When we lived in Madagascar, keeping us in footballs was an ongoing challenge for my dad. You couldn’t really buy quality balls, so we went through a cheap and badly stitched ball every few weeks. Occasionally someone would send a proper branded soccer ball from England, a happy day. Although it would be treated with the reverence and respect it deserved, it was only a matter of time before it was bitten by the dog or landed on the broken glass on top of the security wall. We were not alone. An estimated 20 million punctured balls are thrown away in Africa every year.
The local kids had their own solution. They couldn’t afford a football, so they made their own out of rags and scraps of plastic, bound tightly together with string. (I tried making one of these once. Mine didn’t last very long.) If you’ve ever traveled in Africa, you’ll have seen these home-made footballs, or hopefully even played with them. They’re not aerodynamic and don’t roll very well, which perhaps explains why the Malagasy kids all had crazy ball control skills and never passed.
Despite their ingenuity, most kids would love to play with an actual ball. If Tim Jahnigen get his way, one day they will. He’s the inventor of the One World Futbol, the world’s first indestructible football.
He had the idea in Darfur, after seeing how long donated balls lasted among the kids at a refugee camp. Although his background was originally in the music industry, he took on the challenge of creating a ball that could withstand the abuse of rough terrain. He eventually found the material – popfoam, a similar plastic to that used in crocs – but he couldn’t afford the research needed to develop a ball. Help came from an unexpected source. He told Sting about it, an old friend from his music days, and Sting told him to drop everything and make the prototype at his expense.
The prototype was trialled in African schools, and in the lion enclosure at Johannesburg Zoo. The final ball has gone into production, with an estimated lifespan of 30 years. It can’t be punctured, has no stitching to break. If you run over it with a car, it’ll bounce back into shape. It will keep millions of broken footballs out of landfill, and unlike many branded footballs, it’s not stitched by children in a sweatshop. The only downside is that since it can’t be deflated, you have to ship them at full size.
You can now buy a One World Futbol. When you buy one, you also pay for one to be given away*. UNICEF and Save the Children are using the balls, and Chevrolet have sponsored the production to keep them affordable.
The next time I need a football, I’ll be ordering one.
* I’m often sceptical about this approach, because it can undermine local markets and producers with free goods, but it in this case they are given away in refugee camps, where there are no local markets.