities of these official events. They are a great opportunity for everyone involved to get to know one another — both personally and professionally — and for a real dialogue and a constructive exchange of views to take place.
When The Ball is passed, whether in the street, on the field or in the boardroom, a connection is made. The Ball feels honoured to meet the Minister and hopes that the dialogue that has been opened will lead to greater opportunities for Special Olympics athletes in Burkina Faso.
Next up is a press conference in association with the Burkina Faso Football Federation (BFFF) at the National Stadium, the Stade du 4-Août. It was very well attended, with a big turnout of representatives from the media.
Although Burkina Faso have not qualified for the World Cup itself, the press is receptive to the connection with the tournament that The Ball represents. The connection is an unofficial one, but The Ball’s journey is very real. It reminds people that football can be a powerful catalyst in spreading the message of inclusion — and that the programmes that Special Olympics run are the very embodiment of the spirit of the beautiful game.
As a German resident, I needed to apply for my Nigerian visa in Berlin. In Germany in January, I didn’t have enough time and was subsequently informed that there was no way I’d get a visa anywhere en route as Nigerian visas are only issued in your country of residency. It looked very much like I wasn’t going to be able to get into Nigeria.
The way the trip has turned out, I will be solely responsible for carrying The Ball from Ivory Coast to Cameroon, including Nigeria. What happens if I can’t get a visa? Would I be stuck in Benin? Would The Ball have to go on without me? Most likely The Ball would not vist Nigeria. That would be a real pity as SO Nigeria have been planning events for The Ball in and around Lagos.
From a personal point of view, I’ve been very worried about the political situation in Nigeria where there have been kidnappings of foreigners, killings across different ethic groups and where the general situation appears to be dangerous and deteriorating. I’ve been starting to think that it might not be a bad thing if I don’t get my Nigerian visa.
Special Olympics Nigeria are on the case, however: Folashade Bolumole, SO Nigeria Director, has been in touch with the Nigerian goverment in the capital Abuja. Special Olympics have taken control of the situation, and as we arrive in Burkina Faso there is news — The Nigerian Embassy in Ouagadougou wants me to come by for an interview.
I turn up there with a representatives from the Burkina Faso Ministry of Sport and DHL and a letter of support from SO Nigeria. The Nigerian embassy staff are very keen to accommodate us and, to my surprise and delight, the visa will be ready within an hour.
I have a question about the political situation in Nigeria. “Is it too dangerous to travel there?” I ask. “The trouble is just in one region. That is the Niger Delta. The rest of the country is safe. Nigeria is a wonderful country. You’ll have a great time in Lagos,” comes the reply.
In my mind, I start reflecting on perceptions of Africa… we who live outside Africa hear so much about the problems of the continent. We sit in our living rooms and see pictures on the TV of war, famine, disease, ethnic cleansing and we hear about corruption and mismanagement. Yes, of course, some of these things are happening and are only too real — but the Africa I am getting to know is vastly different.
We are constantly meeting friendly people with smiles on their faces and a generosity that often goes beyond their means. A lot of these people may not have the level of material wealth that so many people in Europe have, but, to my eyes, they are often much happier. What is it that we have lost but that they have not?
Suddenly, I’m excited to be heading to Nigeria: With the positive energy of The Ball at my feet and the support of partners on the ground the prospect of Lagos’ chaos is enticing. Let The Ball roll.
Back home in Erfurt, Germany last summer, dignitaries from Mali were in town. They were in for talks about the possibility of a partner city connection between their town, Kati, and Erfurt. I found out that Kati is close to Bamako, the capital of Mali: one of the destinations for The Ball en route to Johannesburg.
I met the Maire de la Commune Kati, Monsieur Hamala Haidara, and his assistant in the Steinhaus Biergarten. It was a lovely summer’s evening. Traditonal Thüringian food had been ordered, meat dumplings and red cabbage, if I remember correctly. The guests were in great form. Although, as strict muslims, I recall that beer was not on the agenda. I introduced The Ball and told them I’d love to visit. They were excited. Hugs and contact information were exchanged. Next time: Kati, Mali. Yet until a few days ago there had been no contact. Why not? Language barriers. I don’t speak French or any local Malian dialect and they don’t speak English or German. But there is one language that we all speak: football. The Ball is a leveller and a promise is a promise!
So now, many months later, I’m in Mali with The Ball. It’s 45 degrees outside and dust is everywhere. Yesterday, Moussa, director of our partner organisation Special Olympics Mali called the Mayor of Kati on our behalf and tried to fit in a visit. Our schedule with Special Olympics has been full to say the least: Press conferences at the Ministry of Sport and the Malaian Football Federation; visits to schools for children with intellectual disabilities; meetings with dignitaries like the Mayor of Bamako, the Governor of the region and Salif Keïta: one of Africa’s legendary footballers. Not to mention planned meetings with the President and Prime Minister coming up. Nevertheless, time is found and without delay we’re on our way out of Bamako on the road to Kati.
The sun is directly overhead and it’s a blazing searing 45 degrees. Windows down, scarves over our mouths to avoid choking on the dust, we enter the district of Kati. I’m wearing my Rot-Weiss Erfurt shirt, the one with ARIS on the back and the number 33, from my days in 2006 warming the bench for Pavel Dotchev’s team. We swing into the mayoral compound and are met — as we have been the whole time in Mali — by big smiles. We follow an assistant up the stairs and into the mayor’s office. There he is. Looking every bit as charming as he was in Erfurt. I reach out my hand. He pulls me towards him. We embrace. It is a wonderful moment. Erfurt’s flag is pulled out. We pose for photos.
He’s seen us on television, we are told. He wants to see and sign The Ball. “Wait, a moment,” we say, “you can’t sign it until you have kicked it!” Without hesitation, he starts juggling The Ball once, twice, three times. Not a bad touch, Monsieur Haidara, you would have stood a better chance than me of being in Dochev’s starting eleven.