“It is here. Feel it. Touch it. It is here.” Says a Bafana, Bafana grandmother as she meets The Ball and welcome us to the World Cup.
The Ball has arrived at Soccer City, just hours before the World Cup Opening Ceremony. We kick The Ball to the stadium. We juggle The Ball with fans from around the world with the stadium behind us and the roar of hundreds of Vuvuzelas all around.
We call out “One Ball” and a crowd reponds in unison “One World”…
Then a Mexican fan takes charge… “When I say Una pelota everyone replies Un mundo… Una pelota… un mundo… Una pelota… un mundo…”. The crowd gathered is dancing. The Ball is held aloft and celebrated.
Next up is a French fan: “Une balle. Un monde”…
Finally a German fan: “Ein Ball. Eine Welt”…
Phil and Christian stand either side of Andrew, arms interlocked. Richard is up on Andrew’s shoulders. Christian and Phil pass The Ball to Richard. Richard lifts The Ball up in the air in front of Soccer City.
The Ball’s epic journey is over.
There are 32 teams represented at the World Cup. 32 panels on The Ball. 32 countries The Ball has visited in the past 138 days. Over 17,000 people have kicked or headed and signed The Ball.
With an African ball, we have learned that this is Africa’s World Cup. We’ve seen that people on this continent are generous, friendly and full of life. We’ve come to care passionately about Special Olympics’ and the fantastic work that organisation is doing across Africa.
It doesn’t matter if you are black, white, orange or red…. it doesn’t matter if you are old or young…. nor if you are male or female…. it doesn’t matter if you are good at football or not and it certainly doesn’t matter whether or not you have an intellectual disability… The Ball is for everyone…
One Ball. One World.
The Ball and the players are looking exhausted from 135 days on the road. The Ball has been a catalyst of love across Europe and Africa. It has brought smiles to the faces of thousands of people. It has been headed, kicked, kissed even licked. It has brought Special Olympics’ inclusive message to the attention of millions of people across Africa.
The Ball has made us (its carriers), not only aware of, but emotionally attached to the fantastic work being done by Special Olympics. Thank you to all at Special Olympics: from volunteer coaches, to parents and athletes you are doing fantastic work. You have shown us and The Ball some of the beautiful energy that this great continent has to offer.
Sometimes, when key players are injured, others rise to the occassion. While several SO South Africa staff were attending a world meeting in Marakesh, Thembile Mhlongo (Thembi) takes charge and impressively organises a fitting final Special Olympics event for The Ball at Signet Terrace Mall in Lenasia, Johannesburg.
The event starts with a short procession led by Special Olympics athletes carrying an Olympic Torch. Freestylers from Underground Soccer, show off their extensive range of ball tricks as the procession reaches its destination.
After short speeches and a song about The Ball (“This Ball is your Ball”), performed by Phil, it is time for the football to start. Let the games begin. First up is a match on center court between Underground Soccer and a unified team representing Spirit of Football. After this show opening debacle, we won’t mention the score, the real business of Unified Football begins.
At the end of the tournament there is a winning team, but everyone who participates has won. Local people have been made aware of Special Olympics, athletes have performed well in unified teams and been cheered on, SO volunteers have staged a succesful event, and The Ball has ben kicked and signed by many more people.
On behalf of Special Olympics. On behalf of South Africa as a whole. We want to say thank you to Spirit of Football for doing what they’ve done. Clearly you guys need to be given the highest accolade in the world in terms of your commitment to the love of the game, for bringing The Ball all the way from the UK down through Africa. For the simple reason that this World Cup belongs to Africa. If I was in FIFA or in SAFA you guys would have front row seats at the Opening Ceremony. It is one world, one football and one World Cup and it is but one humanity, one love in the world that’s all. Thank you.
— Kay Naido: Volunteer with Special Olympics South Africa
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.
Could anything else other than football have brought this motley crew together? Desert Wolves bikers with a Police escort lead the cavalcade with an Olympic Torch burning brightly. Followed closely by four bright yellow DHL vehicles. The Ball held aloft on an open-top double-decker bus surrounded by the Special Olympics family, athletes, coaches and supporters.
The sound system on the bus blares out K’naan’s official World Cup anthem — on repeat and at the highest possible volume. We dance. We sing. We wave to people in their front yards. Children rush out of their homes, wave back enthusiastically, dance in the streets.
A pause in the suburb of Katatura, the so-called “place where we don’t want to be” to where the black population was forcibly relocated from central Windhoek. A tough-looking Desert Wolves biker performs a doughnut on his bike — front wheel staying on the spot, rear wheel leaving a circle of rubber on the street and acrid smoke in the air. Leaflets advertising the Special Olympics event are scattered to the crowd.
Then onwards to the Sam Nujoma Stadium where the event is happening. A crowd has already gathered and football is already underway. The Ball is thrown into an inflatable football arena where children are battling it out in four-a-side competition. Football fever, World Cup fever, is here for the day.
Around 2 o’clock, everyone migrates into the stadium itself for the main event of the day — a match between parliamentarians and ambassadors, both of whom, it seems, have been training hard for today’s game. Fitness levels are sky-high and play is fast and furious, diplomatic skills on full display. That’s the offical story.
In truth, the game is footballing hilarity of the highest order. Diplomats fall like flies to injuries sustained in bizarre ways, while parliamentarians are making ultimate use of the tag-substitute system, more used to running the corridors of power than the length of the football field.
The game ends a 6-1 victory for the diplomats, with brave talk of a rematch from both sides. It is even proposed that future games should become regular fund-raising fixtures for Special Olympics.
We salute both teams for their courage in getting out there on the field for Special Olympics and for showing beyond any shadow of doubt that absolutely anyone can play the beautiful game.
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.
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.”
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.”