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.
We are scheduled to play in a Unified Football tournament today. As ever in West Africa, the fearsome heat makes us anxious about taking part. But these events are such fun that it is impossible to stay on the sidelines. So bring on the football, bring on the sweat!
Special Olympics athletes are joined by DHL staff and members of the Burkina Faso Football Association including its president and members of the national Burkina Faso Under-17 team, who have competed at the recent Under-17 World Cup in Nigeria.
Being a Liverpool fan, Andrew is very keen to play on the team that is dressed in the Liverpool kit.
An open and friendly atmosphere develops as everyone gets to know one another. All the teams play against each other and once more football is the winner.
Some of the Special Olympics athletes who are playing have quite severe disabilities, but they are accepted as players of equal importance to each team.
The large crowd of spectators (we estimate around 500 people have turned up) seem to enjoy the games a lot and are very vocal in their support. The post-football celebrations show that making new friendships means that, whatever happens on the pitch, everyone is a winner off the pitch.
This is the deciding game of the Kayes High School Football Championship. It is Wednesday evening and that means Champions League football. The two teams come running out on to the field wearing replica strips. The yellow team is Arsenal, sponsored by O2. The blue and black stripes, well those are world famous: Inter Milan.
The main stand of Kayes biggest stadium Stade Abdoulaye Maccoro Sisoko is almost full. It is split right down the middle and packed mostly with screaming, singing, cheering teenage girls dancing to the beat of drums and vigorously supporting their own school.
The game is a nail-biter, end-to-end stuff, but 0-0 at half time. In the second half, after a stern talking to from Arsene Wenger at half time, Arsenal step up a gear and dominate, creating half a dozen great chances. Even though half of the players are playing in plastic sandals, the quality of football is superb. The teams can’t be separated and the game goes to penalties.
Inter win on penalities, the Arsenal crumble under the pressure with weak penalties — how typically English. Wild celebrations follow. Inter are the champions of Kayes.
So what do we do when we’re not chasing round on one footballing mission or another here in Dakar? We take a stroll along Ngor beach and enjoy the relative cool of the late afternoon. And play some football, of course!
The temperature is dropping and the sun is starting to set, plunging straight into the sea. Who are those guys walking towards us? A team of footballers? Yes. Certainly. These guys look like professional athletes — they have amazingly toned bodies. “Phil, they have to be a football team,” Andrew suggests.
Phil immediately approaches them and explains The Ball and the journey and is welcomed to join their “light” training session the day before an important cup match. Phil whips his shirt off, revealing a great British blindingly-white torso.
Soon the team and their latest starlet start jogging up and down the beach. While Phil’s energy quickly drains away, their pace ramps up to a furious level and Phil rolls out of the pack in a heap. As the professionals continue their light warm-up, Phil resorts to some more gentle keepie-uppie instead.
By this stage, Andrew is keen for a game of beach football. Organising a game of footy in Dakar is just about the easiest task you could ask of someone. People simply love their football here — and play just about anywhere and anytime they can.
In a flash, its 3 against 3, with stones as goals. The tide is coming in and The Ball, being made completely of African leather, is soaking wet in no time. No matter, game on. 3 against 3 becomes 5 against 5. Two French surfers join in. They are spending a month in this surfing Mecca, where the local Wollof-speaking fishermen have surfed for years on the beautiful rollers that frame the nearby Ile de Ngor.
This idyllic beach harbour is the perfect place to wind down after the intensity of the last few days. Football for football’s sake. A welcome break.
We like to think of the way in which The Ball travels as one big game of football where the world itself is the pitch and everyone a player. The Ball highlights the ways in which football can be inclusive — breaking down barriers wherever it is played.
So when we learnt that Special Olympics have developed a variation on the standard game which they call Unified Football®, we were intrigued. We went to the Iba Mar Diop Stadium in Dakar to see how it works.
The basic premise of Unified Football is that each team consists of both Special Olympics athletes and mainstream athletes training and playing alongside each other. Andrew had hoped he might get special treatment on account of being unused to the heat. No such luck — there are no allowances made on the pitch for anyone, whether they have intellectual disabilities or not.
When this kind of game happens, the emphasis is not so much on the winning as on the taking part. What is foremost in everyone’s minds is the sheer joy of playing the game — the essence of the “spirit of football” as we see it.
When football is played this way, it becomes immediately apparent that Special Olympics athletes are people of equal status and value in the community. And encouraging that kind of acceptance really is a cause for celebration.
Too quickly on the road again. We’d have loved to have stayed longer in Sidi Moumen, but The Ball has an appointment to visit the Dancing Shantytowns project of the Association Marocaine L’Heure Joyeuse.
There we meet Rokaya El Boudrari and the kids from the local shantytown who are also eagerly awaiting the arrival of The Ball. She explains to us that Dancing Shantytowns aims to provide health care programs and promote education amongst the young and poor people in Casablanca.
Andrew introduces The Ball to the kids, letting them know what it was about and why it was there. And then The Ball is played with in a real game of football on a street football pitch. The first proper game since Battersea Park. Being much taller than the kids, Andrew is able to score two fantastic headers, which will be talked about for some time to come. Or so he says.
The visit is wrapped up with the kids displaying their breakdance and freestyle skills with The Ball. We begin to understand the importance of the project to the children and the respect that they have for it. And it’s contagious because we feel that respect just as much.
Many thanks to all at L’Heure Joyeuse for such a warm reception and to Chris Lunch for putting us in touch.
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.