Omar Larossa played over 400 times for Boca and Argentinos Juniors, Huracan and Independiente, winning four domestic titles and the 1978 FIFA World Cup. Now, flanked by Boca and national team luminaries Alfredo Rojas, Silvio Marzolini and Antonio Rattin on a low stage inside La Bombonera, he begins to explain how it felt to lift the trophy to his lips. “I wish I could tell you, to put into words, but whenever I think of that moment…” His voice wobbles, tears begin to well. Unprompted, a Special Olympics athlete – one of 35 young players Boca provide free weekly training sessions for - moves out of the crowd to give the world champion a hug. “It’s ok,” he says as the two remain interlocked, the rest of the room silent. “Thank you,” Larossa replies. “Thank you.”
It began with two Englishmen, Phil Wake and Christian Wach, who travelled to France ’98 to record the chants and musical support that accompanied each national team. Intending to replicate the idea at the next tournament, their plans instead evolved into ‘Football’s Leaving Home’, a 7,000-mile overland journey from London to South Korea and Japan together with a ball. Starting from Battersea Park – venue for the first ever game of football played to FA rules – on March 26th 2002, the ten-week journey to the opening game in Seoul included kickabouts with Tibetan monks and British ambassadors and games at the Great Wall of China, the Kashgar Coliseum, Taklamakan desert and Moscow’s Red Square. “The 2002 journey showed us the ability of football to break down barriers and create friendships,” Wach wrote. “That everyone shares the game as a common language.” Four years later ‘Football’s Leaving Home’ had become Spirit of Football, Wach and Wake joined on the trip from Battersea to Munich by Andrew Aris – a former New Zealand, Notre Dame and Rot-Weiss Erfurt player – who taught English in South Korea, interned with the World Cup 2006 organising committee and had just founded a football and education based NGO. “I had an idea to combat problems in a positive way. Shortly afterwards I realised there was another organisation called Spirit of Football,” he says, “so I got in touch with them online. We clicked straightaway and it all just went from there.”
“Every four years since 2002 we’ve taken one ball from the home of football to the World Cup. The Ball is like football’s Olympic Torch but anyone can sign it. Everywhere we go we see football played: in every village, every town, every country and every continent. We ask people ’What is the spirit of football?’ and we’re making a film of this journey and that question,” Aris tells an audience of schoolchildren, journalists and the bulk of the Racing Club de Avellaneda side that beat the Lisbon Lions in the 1967 Intercontinental Cup. A banner outside the stadium entrance reads ‘Un balon, un mundo.’ Nearby, Nati Plateroti of Special Olympics Argentina is explaining the attraction of the Ball: “We share a lot of the same values - community, developing skills and friendships. It’s been an honour to have the Ball here and it’s given us and our athletes the opportunity to visit the three most important football clubs in Argentina, spreading our message to these places and their people.” “You know, football is an international language,” says Josefina Endler, “The Ball puts in words and actions the feeling where everyone shares a love and passion for the same thing, regardless of their differences. It’s what Special Olympics is all about.”
In the course of its journey, the 2014 Ball has made over 150 school visits and called in everywhere from presidential palaces, the Disney Studios and Barcelona FC to homeless shelters and neighbourhood football schools. “We played a Game of Peace with Special Olympics athletes on the Equator line, met the Colombian Army and had the ball signed by many people. We met a 95-year-old woman in Santiago, Chile who hadn’t spoken in English for over 20 years. Once she started talking about football, she couldn’t stop. Dani Alves has signed it, Cesc Fabregas and a man who’s still very famous in Brazil. “Oh no,” Fernando Gadoy involuntarily winces as a picture of Alcides Ghiggia flashes up on screen. Gadoy, a youth team player in his native Brazil who later coached in Caifornia, has organised a series of events and an exhibition in the host nation before and during the tournament as well as delivering the ball –hand stitched in a Sao Paulo prison as part of a government rehabilitation project for which inmates get one day off their sentence for every three they spend making balls - to its starting point at Battersea Park, where this year’s journey kicked off 150 years to the day since the first ever game. “A prisoner called Allejandro made the ball and was the first person to sign it,” Gadoy tells me after the event at Boca Juniors. “When we get to Sao Paulo we’ll take the Ball into the prison and present the journey from beginning to end.”
Tiny Jarrow Roofing, who play in front of two figure crowds in a division eight below the Premier League, donated money after reading about its journey online. “We’re a relatively young club, formed in 1987, but we play in the world’s second oldest league. Football truly is global and unique in appeal and we wanted to do our bit to help,” explained manager, treasurer, groundsman, chairman and club founder Richie McLoughlin. Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez was so impressed he set a replica ball off around his country on a mission to promote peace and tolerance. Paul Finnerty, a Rochdale fan managing the Titia Hostel in Copacabana, Rio, offered accommodation and a favela kickaround. “The spirit of football is all about the ball itself, and we'd like to be just a small part of the journey,” Finnerty explains. “It's not about who signs the ball, but the fact it has been signed and reached so many people. Having the ball with us will be like having all those thousands of people here at once. It doesn't matter one bit that we don't know who they are because we’re all part of the same game. Football really does bring people together.” In Buenos Aires, Aldo Baccaro – given two days’ notice of the Ball’s arrival by a friend in Detroit – arranged free beds for six nights, an appearance on national TV and a headquarters at his Palermo Hollywood bar. In all, Andrew has had to pay for 20 nights’ accommodation during his six month journey, the generosity of friends and football fans providing a spare room or sofa, empty flat or just a place on the floor across 25 countries and three continents. “In 2010 DHL sponsored logistics for us and this year New Model Army donated the proceeds of a song and Opel provided a couple of cars and money to cover transport costs in Europe. Otherwise, it’s just what we can raise or find ourselves.”
“I got a call from an old university friend,” Baccaro tells me over a game of table football at El Barcito just before our appearance on Channel 5 News. “He just said there was a guy coming to Buenos Aires and he needed somewhere to stay. I looked at the videos from the Colombian Army, Barcelona and South Africa in 2010, but I didn’t fully get the power of the Ball until we went to River Plate. It was the morning before the biggest game of the season and training was completely closed, but the players gave the ok for the Ball and two Special Olympics athletes to visit them. I understood then that the Ball has a spirit. Wherever you go if you drop a football on the ground then people will start playing. Boys, girls, adults, rich or poor, when we see a ball the game is the only thing that matters. The game, the ball, your teammates, all your other problems disappear. You can’t explain it, but you see it everyday."
I see it myself in Buenos Aires’ Plaza de la República where, as thousands of May Revolution marchers stream past, an impromptu three-a-side game – jackets and Spirit of Football bibs marking out goals – draws the attention of those sitting around the obelisk marking the spot where the Argentine flag was raised for the first time. “It’s such a simple thing,” says Lili Orrico, who’s flown in to re-join the Ball after first hosting it in Mexico. “You can talk with everybody. The ball is the language.” “People think the Ball travels with a big group of people but there are usually only two of us,” says Rosalyn Noerz, who quit her job in Cologne to help take the Ball through Central and South America. “Everybody wonders ‘What are they doing here?’ It’s just a great story. I’m lucky that I was born in a country where your education is paid for and you can study what you want. Lots of people don’t have that chance. The Ball’s visits are short but it leaves behind a message that is sustainable – respect, tolerance and fair play.” It’s a prevalent theme at River Plate, too, where River Solidarity’s Juan Cruiz La Banca takes on a nine-hour tour of a stadium that’s more a round-the-clock community than just another football ground. “Welcome to my home,” he greets us. “Thank you for visiting my club.” In the bowels of the stadium are a kindergarten, theatre, cinema and multi-use sport facilities. We visit a gymnasium roofed with the underside of El Monumental’s terracing, speaking to a husband and wife who both work as sports coaches, their 18-month-old daughter and a son who is already part of the River’s youth programme. In the cafeteria three football coaches stop to ask about the Ball. “The spirit of football?” says one. “I was born with football, I live with it and I’ll die with a ball in my hands.”
By the time we get to Montevideo – the final stop before Sao Paulo and Brazil – the Ball has been signed almost 17,000 times. Unlike the Olympic torch there’s no application process and no committee drawing up a list of acceptable names. Anyone can play, carry or leave their name on the side using one of the marker pens Aris carries together with a net, whistle and bibs as – video camera aside - his only permanent equipment. “Nowadays football can be tribal, divisive and based on a culture of hate not support, but there are so many shared, positive aspects of the game. That’s what we try and transmit as we travel along,” he says. “There’s only one rule – before you sign the ball you have to head it first.” Like most else about the Ball, it’s an edict which flexes as the journey progresses. Four years ago, the team were granted an audience with Mogho Naaba, head of the Mossi tribe and ‘King of all Kings’ with a territory encompassing much of Burkino Faso and parts of the Ivory Coast, Togo and Ghana. “I find your rule unfair,” Naaba intoned. “I’m a goalkeeper and surely a goalkeeper is allowed to use his hands?”
Occasionally, the Ball gets lost. On the first journey it was almost spirited away by a thief in the backstreets of Xian. In 2010, after 131 days on the road, it rolled out of the back of a van in South Africa and was fortuitously found on a grassy fringe. This year a Special Olympics athlete in La Paz, Bolivia thought he’d been given the ball as a present and carried it for two hours back to his home for safekeeping. “It took almost the whole day but we finally got it back,” Aris remembers. “The first moment was pure mad panic. I ran to the end of the road. I’d just been playing football, we were at high altitude and I couldn’t breathe. When we found the person who’d taken it he explained it was the most special ball in the world and so he’s taken it home and put it in the safest place possible. We had a kickaround together. In the end he was happy that everyone was happy.”
And now, here in Sao Paulo, the Ball has come full circle. As The World Cup began Spirit of Football presented the story of its journey from prison workshop to London and the world to an audience of 70 inmates and wardens. “Most of them weren’t involved in the football making project and suddenly a bunch of people and a film crew turned up,” Aris says. “But when we started the presentation every single person listened in silence. When we finished, the applause went on and on. Allejandro was beaming. He was the first person to sign it. He just kept saying how proud he felt. He’s due for release soon and he said he wants to continue making footballs. Others told us they wanted to get involved in the work we’re doing in favelas. One guy’s a rapper and said he’s going to start working on a song. We played football together in the exercise yard afterwards. That was magical.”
You can follow The Ball’s ongoing journey on Twitter @the_ball.