Joy is round: children make beloved soccer balls from trash

Carlos Ribeiro stands on a ball he made from rubbish in Inharrime, Mozambique, where boys learn to make balls at age five.

Anna says: "The February issue of National Geographic magazine features a unique look at the ingenuity of African youth and their makeshift soccer equipment: on fields throughout Africa, plastic bags, old clothes, and shredded tires transform into soccer balls. Photographer Jessica Hilltout traveled to ten countries over seven months to document a grassroots game where passion trumps poverty, a do-it-yourself ethic prospers, and one ball can 'bring happiness to an entire village.'"

Miles from the main roads, in rural Africa, soccer balls bounce unevenly. Playing fields are arid, lush, weedy, sandy—any flattish space will do. Goalposts might be made of gathered mahogany or driftwood. Some feet are bare, others shod in fraying sneakers, boots, rubber sandals. Yet children kick and chase handmade, lopsided balls with skill and abandon, competing for pride and joy—for the sheer pleasure of playing.

Has the “beautiful game” ever been lovelier?

Jessica Hilltout doesn’t think so. In 2010, when the World Cup came to Africa for the first time, the Belgium-based photographer set out to see what soccer looked like far from the bright lights and big stadiums. What she found—over seven months, ten countries, and 12,500 miles—was a grassroots game where passion trumped poverty, a do-it-yourself ethic prospered, and one ball could “bring happiness to an entire village.”

In the 30-odd soccer-loving localities she visited, in countries from South Africa to Ivory Coast, balls are spun into being with whatever’s at hand: rag or sock, tire or bark, plastic bag or inflated condom. Each might last days or months on a field of gravel or hard earth. Wherever Hilltout went, she swapped the store-bought balls she kept in her car for these “ingenious little jewels,” most of which were made by children.

Players in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, aim the ball at this petit poto, or mini-goal—two and a half feet high and wide. “You don’t need to be rich or have a manicured pitch to play soccer,” says historian Peter Alegi. “You just need a flat space and a makeshift ball.”

Mensah Dosseh bought his soccer shoes at a market in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, then adorned them with the name of his favorite team—Barcelona.

Bound with rope, plastic bags equal a ball in Bibiani, Ghana.

In urban Kumasi, Ghana, factory-made balls abound. Michael Sarkodie holds one on the Anokye Stars field. Sani Pollux started the club in 1956. “Soccer keeps them out of trouble,” he says of the 150 boys he coaches.

Read the full story online in the February issue of National Geographic magazine