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Voices, video, and photos from Oxfam's fight against poverty

What’s in a ball? When it comes to soccer in developing countries, the answer is imagination

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Photo by Eva-Lotta Jansson

As the mother of soccer players (both of whom are now too old for schoolboy sports, but never too old for pickup matches wherever they can find them), I read a story in the New York Times today that made me smile. “Joy that lasts, on the poorest playgrounds,” said the headline. It was about soccer—the universal language for love of a ball—and a new kind of material to play it with: PopFoam.

It was a story about an entrepreneur driven to develop PopFoam soccer balls for kids in some of the poorest parts of the world, where a ball is often just something that can be made to roll, even if it’s more oblong than round.

How many times have I witnessed that joy the headline heralds? It’s one of the thrills of any visit to the field I have ever taken  for Oxfam—to catch sight of a game on a patch of rough earth, on the foundation of a ruined house, beyond the mud walls of a compound. Plumes of dust billow at each bounce of the ball, feet flying after it. No shoes? No one seems to mind. The ball is all that matters.

 A whoop. A score.

And the game goes on.

I’m looking now at the soccer photos we have in our archives—from Peru, Ethiopia, Sudan. The spidery shadows of a handful of players stretch across a courtyard in the afternoon sun. In an alley, three teenagers collide as their ball explodes toward the camera. And here comes a boy, his long white robe whipping his legs, diving in for a header under an acacia tree.

Most of the kids in these pictures have real soccer balls, though the air escaped long ago. The sides are dimpled, the paint smudged off.

But there’s one boy cradling his ball as though it’s the most precious thing in the world. And it is, of that I’m sure:  Stitched together with string, taut and perfectly round, it’s made—by his hand?—from swatches of fabric printed with florals and stripes.

I think about PopFoam: Sturdy and durable, said the story, like the stuff used to make Crocs, those impossibly lightweight shoes. But I wonder, could PopFoam ever be more durable than the imagination that it takes to turn trash—cast-off bottles, clumps of plastic bags, knots of rags—into a treasure like a ball?

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