When the soccer World Cup kicks off in Russia, “The Ball” will have toured 18 countries, from the UK to Germany, across the Balkans, through Asia, arriving ultimately in Russia. It is traveling in the luggage of former pro soccer player Andrew Aris and his team, Spirit of Football, a social enterprise based in Erfurt, Germany. Since 2002, they have visited every World Cup with a team of trainers and educators – always leaving from London, always by car if possible, and always with The Ball, a kind of soccer equivalent to the Olympic flame. Supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the group’s tour covers small and large soccer clubs, schools, and educational initiatives. The Spirit of Football team runs workshops and plays soccer with pros and politicians, children and refugees. And everybody who kicks or heads the ball can sign it. We talked to Andrew Aris about the goals of The Ball.
Andrew Aris, wearing a plaid cap, shakes hands before the kick-off for "The Ball" in Great Britain.
Andrew, this is your fifth time spending months traveling various countries to a soccer World Cup, always with a ball in your luggage. How did you come up with the idea?
We at Spirit of Football, the group behind the The Ball project, believe in the positive power of soccer. People play soccer in every town and city, in every country. It is a truly global sport, a global language. Soccer brings people together and unites them. So when we get our soccer ball out during our tour and start playing with all these different people, we establish a connection. This leads us to talking, discussing, sharing – and to understanding one another.
What do you talk about with people on your tour?
We tell them about our experiences on the trip and the people we have met. Our idea is to show that, no matter how different regions, countries, and people may be, they often share the same dreams, ideas, and perceptions. For instance, almost everywhere we go, kids love Ronaldo – and they are keen on fair play.
The Ball’s motto this year is “One Ball, One World.” What do you hope to convey with this motto?
Many rules that are essential to soccer and sport also apply to communities around the world. Or at least, that’s the idea. Our workshops and events are meant to convey these principles and rules, such as fair play, respect, tolerance, honesty, equal rights, and solidarity. We want to demonstrate that it is important to talk to each other, overcome prejudices and fears, and create something together as a team.
“Soccer creates a shared moment that leads to conversation.”
An imam of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul told us: “At a time when the major world religions no longer appear to reach people, it may be symbols that people can still believe in.” The Ball is a fantastic symbol for people coming together in peace and love.
This year, The Ball and you are mainly traveling Europe. What’s your focus on this trip?
Firstly, we want to demonstrate the benefits of a strong European community. On this year’s tour, we are crossing a lot of open borders and can travel from country to country with ease. In many other regions of the world, that’s not as simple. People in the European Union often take their freedom to travel and freedom of speech as a given. But when we share the experiences we have had in, for instance, Africa or South America, many people come to realize what an asset the European community is – and that it’s well worth joining ranks and fighting for democracy, freedom, and values such as respect and tolerance.
Secondly, our journey also takes us through non-EU countries, such as the Balkans, where we want to unite people from former war zones. With The Ball, we are trying to bridge rifts and possibly even contribute to reconciliation. Our journey has also taken us to Jordan and the Lebanon. It is important for us as Europeans that we assume some responsibility for wars and conflicts in this region. Europe cannot live in peace if its neighbors can’t.
The Ball visits Premiere League club Liverpool: Andrew Aris (center) and coach Jürgen Klopp (left).
How do you make sure that your message reaches people?
We always want to approach people with an open mind, and not to be guided by a specific formula. We try to strike the right chord depending on the situation. And we try not to be boring. We feel that many school systems don’t necessarily reach students with their activities but bore them with teacher-centered lessons, whereas we consider learning a fluid thing. The more fun students have, the more they’ll learn. So our intention is to create a fun atmosphere with our ball, without any competitive pressure but with plenty of opportunities for free expression.
What specifically do you teach?
Usually, we start by introducing The Ball and kicking it back and forth. While doing so, we ask for rules that matter to all of us and talk about experiences from our trips. By that point, it becomes pretty clear how many people share the same values.
But we don’t just play soccer: We also do some acting, play instruments, or create graffiti, to name a few examples. In all these activities, we try to convey principles and values in everyday situations, so that children in particular can incorporate these rules and make them their own.
You also invite refugees to many of your workshops. Why is that?
First off, we want to show our commitment to a strong culture of welcome in Europe. On top of that, we want The Ball to bring together people from very different origins and ways of life to build community. This is why we sometimes bring together refugees and the local population. Soccer then creates a shared moment that leads to conversation. Especially among teenagers, we often see that playing together can help them overcome prejudices and fears.
Starting this year, the Robert Bosch Stiftung is the main supporter of The Ball. How does that impact the project?
We are incredibly excited to have this support, which allows us to do this kind of rather complex travel in the first place. The Foundation makes us feel that we are doing the right thing, that it’s worthwhile bringing people together and advocating a united Europe. It has also helped us revise our content once more, improve our workshops, and develop an evaluation. This has made us even more conscious of our impact and responsibility, and that’s a great feeling.
Your destination is the World Cup in Russia. What are your expectations of the event?
The fact that Russia is the host of the World Cup makes our journey even more interesting, as people in many countries have a hard time understanding what’s going on there in terms of politics. That’s a topic we are raising on our trip. Then there’s the role of FIFA, which sadly no longer fully embodies values such as fair play, respect, and tolerance. But ultimately, people from all over the globe who love soccer will come together at the World Cup in Russia. They will talk to each other, discuss, cheer together, console one another, and celebrate. I am confident that the Russians will be open-hearted and friendly hosts. In the end, the World Cup will be one big party, like it usually is!