x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

One ball that won't go flat

The idea of an imperishable football, born on a couch some five years ago, will hopefully benefit millions of the world’s poorest children.

An indestructible ball, made from a branch of the vast plastic family tree, means impoverished children in some of the world's poorest countries can carry on playing the game they love for as long as they want. Courtesy of One World Futbol
An indestructible ball, made from a branch of the vast plastic family tree, means impoverished children in some of the world's poorest countries can carry on playing the game they love for as long as they want. Courtesy of One World Futbol

Like many a stirring idea, this one incubated on a couch.

There in San Francisco in 2005 on a mid-afternoon after a tiring work trip sat one of those rare individuals who likes to read about quantum physics just out of curiosity, and there on television appeared a CNN documentary about Darfur.

Somewhere amid the riveting footage, children played football as children will, no matter how foreboding the surroundings, whereupon something about their unofficial match made Tim Jahnigen spring upward from his torpor.

Already overcome with emotion, he zoomed in on these childrens' creative array of makeshift footballs.

"They were showing various clips of everything from wadded-up plastic bags, paper, anything from boxes to cans to bottles to rocks," he said yesterday by telephone from California.

Footballs do deflate and croak every day all over the world and pumps and new footballs do not appear magically, so in that same moment he began to think about a swimming pool and spa trade show four years prior in Las Vegas.

There, rummaging through the aisles and booths because of his interest in developing infrared technology relative to saunas, he came upon both the display for the Canadian company Foam Creations and a material uncommonly durable.

The material, from a branch of the vast plastic family tree, resembled that used in "Crocs", the popular clogs, a pair of which Jahnigen would use as house slippers and would wear that day in 2005.

"I was simply mesmerised by the wonderful and varied qualities the material had and filed it away in the back of my head as something I'd love to find a purpose for someday," he said.

The trouble was, when finally he married a Las Vegas convention trading in luxuries with a Darfur documentary dealing with somberness, realising this amazing material would make one imperishable football, he lacked the wherewithal to proceed. So he continued on with his evolving life in his 40s. He continued giving lectures at health organisations concerning his development of a medical device, not bad for a guy who did not finish college but whose informal education lends him a certain "artistic and more spiritual point of view".

He continued writing lyrics for the American producer/drummer/singer Narada Michael Walden, work which included the popular musician Sting's biannual Rain Forest Fund Concert in New York.

And he kept the thought of the indestructible football embedded in mind, until a conversation inadvertently went right there in 2008.

By then, Jahnigen breakfasted with Sting. He had got to know Sting a bit through the New York concerts, and as the men and their wives conversed that morning at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco, they began to talk about infrared light, and veered from there to families and children, and from there, ultimately, to Sting's mention of some friends who built a football pitch in Gaza.

With football having exacted its worldwide tendency to become the topic, Jahnigen mentioned Darfur and the makeshift footballs and this little idea that popped into his head one day on the couch. To his surprise, Sting said: "That's a really good idea. Do you think you can make it happen?"

Jahnigen said he did not, and Sting said: "If you do it, I'll pay for it." Soon enough, Jahnigen had dialed an engineer named Kevin McCarthy in Seattle and various individuals at Foam Creations in Quebec. One World Futbol had begun. Sting had appeared on its brochure.

As thinkers begin making football dovetail ever more with philanthropy and human development, as World Cups tilt toward frontiers such as Russia and Qatar with football's reach in mind, and as South Africa 2010 forged a benchmark in using football more widely in culture, One World Futbol has sought out multi-lateral agencies, philanthropists, professional football clubs and corporations, and has distributed indestructible balls so far to more than 70 non-governmental organisations in 40 countries.

The mighty footballs have gone to the 2010 World Cup, where one spent 25 minutes in the living area of a lion named Triton at the Johannesburg Zoo, yet emerged intact even as the zookeeper said the lion usually requires two minutes to render a standard football both deflated and useless and leaving one bored lion.

"Even if we achieve the million-ball mark in three years," Jahnigen said, "there's 19 million children in Afghanistan alone. More than a billion children live in places where they should have a ball like this, and it's going to be more than my lifetime before we can get them."

The idea, born on a couch in a groggy mid-afternoon, is that in so many ways the world can improve when its children can play on.