It’s the last ball of the over, in runs the young medium pacer, bowling over the wicket, off a short run-up. But what’s that in his hand? It’s The Ball. And what a delivery — right up there in the block hole. The Ball hits the batsman about knee-height on his front pad. There’s a large shout for LBW. It looks plum. The umpire’s hand goes up. He’s out. Howzat!
Thanks to the DHL cricket team for being good sports. It may not quite be the Spirit of Football, but it’s certainly the Spirit of Cricket.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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 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?
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 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.
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:
“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?”
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!