The good intentions of those inclined to donate soccer balls to children in refugee camps and poverty-stricken villages have often been foiled by circumstances beyond their control. In many parts of the world, keeping a leather ball inflated just isn’t practical. For the website Sports on Earth, Gwen Knapp has written about a ball built to solve that problem. She joined Bill Littlefield for a chat.
BL: First, tell us a little about why the donation of normal soccer balls hasn’t always worked out.
GK: In refugee camps, in a lot of places overseas, in Haiti, for example, after the earthquake, the soccer balls are used on really hard surfaces. In places in Africa, they’re used in places where they have lots of really, really strong thorns, and they break, some of them almost immediately. Or as they deflate, the people who are using them don’t have pumps to reinflate them. So a lot of kids over there in Africa and Haiti will not be able to play with these soccer balls for very long. They’ll end up putting them aside deflated. Or they’ll make their own balls out of rocks, out of rags, old pieces of trash that they tie together with twine, things like that.
BL: So the solution to the problem is a ball called the One World Futbol. It’s made of something called PopFoam. What’s the ball look like and what does it feel like to kick one?
GK: Most of them are blue. It’s supposedly less bouncy than a regular soccer ball because it’s going to be used on hard surfaces. So that does have some effect on it. And the inventors told me that they’re not trying to compete with the people who manufacture soccer balls for the World Cup or high-level competitions, balls that are supposed to be used on grass and turf. This is really supposed to be used on gravel, on dirt. This man sat down and designed a football. This man, who does not play soccer, sat down and designed it because he was so concerned that kids weren’t getting to play, and he considered it such a vital part of our lives.
BL: The man of whom you’re speaking is Tim Jahnigen. He’s the man who figured out the One World Football. He’s a Californian, and most of our listeners won’t have heard of him. But a lot of them will have heard of his partner in this project, right?
GK: Yes, Sting. Tim Jahnigen also is a music producer, and he worked with Sting and his wife on the Rainforest Foundation project, one of the concerts they did. Tim mentioned that he had this brainchild and that he had been thinking about for two years. And he just threw it out there and Sting said, ‘Wait a minute, you think you can design a ball that doesn’t go flat?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ He goes, ‘Well, then you need to do it right away. Put away everything else you’re doing. You need to work on this.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’ve got all my money in another thing.’ And Sting said, ‘No, no, no, I’ll fund this. Get to work on this.’ And within a year, he had a prototype which was faster and actually less expensive than he expected it to be.
BL: You write about how the ball has been received in a camp in Rwanda dedicated to the rehabilitation of child soldiers. How did Tim Jahnigen know that his invention had been a hit?
GK: Because a year later he ran into a man – I think he was visiting another site where the ball had been delivered – and he ran into a man who said he worked in the camps and who described the original prototypes, which were red. He said, ‘Oh, we have the red balls in our camp.’ And he started talking about it. These were the very original ones. They weren’t quite as good as the later models. And Tim said, ‘Well how are they working?’ and he said, ‘Oh, the kids love them.’ And Tim said ‘Now, did they try and destroy them?’ Because he’d been told by people who work with kids, look, don’t tell the kids that this ball is indestructible, because they’ll keep trying to destroy it. And Tim thought, oh OK, we’ll tell the people we’re trying to sell the ball to so they understand, but we won’t stress that. So he says this to this guy and the guy looks at him and says, ‘No. Are you crazy? This ball means everything to them. They wash it at night and put it away.’ Tim realized that people who live in places like the United States don’t really understand that for kids who have nothing, they’re not going to try and prove that they can destroy a ball that’s considered indestructible.
BL: My understanding is that Mr. Jahnigen isn’t a soccer fan, not much of a sports fan, but just a fan of play. Is that right?
GK: Exactly. I asked him if he had ever played soccer before. No. He said he played sports when he was young and in high school, and he did not like the whole dictatorial aspect of it, the coaches who would yell, coaches who would push people until they felt like they were going to get sick. So it turned him off from competitive sports. So I asked him, well, now you invented a soccer ball, do you play now? He goes, ‘Not really. No.’