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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
“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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
No sign of Kilimanjaro. The famous mountain is out of view for the duration of our stay in Tanzania. This is common here in May. It’s winter time and visibility is poor. The Ball is here, but Kilimanjaro doesn’t appear to be.
One last chance… we board the Precision Air sponsored flight to Dar es Salaam via Zanzibar at Kilimanjaro International Airport. Will we win again? We hope so. Alas, even miles above ground, there is no sight of Africa’s highest peak. We’re just surrounded by cloud.
Anyway, thoughts turn elsewhere during the flight. Andrew hasn’t seen his girlfriend for months and she’s come to visit The Ball for the Tanzanian leg. Christian’s excited for other reasons – he’s looking forward to his first cavalcade with The Ball and what looks like being one of most outrageous series of events planned for The Ball yet.
DHL’s Managing Director Blaise de Souza is there to greet The Ball on the runway and a scrum of media are there too. We’re led through to a waiting crowd. It sounds like pandemonium out there. Andrew and his girlfriend Jessica embrace.
Tanzanian poet and musical superstar Mpoto greets The Ball at the airport. A large crowd outside of the terminal is entertained by drummers beating out rhythms of life while dancers shake their booty in true African style to some outrageously good Congolese tunes. The Ball is led to a truck endowed with a massive “The Ball is Here” sign in the green and white of sponsor Zantel.
Christian and Andrew climb on board as the truck is led off by 6 DHL motorcycle outriders and followed closely behind by baton-wielding policemen in a 4×4 with sirens blaring. People lining the streets recognise Mpoto, who is known for his socially conscious poetry. Some look at us confused or smile in amusement, others wave frantically, some dance wildly.
Christian can hardly believe his eyes and ears — this isn’t anything like previous trips that The Ball has made.