We sometimes wonder what we’re doing when we visit schools. Why are we here? What are the children learning? But sometimes, there is no doubt — and this rehabilitation centre for the severely disabled epitomises the certainty that we sometimes have.
The children in this school are too incapacitated to have been able to take part in the activities at the Kgafela Primary School in Mochudi earlier in the day. But Special Olympics wants to make them feel as much a part of the journey of The Ball as those who were able to make it to the school.
This is Christian’s first experience of mingling with those who are unable to play football and he takes it upon himself to make sure that each and every child gets to interact with The Ball in some way. The Ball has never been about football alone — and this visit is, to him, absolute proof that participation trumps competition.
The smiles of recognition are reward enough. The Ball is signed in new and previously unknown ways. Making a mark is more than adequate as The Ball makes its way around the children. Previously, Christian has been liberal in issuing yellow cards to those who deliberately handle The Ball. But here, he makes an exception — here, everyone is an honorary goalkeeper.
The Ball is greeted in spectacular style at the latest school visit here in Botswana. So far, it’s been schools, schools, schools all the way in Botswana — Special Olympics seem determined to show us what they are doing on the ground here, and we are duly impressed by what’s occurring.
Suburban Gaborone seems, on the face of it, to consist of endless strip-malls selling the usual corporate South African stuff, mostly shoes, it seems. But this school seems to want to show us what makes Botswana special.
We’ve been brought to schools which integrate those with special needs and are impressed by the professionalism and dedication of the staff towards their charges. This school is no exception.
Wer are greeted by traditional singing and dancing by the children, their voices filling the air with harmony and rhythm. Special needs pupils are part of the reception, not apart from it. Our hearts are warmed and our feet are tapping.
When football is used to its full, there seem to be no limits to the barriers that it can bring down. Everyone plays their part, everyone gets involved — and everyone is important in this process.
It’s an early start after a crazy dash through the Kalahari where we got excited by our first South Africa street sign…
Our first school visit takes us to Segopotso School in Kanye, where 700 school children are eagerly awaiting The Ball. Christian is determined that every single one of them should have the chance to sign it. Time constraints don’t allow this, however, and a scrum develops as each and every child wants to sign The Ball.
We move to the football field where a Unified Football team of pupils with and without intellectual disabilities play against a team of teachers. It is a lot of fun and the game ends in a draw.
We arrive at the school with The Ball and a giant replica. Alarmingly for us, the teachers are nowhere to be seen. Andrew talks to the kids about The Ball, but struggles to make himself heard above the cacophony of chatter.
The children crowd around to sign both balls. And game on… The Ball is kicked around the school-yard in an unruly fashion harking back to the days of village football in England or even the Wall Game at Eton. A huge punt by one young lad and The Ball’s on a classroom roof.
But what’s that? Oh no. The Ball meets a spike on the roof head-on and flops back to earth limp, lifeless and deflated. It needs urgent repairing. We’re a long way from an Alive & Kicking stitching centre and even further from The Ball doctor in Douala. What to do?
We’re recommended a cobbler and that seems like the sensible solution until we hear about a technique for fixing bike punctures. The answer is simple — pump a white sticky substance into The Ball with a syringe.
Shake The Ball about, pump it up, bounce it around. And hey, presto, it rolls again…
The Ball was dead. Long live The Ball.
“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.
Scrambling out of bed, packing frantically and heading off to Alice’s school. A presentation to the school assembly followed by children signing The Ball and a kick-about in the gym…
And then off again. On the road: driving through driving rain once more. It has been raining constantly for more than 12 hours now. Avoiding enormous puddles and dirty water rushing down from the hills, we finally arrive at the ferry terminal in Algeciras. It’s finally time to leave Europe.
We left that afternoon for Amsterdam with two passengers in The Golf Ball: Manuel (a VFB Stuttgart fan) and Antonio (an actor from Spain and a big fan of FC Sevilla) who found Sven’s offer of a ride on the German travel portal Mitfahrgelegenheit. The two lads were educated in the way of The Ball and both took pleasure in kicking and signing it en route to Amsterdam. Olé, Olé Olé Olé.
Amsterdam. Ohhhh Amsterdam. It was so good to see you again and such a shame to leave a few days later. I lived in The Dam for 8 months in 2000-2001. It was an orange time. Euro 2000. The Dutch were hosting and the town was in total football fever: orange hanging from every window. It is without question the city have most enjoyed living in. Many thanks to our wonderful partner, the Goethe-Institut for putting us up for a few nights in the German Seamen’s Mission in Keisersgracht in central Amsterdam.
On Friday, we travelled with our partner Rainer Manke, Language Director of the Goethe-Institut in Amsterdam, to Leiden. In Leiden, we led a workshop for motivated youths from the Leonardo Da Vinci Sports School. We presented Spirit of Football in one of their state-of-the-art classrooms. We talked about previous journeys, introduced the 2010 journey through video and music — and interacted with the pupils and found out what “the spirit of football” meant to them.
After the education session we headed to their indoor gymnasium to play football with The Ball. Similar to the kick-off in Battersea Park, we played football using the 1864 rules. It was not so easy to play with these rules in a small confined PE gym. Interestingly, the kids managed to figure out the new old rules much quicker than us adults did at Battersea Park a few days ago. The second half was a more traditional game of football.
That evening Rainer invited us to dinner at his home in Amsterdam. We were treated to bulgogi by his lovely Korean wife. Discussions that evening turned to the role football can play in the classroom. Henrietta, a German teacher in Leiden and Rainer, the language expert from the Goethe-Institut, gave us some positive feedback. They had both been astounded by how the kids had responded to the lesson. They saw that football offers a real opportunity to engage youths and then to explore other topics like geography and history. Sven talked about German history through football, referring back to 1954, 1974 and 1990 — the years Germany was world champion and the social and political situation in Germany at those times.
This lesson was a valuable first for us, as, on our long and bumpy road to South Africa, we have up to 25 school visits. These visits offer us the chance to engage with young people from diverse cultural backgrounds; to discuss football and the world with them; to teach them something and to learn many more things from them. As we were leaving the school in Leiden we were stopped by a group of teenagers who are learning dance, with very little prompting they agreed to an impromptu dance performance with The Ball. Football, music, culture, geography, history, dance, art… they all come together when one talks about The Ball.
In the early evening I hooked up with Holland’s most famous freestyler Abdellah. He’s an Algerian street football performer. He told me that he loves to play around with people. He is not purely a performer, his love of interaction is what drives him. His performances combine playing football in short sided games, juggling his football with others and including all kinds of passers by in the action. He hurt his hand recently and could not show off his famous lamp-post routine: Normally he juggles his ball with all parts of his body without dropping it… all while he free-climbs a lamp-post. From the top of the lamp-post, he dangles acrobatically, always in control of the ball. Abdullah: world famous in Holland.