Spirit of Football: The Ball arrives in Aotearoa New Zealand ahead of the FIFA Women’s World Cup

Image courtesy of Spirit of Football
Image courtesy of Spirit of Football /

The Ball has finally reached Aotearoa New Zealand! Spirit of Football (SOF) is an NGO based in Germany presided by Andrew Aris, a born Kiwi.

Every four years since 2002, a team from SOF, kicks The Ball from Battersea Park in London, where the first ever football game with FA rules was played, to the FIFA World Cup. This time, The Ball is an advocacy tool for Climate Action and Gender Equality.

It began its sixth journey in July 2022 in the midst of a record shattering heat wave and during the Women’s Euros.

The team from SOF has been conducting workshops (50+ so far) in Europe, North America, the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific. In 12 months 10,000 people in 20 countries have so far signed The Ball and pledged for gender equality and to take climate action. On its final leg in July and August 2023, The Ball is traveling through New Zealand and Australia on the wave of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, one of the biggest sports tournaments ever hosted by these two countries.

Read how new Spirit of Football member Kristin Lush (American/Kiwi) experiences the Spirit of Football during The Ball’s first workshop in New Zealand, at the Fencibles United AFC holiday camp.

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Yesterday, I finally stepped onto the pitch.

I’ve been cheering “One Ball! One World!” from the bleachers since I met Andrew Aris and The Ball in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2011. Andrew was visiting home and had arranged for his brother, Kelvin, one of my adopted brothers in my adopted country, to share the story of The Ball and The Spirit of Football with his network of creative, engaged, community-minded friends. We met in the parking lot of a local capoeira studio, and Andrew told his story through this video.

I watched and was hooked. What a vision: for a football to travel from the birthplace of the football to the host country of the World Cup like a torch. To use the beautiful game to spread a message. In 2010, the journey was connected to the Special Olympics and promoted accessibility and inclusion. I watched the people in the video sing to, play with and sign the ball. I asked Andrew afterwards: where can I sign up?

The next cup – 2014 - would see him and his Spirit of Football mates traveling through the Americas – across my home country (the USA) and south to Brazil. I had visions of hiring a VW bus and getting a bunch of samba percussionists. We’d ride along with The Ball, and join in on the events that would bring people with and without intellectual disabilities together in communities of tolerance and inclusion. We’d support the journey with music all the way to Brazil!

Jurgen Klopp signed The Ball in 2014
Jurgen Klopp signed The Ball in 2014 /

But family, work, life prevented me from doing that journey – or the one in 2018 , which aimed to show how football can help displaced people find a new home and build new communities. Instead, I’ve had to cheer Andrew and his team and their beautiful missions with The Ball from the bleachers. 

Lucky for me, The Ball has made its way to where I live on its 2023 journey to the FIFA Women’s World Cup – and Andrew has invited me – a 53-year-old woman from Portland, Oregon, who last played soccer in 1987 – to join the team. The Ball is still about inclusion!

The 2022/2023 journey – The Ball’s first to chart a course to the Women’s World Cup – is about sustainability and gender equity. Along the route, it meets with people of all ages to have conversations about the impacts of climate change and gender inequity and the ways in which we all can make a difference. Whoever meets The Ball is invited to sign it and asked to make a pledge: ‘I am going to [take this action] to make my [family, community, country, planet] stronger.’ Their signatures join those of talented female footballers from all over the world who have signed The Ball – amongst them, the reigning champions the US Women’s National Team, who pledged to continue their fight for gender equality.

My first day on the pitch in Tamaki-makau-rau Auckland found me with a group of 9 to 12-year-old kids on a holiday program with the Fencibles Football Club. While the main message was about climate change and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the SOF team also showed us that the rules of the games we love can be flipped on their heads to become more inclusive, more environmentally friendly, more fair, and more fun! 

The day’s programme started with a presentation to all the kids and a quick club cleanup that generated a surprising eight big black bags full of rubbish. Then, the group separated into two, and we took the girls – soccer players/enthusiasts at a variety of skill levels - for a session of ‘Fair Play Football’.

Alex Morgan signing The Ball
Alex Morgan signing The Ball /

There are six overarching rules to Fair Play Football: make sure everyone can play, show respect, work as a team, be honest, be positive and motivate others, and have fun. The rules of play are: no dribbling allowed, nobody can take the ball away from the player who has it, the player with the ball must be given a ‘corona’ of space and whatever time they need to decide where to pass next.

This is football like I’ve never seen it before. The mothers and grandfathers watching were also confused – cheering from the sidelines for their girls to run with the ball. As we all watched the game unfold for the first time, the light bulbs went on above our heads: this game was good for everyone! Every player learned to look up and around and be strategic with their passing. They also had time to communicate with each other to make a play. Everyone had a chance. 

The game lasted about 15 minutes, with teams shouting their team names and doing the special celebratory dances they had created when they scored. When the whistle blew, the teams came in and the kids were asked what they liked and didn’t like about the game. Some found it too slow, others thought it was fun. When asked how to improve it, one girl said: ‘Can we come together and celebrate each goal, even if it is the other team’s?’

She’d caught the Spirit of Football!

Before returning to the pitch, Andrew and Iris also showed the kids a different way to play Paper-Scissors-Rock, tournament style. To play Schnick-Schnack-Schnuck, each time one person in the pair loses, that person becomes the winner's BIGGEST FAN, cheering them towards the next victory. The cheers and shouting of the victors’ names grew louder and louder as the number of competitors dwindled.

Who cares whether you win or lose, when everybody’s having such an awesome time?

A few more games of Fair Play Football later, one disrupted by a couple of bags of recyclable rubbish that we’d collected earlier, the girls were ready for lunch and to get down to perhaps the more serious business of the day: speed dating.

Sustainable Development Goals speed dating, that is.

Living in different parts of Auckland, these girls had all had recent experiences of extreme weather events – cyclones and flooding –over the past few months. The speed dating activity gave them a chance to make pretend pledges for climate action and think about the ‘why’ and their ‘how’. This speed dating was not about finding a perfect partner, but about finding a perfect pledge.

The Ball being signed by Under-19 Fiji team
The Ball being signed by Under-19 Fiji team /

After an energetic discussion, the girls sat down in groups with paper and pens to brainstorm pledges that had meaning for them – writing words and drawing pictures of the things THEY could do within their homes, schools, communities.

Having spent a day taking action, playing and thinking differently, celebrating each other, and thinking of one thing they could do, starting today, to have a constructive and positive impact on the future of the planet, these girls were ready to meet The Ball and do the thing.

The ritual goes like this: you head The Ball (or catch it like a goalie, if you’ve had a concussion, like one of the girls in the Fencibles group) while the rest of the group cheers you on ’Ooooooooooooowwwwaaaaay!’ Then, make your pledge and add your name to the 10,000 that have been signed before you by people in England, Germany, Turkey, the USA, France, Kenya, UAE, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Fiji, and Kiribati.

That’s a pretty powerful image of collective action and hope, I reckon.

I’m thrilled to be along for a bit of this journey.