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
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.
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.
“It’s called Score Against Substance Abuse,” Wario says. Behind him, on the touchline, two kids are sniffing glue from plastic bags. Andrew starts to warm up for a game. We look down. The football field appears to be covered in glass. A shiver goes down Andrew’s spine.
Wario Donne has been in contact with us since before The Ball left England. He’s been extolling the virtues of football in his work with youngsters in one of Nairobi’s largest and most notorious slums. His mission is to offer them a vision of life that offers them more than the attractions of drugs and crime. And he wants us to see how well it works. We go along with a contingent from Special Olympics Kenya who are keen to link up with SASA.
Can’t you clear the pitch of that glass?” we ask Wario. “Not really, the field is glass,” he replies. “We’d have to dig down six inches before we find anything other than glass.” No sliding tackles today then, Andrew thinks to himself. As Andrew carefully avoids going to ground on the field, Christian watches the action unfold from the touchline.
“What’s going on?” a bystander asks him.
“It’s Unified Football,” Christian explains, “people with intellectual disabilities and people without play in the same team.”
“Which ones are disabled?”
A pause. Christian smiles. A light goes on in the guy’s head.
“Thank you,” he says, “I understand now.”
You can’t stop kids sniffing glue. But you can offer them an alternative. Wario is engaging young people in playing football. He’s offering them the chance to join a team, make friends and compete in regular tournaments. And maybe the light will go on in the heads of those young people. Like it did with the guy Christian met on the touchline.
An early roll-call at Nairobi University today for the main Special Olympics event in Kenya. Athletes, parents, supporters and players are already assembled as we pile out of the DHL van with The Ball.
A parade around the pitch is followed by Unified Football. Sides run on to the pitch and, unusually, the captains meet at the centre-spot to decide the length of time they will play for. On this sweltering cloudless day, they opt for shorter halves than perhaps they would otherwise. “Thirty minute halves” comes the opening bid. The other captain looks up at the sky and the blazing sun and with sweat already forming on his forearms he replies: “15 minutes each way”. Every good haggle results in a compromise and twenty minutes each way is settled on. The result is fast and furious action, enjoyed by players and spectators alike.
And so to the main event — a team of Kenyan footballing legends takes the field to warm up for a game against a unified team of local Special Olympians and travelling football crews. Their team sheet reads like a who’s who of Kenyan football: Aggrey Lukoye, Josephat Murila, Tobias Ochola, Austin Oduor and Elly Adero are all in the starting line-up. Andrew is joined by Lorrie and Brian from Kickabout and two coaches from Arsenal, who have just arrived from Vietnam to give football training sessions with local NGOs.
It is a closely fought game, neither side giving an inch. Andrew scores a goal with a flying header, scuffing up his knees quite severely in the process. But it’s worth it — goal of the game, no doubt about it. The final score? It didn’t matter — the handshakes, the smiles, the memories were what this day was all about.
But the highlight of the event for us? Seeing everyone given a proper meal after the game, the Special Olympics athletes first in line, just as they should be.
“The most important book of my generation was ‘The Joy of Sex’ but if I were to write a book, I’d call it ‘The Joy of Football'”
— Bob Munro, MYSA Founder and Chairman
In the world of football for development, the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) needs little introduction. Nominated twice for a Nobel Prize, this organisation which began humbly in the impoverished Mathare slum has touched the lives of more than 150,000 people in Nairobi. It is recognised throughout the world as a model for how sport can have a positive impact in a disadvantaged community.
John Ndichu Ng’ethe proudly stands in front of an impressive trophy cabinet. He has come through the ranks at MYSA from youth project participant to youth leader to his current post as PR Manager. He tells us in detail and from experience about how the organisation works and what the results have been. MYSA offers us inspiration and encouragement. We recommend checking out their website for the full story.
After hearing their story, we tell the story of The Ball to a packed room. And then it’s on to the reason for our visit, another unified game — a youth team from Mathare United (yes, they have a professional club with players drawn exclusively from MYSA) versus a unified team of Special Olympians, Kickabout and ourselves. Mathare United are clearly superb footballers and toy with the unified team, passing accurately and scoring freely.
Not even the introduction of our ringer, former USA Womens World Cup winner Lorrie Fair, stems the tide. Fair’s more than fair though, and gets a huge cheer from the girls on the touchline — who are clearly impressed by her skill — every time she gets the ball.
The final scoreline is a fitting testament to the success of MYSA. There is no shame in being beaten by the better team. Losing gracefully is one of the most important lessons in the art of taking part.
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.
I like to play in the Unified Football events but there is no space for me this time. I try to convince the organizers that I’d be a good addition to one of the two starting line ups but the teams are picked, warmed up and ready to play.
Before kick off players on both teams give The Ball a guard of honour to welcome it onto the pitch.
I take my place in the small crowd assembled for the UNICEF sponsored match. The game unfolds and it is impossible to tell the Special Olympics athletes apart from the rest. All players on both teams are talented footballers and the quality of football is very good. Special Olympics athletes can play football as well as anyone.
The game ends at 1-1 and a penalty shoot-out is needed to separate the teams. The yellow team wins but both teams come together to celebrate as one and to sing and dance together. How often do you get to see that in football?
Many thanks to our partner the Goethe-Institut for donating some footballs.
This game was about having fun and about participating and about friendship. Sure, both teams try to win but losing is insignificant. Isn’t this the spirit of football?