We stop by Independence Stadum in Windhoek for a game of football with a difference. Winton Rufer, from as far away as New Zealand, has travelled over 24 hours to arrive in time for kick-off. Other former stars, like 2002 World Cup Finalist Jens Novotny, have jetted in from Germany. Former Danish National Team player and regular at Bolton Wanderers, Stig Tofting, arrives from England. African legends have come in, thanks to Air Namibia, from all over Africa. Global FC have jetted in from all over the world to raise awareness for the very important global issue: climate change.
After the match, we have a chance to talk to German legend Mario Basler about the Spirit of Football.
“Football is a team game. Everybody can take part in this game. If you are rich if you are poor. It doesn’t matter, you can play football. On the beach. On the streets… everywhere. That is why football is sport number one in the world.”
“Yesterday, we went to a township with one ball. I asked the kids if they would like to play football with us. And there was no question for them to say yes and to play football with us. This 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.
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.
I’ve supported Liverpool my whole life. Angie, my mum, grew up on Anfield Road in Liverpool. How could I support any other team? And in my childhood Liverpool were the kings of Europe and utterly dominant in the old English First Division with Kevin Keegan, King Kenny and (the now mind-blowingly dull) Alan Hansen. But we’ve not won the league for 20 years and our arch rivals have dominated. Like most Liverpool fans, I am expecting us to win the first Europa League title as we settle down in front of the big screen in Longido, Tanzania to watch the semi-final live from Anfield.
As I’ve travelled with The Ball (Tanzania being the 24th country en route to the World Cup) I’ve met hundreds of Liverpool fans. And, unfortunately, many more Man Utd, Arsenal and Chelsea fans. Africans love their Premiership football. Just about everybody wears a fake jersey of the club team in England that they follow passionately and the first question is almost always “which English team do you support?”. And, to our amazement, we’ve stumbled across live Premiership and European club football in some of the most out of the way places. Longido is a prime example.
We are the only Europeans in town. The locals are mixed between the indiginous Maasai and new arrivals from the rest of Tanzania. The population numbers a few thousand. Football, once more, is a unifying force. Live football in Longido means one place: a bar with a projector, a large screen, a mixed crowd and Kilimanjaro beer. We’ve won again. Last night we watched Inter hang on against Barcelona at the Nou Camp. Julio Cesar, who signed The Ball in February, was once again the star of the game. And tonight, the locals are hungry to see more live football. And so am I. Its another huge European night at Anfield. Come on Liverpool!
Ahhh, its not to be our night. Babel misfires. Gerrard is a shadow of his former self and Benitez confuses once more with his strange substitutions. I am left frustrated. My team is out. The club goes deeper into crisis. But life goes on even though in the moment I can’t imagine it. Liverpool is out.
Tonight, in Longido, I am walking alone.
Alliy invites us to join his football training session. They are preparing for their big May-day football game at the weekend. Andrew joins in while Christian juggles on the sidelines with kids too young/small to play in the game.
The Ball is played with for the first 10 minutes but it is deemed too flat and is traded for another football.
The other football pops after striking a thorn on the sidelines and The Ball is called back into action.
The practice session lasts long past the point where it’s possible to see the ball, but no-one seems to mind.
“The most important book of my generation was ‘The Joy of Sex’ but if I were to write a book, I’d call it ‘The Joy of Football'”
— Bob Munro, MYSA Founder and Chairman
In the world of football for development, the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) needs little introduction. Nominated twice for a Nobel Prize, this organisation which began humbly in the impoverished Mathare slum has touched the lives of more than 150,000 people in Nairobi. It is recognised throughout the world as a model for how sport can have a positive impact in a disadvantaged community.
John Ndichu Ng’ethe proudly stands in front of an impressive trophy cabinet. He has come through the ranks at MYSA from youth project participant to youth leader to his current post as PR Manager. He tells us in detail and from experience about how the organisation works and what the results have been. MYSA offers us inspiration and encouragement. We recommend checking out their website for the full story.
After hearing their story, we tell the story of The Ball to a packed room. And then it’s on to the reason for our visit, another unified game — a youth team from Mathare United (yes, they have a professional club with players drawn exclusively from MYSA) versus a unified team of Special Olympians, Kickabout and ourselves. Mathare United are clearly superb footballers and toy with the unified team, passing accurately and scoring freely.
Not even the introduction of our ringer, former USA Womens World Cup winner Lorrie Fair, stems the tide. Fair’s more than fair though, and gets a huge cheer from the girls on the touchline — who are clearly impressed by her skill — every time she gets the ball.
The final scoreline is a fitting testament to the success of MYSA. There is no shame in being beaten by the better team. Losing gracefully is one of the most important lessons in the art of taking part.
It’s time to leave West Africa. Goodbye, it’s been fun. Thousands of miles are behind us, hundreds of games of football have been played and The Ball is covered in signatures. From 40 degree plus scorching heat in Kayes to the sweat-fest of the Atlantic coast, from police escorts to police road blocks, from fresh fish and rice to barbequed cow on street corners, from Isle de Gore to Cape Coast, from the Voodoo Pope to the Gospel church, from Hearts of Oak Accra to Search and Groom Nigeria, massive train rides, DHL cargo flights… ahhhh West Africa has been a blast.
As I proceed through customs, they stamp and sign The Ball but tell me that the The Ball needs to be deflated for the flight to Ethiopia and the onward connection to Nairobi, Kenya. I am told it would be a safety risk otherwise. The flat Ball is stored in a net on my backpack. It is the same net that was used to carry The Ball to the World Cup in 2002. Back then, the net and The Ball 2002 were permanently attached to Phil’s backpack.
At the airport in Addis Ababa I just happen to bump into the Ethiopian Under 17 National Team. I invite them to kick and sign The Ball which they are more than happy to do. Then we are off to Kenya. East Africa is beckoning and I am excited to be joined by another player. Christian is back on The Ball. The last time we saw each other was in Casablanca.
Of all The Balls in all the world this one will bounce back into his path sooner or later.
Cape Coast, the former capital of Ghana, is a relaxed fishing town and tourist spot about two hours drive along the coast from Accra. We arrive in the middle of the day as the sun blazes and the sweat pours. We’ve heard that somewhere around here the first ever game in Africa was played, some 39 years after the very first game to FA rules was played in Battersea Park — the place where our ball, The Ball, started this epic journey on January 24th 2010.
Cape Coast has a fearsome history. Millions of Africans, who had been rounded up and enslaved, were held in dungeons at Cape Coast Castle before being marched through the “Gate of No Return.” Beyond this gate, they were packed like sardines into waiting ships and sent, many dying en route, to Europe, America and Brazil. Those Africans were never to return. But today people come to this castle from all over the world, including Barack and Michelle Obama. They come here to pay tribute to what happened here and to ensure that it will never happen again.
But we are here for another reason. We have heard that the first ever game of football in Sub-Saharan Africa took place here. “Football took off in Cape Coast, formerly Gold Coast, Ghana, around 1903,” Morgan Mason, a Cape Coast historian, tells us. “The first team founded was Essesoir and they played at Victoria Park. The team was founded by a Jamaican headmaster,” he continues.
In The Ball is Round, the Global History of Football, author David Goldblatt writes that “a group of 22 keen pupils of the Cape Coast Government Boys School embarked upon a secret training course in football. They trained mostly at night, when the full moon was over Victoria Park, then a well-kept place for official ceremonies.”
Why was it a secret? “Blacks were not allowed to play the beautiful game in those times, but those days are over” says Morgan. “Football has now grown up to be this game that we all enjoy, globally. Now we are one body, one people”.
Morgan takes us to Victoria Park and we find the field where that very first game was played. Nowadays, it is a concrete square used for official ceremonies — but back in those days it was a rocky, dry patch of land. We locate the half-way line and kick off. Morgan and Andrew exchange several one-twos, cutting the opposition defence open, before Morgan cracks The Ball into the top corner of the goal. Oops, he hits the top corner of a pavilion and The Ball just about hits an old woman selling bananas. Onward.
Can historians also predict the future? We ask Morgan who would win the World Cup. “Ghana will beat Spain in the final”, he says. Unsurprisingly, we have yet to meet anyone in Ghana who doesn’t believe that Ghana will win the World Cup. In fact, Andrew’s friend Kweku told him that Ghana will win the next three World Cups. Good luck to the Black Stars. It is high time for Africa to win a World Cup.
As we part company, Morgan gets emotional and tells us this:
“The mission, the reason, and the aim of which you came to this castle is recommendable. We pray that the good lord keeps you well and wherever you want to visit you should be warmly received so that you accomplish your mission and that when the whole world comes together on the 11th of June to the 11th of July converged in South Africa that there will be happiness, oneness, love, unity and above all respect for each and everyone on this earth.”
Samuel Duodu, DHL’s commercial manager for West Africa, is a self-proclaimed talented midfielder, “a midfield maestro”, he tells us. The team that he supports is the oldest club in Sub-Saharan Africa. “Hearts of Oak Accra was created on 11.11.11″ he tells us with pride.
We are beginning to rue a missed opportunity as we could have met up with Hearts of Oak veterans at the club’s former clubhouse in British Jamestown. Instead, we are stuck in traffic from the Volta region coming into Accra.
“They were looking forward to your visit. They would have even sung the club’s anthem for you. It goes never say die until the bones are rotting. “Is there a big rivalry in Ghanaian football?” we ask. “Well, you can talk about Man United v Liverpool or Kaiser Chiefs v Orlando Pirates in Soweto. Here it is Hearts of Oak and Ashanti Kotoko — these two are great rivals.”
In fact, another missed opportunity surfaces. Our original route had us leaving Burkina Faso and entering Ghana from the north. It would have taken us through the Ashanti region where a visit to the Ashanti King was planned — as well as a friendly match between these two great rivals using The Ball in the game.
“Anyway”, Sammy says, “tomorrow I have organized for you to go to Cape Coast.”
Right to Dream (R2D) is a charity that offers hand-picked, underprivileged young Ghanaian footballers a fully-funded, five-year education on and off the field. It empowers them to believe in themselves by encouraging them to emulate their African heroes. R2D believes that the boys will one day invest back into the communities and the continent they have come from.
CEO Anna Hegley tells us that R2D has a holistic approach to education which is aimed at nurturing the student, the athlete and the child. What she doesn’t tell us is that the curriculum at R2D has football at its very core. Headmaster George Jamieson, from Paisley, just outside of Glasgow, says that “the kids don’t know where Paisley is. They don’t know about Kilmarnock or Queen of the South but they know all about the Old Firm — they know who Rangers and Celtic are. You see, our curriculum is a nice marriage of what they are really interested in (football) and the academic side.” Everything at R2D is related to football. “The more you can integrate football into the curriculum the more alive it becomes and the more children will take hold of it and the more they will learn.” “Take mathematics” says Doc George, as he’s affectionately known here, “The ball is round so it is a sphere. It’s a globe and you can start taking radius off of it, and so you can talk about physics. If you kick the ball on its side why does it go in that trajectory?”
What about geography? The World Cup provides a great opportunity for the boys to learn about the world through the World Cup. One of my first memories as a child growing up in New Zealand was of a giant 1982 World Cup poster hanging at home on our kitchen wall. I can vividly remember the flags of the 24 competing nations. I can remember watching World Cup games and learning for the first time about countries like Brazil and Honduras and I can remember the goals that Paolo Rossi scored to take Italy to the World Cup. Indeed, my desire to see the world was perhaps sparked by the bedtime geography football questions posed by my dad to my brother and me.
The kids at R2D are learning about the world through the World Cup too. Each of them is responsible for researching one country that has qualified for the 2010 World Cup and it is their job to inform the others about that country: politically, culturally, socially — even eating habits. For example, what is the national dish in New Zealand? The kids then have to prepare and cook the food from that country for their school mates.
The classrooms of the school are all about empowering the youngsters to take control of their own destiny. Each classroom is named after a black person who has made a huge difference for the black community. “We want the boys to know that they have got champions out there. There are people out there they can emulate”, said Doc George. Those heroes are people like Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Mohammed Ali and Martin Luther King. Some of the graduates have gone on to win scholarships to universities in the United States of America, others have signed professional contracts at top European clubs. The boys may come from isolated communities in a small, underdeveloped country in an enormous continent but with an education from R2D they are on the right path to achieving success on and off the field.
The Ball is round and so is the earth.