Spirit of Football is a nonprofit that, during every four-year World Cup cycle since 2002, has invited people to kick a football/soccer ball — aka “The Ball” — starting from Battersea, London, where the very first match of FA Rules football took place, to the next World Cup site. Think of it as a sort of a soccer-focused, more inclusive version of the Olympic Torch relay. Starting with the 2014 World Cup cycle, the organizers tied The Ball’s journey to raising awareness about a seemingly intractable global issue.
Climate action will be the cause that “The Ball” will promote in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar next November and then the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
GreenSportsBlog spoke with Richard Hamilton and Andrew Aris, two of the “Custodians of ‘The Ball'” about the project’s history and how its journey from England to Qatar and then New Zealand will promote climate action.
“WHAT ARE THE ODDS?”
Richard Hamilton was living an exciting if vagabond life in his post-university years during the late 1980s-90s.
“I was traveling and working around the world, as a mover in New York City, on a flower farm in Ecuador, on a tobacco farm in Zimbabwe,” the Brit told me when we spoke in October. “Then I met a friend when I was back in the UK for my sister’s wedding in 1997 who worked in humanitarian response. I was intrigued and the following year, completed a master’s in development administration at Bristol University.”
Richard Hamilton (Photo credit: Richard Hamilton)
That summer, two of Hamilton and two of his chums at Bristol decided to go the 1998 World Cup in France — they were all budding football fans. They brought a ball with them and played street football with Cameroonian and Austrian fans when in Toulouse for one of the group matches.
Somehow, this morphed into deciding to take a ball overland from London to the 2002 Men’s World Cup in Japan and South Korea. Hamilton then got offered his first humanitarian contract and off he went to North Korea. Despite his remote location, Hamilton and friends Christian Wach and Phil Wake began planning the more than 5,500-mile trip in 1999.
Then, two years later and not long before the scheduled start of the London kickoff, the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened.
One month later, aid worker Hamilton found himself in Tajikistan, figuring out how to get into Afghanistan.
Kicking a football halfway around the world took a back seat.
“I ended up following behind the Northern Alliance¹ and their advance towards Kabul, eventually helping to open up humanitarian relief operations in the north of the country,” he recalled. “Christian and Phil set off with the ball from London. I was able to meet up with the guys at the halfway point in Uzbekistan, where we also found Christian’s father’s grave! I had to go back to Afghanistan while they continued kicking the ball on towards the World Cup.”
Along the way, people, kicked, autographed, and got photographed with the ball. Wach and Wake got interviewed. After the World Cup, Spirit of Football was launched, a website created and, per Hamilton, “The Ball itself had become a phenomenon!” He continued his humanitarian work and brought an auxiliary ball with him to some of the most dangerous places in the world while Wach and Wake prepared to dribble The Ball to the 2006 Men’s World Cup in Germany.
“I was working in North Korea again in 2004 and was able to take The Ball to some World Cup qualifying matches in Pyongyang,” said Hamilton. “I also brought The Ball with me to Darfur in 2005 during the peak of the humanitarian crisis there.”
It was at around this time that the Spirit of Football UK guys met their doppelgänger, Andrew Aris, a German football-for-good enthusiast, and this unlikely story kicked into another gear of improbability.
“Andy had the ‘Spirit of Football’ idea already completely independently of us — in fact, he used the same name for his non-profit education organization,” Hamilton marveled. “What are the odds of THAT?!? Of course, we combined forces. So, Christian, Phil and Andy dribbled the ball from England to Germany for the 2006 Men’s World Cup — one of the more logistically easy Ball journeys.”
Hamilton again had bigger fish to fry — he had gone to Sri Lanka for the response to the horrific Tsunami. Soon after that, the Tamil Eelam War VI erupted and…well, I’ll let Hamilton pick up the story from here.
“I was spending most of my time helping with the protection of predominantly Tamil civilians as the Sri Lankan army cleared the Tamil Tigers out of the north and east of the country,” he shared. “We had a ball there that people signed and kicked around. But the whole thing was kind of surreal. I remember speaking with Andy on the phone while he’s dribbling through Germany and I’m close by the Trincomalee naval base battery that was pounding Mutur across the bay where many of us had offices, friends and family, including my future wife, Priya.”
The Spirit of Football guys had proven — albeit with Hamilton viewing the action from the sidelines as he assisted with humanitarian crises — that they could kick a ball from London to far-flung World Cups. They got attention. They got prominent people, from world class soccer/football players and coaches to government officials, to sign the ball.
But could they make a difference?
They took what Hamilton calls ‘The Leap’ in the run-up to the 2010 Men’s World Cup in South Africa.
“We decided to profile people with special needs during our journey and to raise money,” he offered. “Fortunately, we were able to partner with DHL and the Special Olympics. We launched our ‘One Ball, One World’ curriculum in schools, which helped take things to another level. And that year, I was already in West Africa and so was able to meet the guys and The Ball in Senegal and later in Johannesburg as part of its epic six-month journey through 32 countries to the World Cup in South Africa.”
The Ball visited a special school in Benin, West Africa in 2010 (Photo credit:Spirit of Football)
The 2014 World Cup in Brazil saw Spirit of Football and Special Olympics collaboration get even bigger. Tens of thousands of people came in contact with The Ball and signed it along its journey. According to Spirit of Football, it turned out to be the most autographed ball in the history of the sport —18,500 people signed it!
And, during the Latin America portion of its journey, The Ball and ‘One Ball, One World’ helped Special Olympics raise public awareness of its Unified Football initiative which, per its website, brings people with and without intellectual disabilities together in communities of tolerance and inclusion.
2018 saw The Ball journey from London, across Europe, into Turkey and through Georgia into Russia, the host nation. The theme that year, Empathy, was right in Hamilton’s wheelhouse. ‘One Ball, One World’ created programming to help people understand the experiences of displaced people and refugees. It also focused on bringing Europe together through football. Spirit of Football won the EU’s European Citizens Prize for its work that year.
The Ball was kicked and signed by homeless people in Croatia, visited Syrian refugee camps in Jordan and ran integration workshops with Syrian refugees and host communities in Lebanon and Turkey. The border crossing from Georgia into Russia — the site of an armed conflict between the two countries in 2008 — was fraught with tension but The Ball won the day and made its way to the World Cup for the fifth time.
ENVIRONMENT, CLIMATE THE FOCUS FOR 2022 MEN’S WORLD CUP IN QATAR AND 2023 WOMEN’S WORLD CUP IN AUSTRALIA/NEW ZEALAND
The Spirit of Football team had planned for one major change in store for The Ball during this World Cup cycle, adding the 2023 Australia-New Zealand Women’s World Cup to its itinerary following the Men’s tournament in Qatar next November-December.
The pandemic impacted the planning for both journeys in a positive way, leading to another big change.
“COVID gave all of us time to think,” said Hamilton. “We discussed climate change as being a potential theme but realized we just didn’t know enough. So, we read about it and the sports-and-climate-themed writings sportswriter and sociologist David Goldblatt, which helped get us on the right track. Then we met and enlisted the support of folks like Katie Cross of Pledgeball and other leaders from organizations like the Rapid Transition Alliance, Cool Down, Common Goal, and the U.N.’s Sports for Climate Action Framework. We realized that we needed to rethink the way that The Ball would travel to highlight the global nature of the climate crisis to a truly global audience.”
I know what you’re thinking: “Kicking a soccer ball from London to Qatar or London to Australia and New Zealand is pretty darn global!”
The ting is that the routes are limited to the cities and towns in between Points A and B. So, the Spirit of Football team decided to widen The Ball’s journey so that every continent, every country, no matter how far away from Qatar and Australia/New Zealand could be involved. And they wanted to reduce carbon emissions in the process.
That led to ‘The Ball Is at Your Feet’ campaign.
“It is designed to show that ‘The Ball Is at everyone’s Feet’ and that all of our collective feet are on this one Earth of ours, and that we need everyone to make a difference on climate change,” explained Aris. “We will give it a big sendoff on the 10th of July 2022, starting in Battersea Park, London where the rules of football were first codified more than 150 years ago, to Manchester, Liverpool and Germany. Then signatories will ship it to partners in all corners of the world, including the developing world, so they can kick it around locally, gaining more signatures, building more awareness, listening to the voices of indigenous communities, before sending it somewhere else.”
Shipping The Ball will generate fewer carbon emissions as compared to the old method of sending groups of people along with the famous orb.
Parallel to The Ball’s journey, Spirit of Football will train partners to run its FairPlay Future Climate Action program in schools and communities in the run up to both World Cups. And it will run ‘Our Business is FairPlay’ climate action workshops with companies.
Andrew Aris (Photo credit: Spirit of Football)
COP26 HELPS PROPEL SPIRIT OF FOOTBALL TO THE NEXT LEVEL
The U.N. asked Spirit of Football to present The Ball at COP26 and their talk proved to be a booster rocket for the 2022-2023 campaign.
In the three weeks since, The Ball has been invited to Antarctica and the North Pole, the Philippines and across the South Pacific, Armenia, Turkey, Finland, Argentina, India, the Unithed States, and the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh.
The signatories pledge to take a personal climate action — i.e., reducing shower time, riding a bike, car sharing — or a collective one — i.e., a car-free home football match for a professional team, a beach clean-up, etc. Spirit of Football is working with Pledgeball to calculate the potential emissions reductions resulting from the pledges.