England, Somerset, Radstock, Tuesday evening. I walk downstairs after settling my son, Alistair, in his bed for the night. I have resigned myself to my scheduled flight to Kenya being cancelled indefinitely by the intervention of the Icelandic volcano. The TV is showing the news. My attention is suddenly grabbed. Flights are back on — and mine appears to be one of them. With a start, I realise that I might just have put my son to bed for the last time until July.
Ah, the romance of air travel… where did it go? Come to think of it, did it ever exist? As usual, it’s a case of a few hours of fitful sleep, stopovers and sharing personal space with strangers, customs and immigration officials alike. Finally, touchdown in Nairobi. But luggage delays prevent me from joining Andrew at Alive & Kicking to meet Bernard, the maker of The Ball.
And so Joe Karanga, who meets me at the airport (and has patiently waited for me to emerge with my luggage) whisks me off to a project where Andrew and The Ball are rumoured to be waiting for me. And indeed they are. I haven’t seen Andrew since we parted ways in Casablanca. Then in the distance, there he is, camera in hand, and I break out into a spontaneous “ole ole ole”. Reunited for the final leg through East Africa to the World Cup.
But where is The Ball? Ah, there it is. Or is it? This one looks distinctly worse for wear and is, strangely, a weirdly misshapen.
Andrew explains that many thousands have signed it since I last saw it and that it has just been repaired, two new panels fitted which are smaller than the existing ones, giving it its, ahem, unique shape. Some keepie-uppie immediately reassures me that this is indeed no just any ball — it is The Ball.
Sebastian Wunderlich took the undergraduate football for development course at the University of Erfurt that we were offering — appropriately called The Spirit of Football. He became a valuable member of the seminar and now he is on the board of directors of Spirit of Football e.V. in Erfurt, Germany. Sebastian wants to use the positive power of football to do some good in society. Through the German development education progamme ASA, he was able to do an internship at the NGO Search and Groom (S&G) in Nigeria.
It was there he met Yomi Kuku, S&G’s Executive Director. Sebas introduced me to Yomi. We connected Yomi to Special Olympics Nigeria and together they planned some events for The Ball’s arrival in Nigeria.
We met Yomi at the Ikeja Youth sports center in Lagos, Nigeria to talk about S&G.
Andrew: What exactly are you guys doing at S&G Yomi?
Yomi: Here we use football as a tool to communicate with disadvantaged young people to encourage them to live a life if integrity, self dignity and to realize their full potential. We use the instrument of fair play football to achieve that. We have been doing that for over 8 years in Lagos, Nigeria.
Are there some stories you can share with us?
There are many. Too many. But, let me share two.
There was a player, Joseph Olamiju, who was down mentally, physically and spiritually. After joining us in 2005, we took him out of Nigeria twice — to the Homeless World Cup in South Africa and in Denmark and returned to become a coach on a full scholarship at S&G. Now he is the coach of the team. In Milan in 2009, he took the Homeless World Cup team of Nigeria to the semi-finals for the first time in our history.
We have taken about 50 extremely disadvantaged boys (formerly homeless) out on international trips to Europe, Australia and South Africa and not a single one has absconded. They have always returned back to Nigeria. Next December, we are going to be in Brazil to represent Nigeria. In June, we are going to be in South Africa to represent Nigeria at the FIFA Football for Hope Festival.
Who are the heroes at S&G?
People always want to talk about Messi, but we are not talking about Valdes, or Carlos Puyol. We only see Messi because he appears to be the point man. But Messi will tell you, like he always tells the media, that without the team he is not a footballer. Without teamwork you can never reach anything. Search & Groom has been sustained through synergies and teamwork. These guys (the kids) are the real heroes. Next September, they are going to be in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil to represent Nigeria at the Homeless World Cup. In June this year we are going to represent Nigeria at the FIFA Football for Hope forum in Johannesburg
What do you think about The Ball, Yomi?
The Ball is breaking down barriers across tribes, race, social status, and economic status. Special Olympics is doing a lot of great work with people who are intellectually challenged. Through The Ball, we have been able to open up a partnership with Special Olympics.
Through The Ball we are getting to build a relationship with our mentally challenged friends. It has connected us to people who were not aware of what we are doing. One Ball. One World.
Our highlight Special Olympics event in Benin is a gathering of intellectually challenged athletes, their parents, Special Olympics coaches, administrators and 20 plus volunteers for a free healthy athletes medical screening followed by a Unified Football match.
The Minister of Sport arrives late (not unusual for dignitaries anywhere) but the screening can’t wait for him (and nor should it).
The doctors, nurses, volunteers, parents and athletes have limited time and all the athletes need to be screened. That is the priority. Athletes’ eyes are tested (Opening Eyes) and where necessary prescription glasses are ordered for them.
Athletes’ teeth are checked (Special Smiles), where necessary dental appointments are made and each athlete receives a tooth brush and a tube of toothpaste.
Athletes’ have their ability to listen checked (Healthy Hearing) and appointments made with specialists. Athletes are given a thorough medical examination (Med Fest) and provided with healthy, locally-produced food (avocados, apples, oranges and pineapples) to take home.
Special Olympics trains doctors, nurses, dentists and volunteers so that they can learn how to work with special needs people. After the screening, the Special Olympics community comes together on the field of the national football stadium — Stade de l’Amitié — for a game of Unified Football after which everyone signs The Ball.
In countries like Benin, where there are inadequate resources for the provision of public health-care, Special Olympics is offering free health-care to intellectually challenged athletes. Healthy Athletes is an important programme and we are honoured to be there.
Bashir guides The Ball through Dakar’s crowded streets, past its sprawling market stalls and the football fields that can be seen lining almost every major street along the coast. Past the peninsula’s beaches where thousands of the super-fit Senegalese do their early morning exercise. Arriving at the football stadium, the West African adventure is truly underway. Update: thanks to Charles Takouet for the new pictures.
There we meet the Special Olympics and DHL staff we are about to spend the next few days with. A convoy is assembled with a sound system at the head, set up on a lop-sided pick-up truck. We’re ready to go.
But hold your horses! There’s a delay. One often hears about “Africa-time” — people say “don’t expect it to run like it does in Europe, Africa is different.” Although this time, we’re delayed waiting for an Englishman to appear.
Visits to two schools for children with special needs are planned — first to Talibou Dabo, then on to Estel & Aminata Mbaye. We’re finally on our way. But hold on! The generator for the sound system is out of fuel. A quick stop at a petrol station and we’re off, on the road again. But hold on! “Where is Phil?” Panic. Have we left him at the gas station? No, there he is, in the thick of the action, hanging off the side of the pick-up truck, camera in hand, grinning from ear to ear.
We have some apprehensions, however. This will be the first time that The Ball is being used as a publicity vehicle for anything or anyone. Both of us feel slightly awkward, not knowing how we, or Special Olympics, will react to the events — nor, indeed whether they will be a success.
The Ball is the guest of honour at both Special Olympics events. The children are excited at each visit: photos with The Ball, more signatures, music, presentations, interviews with media — and football games, of course. The vuvuzela is a real hit.
Our apprehensions evaporate as quickly as the sweat on our brows — it all makes sense now. Special Olympics had assured us that the presence of The Ball would make a real impact on their lives and we now realise that this is indeed true. Yes, our visits to schools and SO sports events are fleeting and our interactions with the children and their teachers and parents short — but there is a much bigger picture here.
We have to step back and consider the thousands of children in Senegal that are ostracised, often stuck in their homes, unable to leave because of the shame that their parents and familes feel about having them. The media attention that The Ball is helping to bring to their cause is considerable and across the board.
Earlier today, we were sitting with the Minister of Sport at a press conference. Two white guys wearing football gear with The Ball in a swarm of top Senegalese dignitaries dressed in their finest at the Ministry of Sport. In front of rolling TV cameras, the Minister of Sport made an emotional call to action that will be aired on national TV tonight.
He asked the Senegalese people to support special needs children. He encouraged parents of intellectually disabled children to enrol their children in Special Olympics’ programmes. Phil speaks pretty good French, and was able to understand the Minister’s speech. Tears were welling up in his eyes as he listened. It was an unforgettable moment.
We know without a shadow of a doubt now that The Ball can be a force for change. And, as we travel, we are increasingly realising how powerful it can be. Next week, The Ball and Special Olympics will be guests of the President and Prime Minister of Mali. As it heads inexorably towards the World Cup, The Ball is going to bring similar issues to the attention of national leaders right across Africa.
The Ball’s reach used to be described as being “from street to stadium.” Now, perhaps we can add “from the people to the palace.”
Given that we celebrate the origins of football and how the rules and the game have spread around the world, a visit to Genoa CFC, arguably Italy’s first football club, made good sense. A bit of googling revealed, however, that the Piazza d’Armi (where the club first played) no longer exists and is now occupied by railway sidings.
So, what to do? Give up on Genoa and head to France? Following up on our experience at Andelecht, where we also had no response to our email but received red carpert treatment, we decided to go to Genoa and see what would happen.
Before we knew it, we arrived at the former World Cup stadium shared by Genoa and Sampdoria. An amazing theatre surrounded on all sides by thriving city. Dribbling The Ball around the stadium we saw a sign saying “Centro Socio Educativo S. G. Battista” and a group of kids playing basketball right in the shadow of the stadium.
A game of football seemed like a good idea. The Ball was introduced and football was played. Boys girls, young, old… street football at its finest. A sunny winters day, a red goal painted on an old brick wall, the Stadio Luigi Ferraris as a stunning backdrop… this is what The Ball is all about…
From street to stadium, a celebration of the beautiful game.
Another day, another Mitfahrgelegenheit passenger — this time Dafina from Bulgaria, whose work as a government retirement consultant takes her over the whole world and, amazingly, may lead to a rendezvous with The Ball in Burkina Faso in March. We arrived in Köln (Cologne) right on time for the finals of an indoor street football cup organised by Köln Kickt.
Köln Kickt works predominantly with socially-disadvantaged, immigrant youth. Football brings the kids together and provides valuable life skills, integrates them into society, keeps them fit and off the streets as well as providing opportunities for social and personal development.
We were greeted by Jose Londji, an ex-professional from Cologne and Bayer Leverkusen who played for Congo at the African National Championships before his career ended prematurely due to injury.
The Ball was the guest of honour and was played with in the final of the boys’ competition and the opening games of the girls’ competition. The young people enthusiastically kicked The Ball and those that did got to sign it too.
Germany’s freestyle champion Dominik Kaiser gave a performance that will be remembered for a long time. What amazing skills.
We also had the chance to find out about Köln Kickt’s social football initiatives and to hear about an exciting World Cup project that is being organised together with 1FC Cologne (the top German Bundesliga football team) and 10 schools from all over Cologne. Each school “adopts” a different African nation and will get involved in cultural, music, art and sports projects that reflect the spirit of that country. In the lead up to the World Cup they will then present what they have done at the City Hall. And The Ball is going to be integrated into these classrooms: an exciting and unexpected development, which we are delighted about.
Next stop: Erfurt. Final preparations (travel gear), visit to the Health Department, a Nigerian visa to sort out and most importantly the chance to spend some time with my lovely little boy. Pauli, papa misses you.