08/26/2010 05:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Soccer and Social Change - One Million Balls in Three Years

Photo: Coaches across Continents
Without access to "real" soccer balls, millions of young people play soccer with homemade rag balls like this one in Uganda.

When I started thinking about the concept of an "ultra-durable" soccer ball five years ago, I never imagined the reaction it would receive or the people I would meet -- all because of this ball. But perhaps it's the simplicity of the idea -- a soccer ball that won't deflate and will last generations in any environment -- and the fact that it is "just a ball" that makes it so compelling.

With the launch of the One World Futbol Project this past July, I've been fortunate to see first-hand what a soccer ball can mean to a community-in-need and to soccer fans throughout the world. I traveled to South Africa during the World Cup to introduce the One World Futbol to soccer fans, organizations, and influencers in the hope that they would also see the need for an ultra-durable, all-terrain ball. When I arrived I had no idea what to expect, and I was amazed at the amount of interest and enthusiasm the ball received -- from the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) at the FIFA-sponsored Football for Hope Festival to the President of the African Football Association. But what stands out the most from my trip is the reaction of the kids in Alexandra, a township outside Johannesburg.

No More Bottle "Balls"

Photo: Sandra Cress
Kids from Play Soccer International in Johannesburg play with balls donated by the One World Futbol Project. Play Soccer International was a participant organization in FIFA's Football for Hope Tournament in conjunction with the World Cup.

I arrived in Alexandra where the Football for Hope Festival was held, and I saw kids collecting bottles from garbage cans and directly from visitors to use as makeshift balls. As soon as I set down a One World Futbol and started kicking it around, they immediately stopped what they were doing and convened on the ball. They then spent the next hour running around playing soccer enthusiastically -- laughing and smiling and just being kids. For me, this moment crystallized what I was trying to accomplish with this ball.

While I was in Africa, the One World Futbol Project team back in the U.S. was busy preparing and launching the One World Futbol Project website. The media coverage and word-of-mouth buzz of our story helped spur interest, support, and sales from all over the country and the world. Our mission appeared to resonate with everyone -- it seems we had touched on something universal.

The Power of Soccer

Soccer is, by leaps and jumps, the most popular sport in the world. And it's especially popular, in the most impoverished places in many of the poorest countries. Chances are, if you walk into any of these places--the barrios of Lima or Mexico City, the remote villages of Uganda, the townships of South Africa--and you carry a soccer ball with you, you'll quickly be surrounded by a crowd of young people clamoring for a chance to play with the ball.

Play for all children is crucial to their overall development. Play for children in war zones and refugee camps is critical on every level. That is why soccer is often the foundation of efforts to improve or rebuild quality-of-life in challenging circumstances, including inner cities, conflict zones, and refugee camps.

NGOs and U.N. agencies frequently distribute soccer balls and pumps because of the sport's proven value in building community, maintaining social structure, teaching valuable communication skills and conflict resolution.

The issue with standard soccer balls is that they quickly deflate in these harsh environments, leaving kids to play with makeshift balls of bottles, rocks, trash -- or the highly popular rag balls. We want to eliminate this problem with the One World Futbol, which is designed to never deflate even when punctured and remain "playable" for generations of children. Our goal is to donate one million balls in three years to communities in need through our "Buy One Give One" model, through purchases by NGOs and other organizations, and through our One World Futbol Foundation.

My team and I are just starting on this adventure -- and it's already taken us by surprise. Aside from the many balls already bought by supportive individuals here in the U.S., we've given away balls in places such as South Africa, Haiti, Iraq -- and to the many delegations of the Football for Hope Festival. There are so many avenues where the One World Futbol can touch communities around the world. I'd love to hear your suggestions and comments on what we're doing and how we can help people everywhere enjoy the "beautiful game" of soccer.