In Brazil, protesters shout from the streets that soccer -- the country's beloved futbol -- has become a leech. Despite their nation's newfound wealth, the needs of average Brazilians go untended because the extravagances of hosting the World Cup will bring the elite a vaster, richer set of cronies and a global stage on which to take sweeping bows.
Scenes from the protest strike hard against the conviction that sports have the power to unite and elevate communities. The relentless public underwriting of posh new stadiums had already eroded that belief. But the World Cup under protest in Brazil? We're marinating in cynicism now.
The best available antidote, short of watching the protesters triumph, could be a soccer ball.
It is not the typical ball, forever in need of a pump, which tends to be unavailable in refugee camps and outposts of poorer countries. The One World Futbol is virtually indestructible. The purveyors have videos of it surviving encounters with a lion, a truck rolling over it and a knife plunging in.
The inventor, Tim Jahnigen of Berkeley, Ca., came up with the idea when he watched a 2006 documentary about Darfur refugees that showed children in a camp kicking a wad of trash bound by string. In Brazil, where billions have been spent on new stadiums, the game has become an impediment to basic needs. For children in a war zone, Jahnigen recognized that play was essential to their well-being. (The United Nations agrees and lists children's recreation as a human right.)
Jahnigen learned that sending regular soccer balls would be pointless. Aid organizations had done it before, but the balls would quickly deflate or be destroyed on the hard ground. In one African village, he said, the nearest pump required a full day's walk at an adult's pace.
Already at work designing a therapeutic warming device, Jahnigen began to picture an invulnerable ball. "I'm not an engineer," he said. "I like to say I'm more idiot than savant." What he really lacked, though, was the resources to develop his vision.
In his other line of business, as a lyricist and music producer, he worked with Sting, his wife, Trudie Styler, and their Rainforest Foundation. The three of them and Jahnigen's wife, Lisa Tarver, met for breakfast in San Francisco in the summer of 2008. When Sting mentioned a soccer pitch in Gaza that he and friends had funded, the conversation segued to Jahnigen's idea.
"He said: 'You think you can make a ball that will never go flat?'" Jahnigen recalled. "You need to do that. If you can, I'll pay for it.'"
Made of material called PopFoam, similar to the substance in Crocs shoes, the ball ultimately bore the name of a song Sting wrote with the Police, "One World (Not Three)."
The One World Futbol Project got under way in 2010, and the ball has now been delivered to nearly 160 countries, usually via organizations that work with children. UNICEF has purchased them. Chevrolet stepped in last year and agreed to distribute 1.5 million over three years. Average customers can pay $39.50 for their own ball, and the project will donate a second one as part of the purchase. Delivery of individual balls to remote locations, however, can be expensive and complicated by the fact that the One World ball will not deflate.
But the upside is greater than Jahnigen and his wife, a co-founder, could have imagined. From people in the field, he said, they have heard that the ball's durability frees children to play at full throttle.
"They could totally surrender to the beauty of play without surrendering to the fear of the ball going flat in two or three days," he said. "This is anecdotal at this point, but we've been getting amazing messages back that the children's attitudes have just been transformed. They would want to play, but they would constantly hold back because they were afraid of hitting in this direction or that direction, where there might be barbed wire that would destroy it."
The first delivery of the ball, Jahnighen said, went to a camp in Rwanda that rehabilitates former child soldiers. The founders didn't learn of the effect on the kids for almost a year. Jahnigen met a man who worked at the camp and asked how the balls had held up and if the kids had tried to destroy them. The founders had been warned not to oversell the indestructibility, because that would prove too tempting for children, and the One World Futbol was not designed to withstand repeated stabbings and truck mashings.
"So when I asked if they had destroyed them or if they had tried, the man looked at me like I was insane," Jahnigen said. "He said: 'Why on earth? These balls are so precious to these children. They wash them every night.'"
The office for One World, Jahnigen said, has all manner of makeshift soccer balls, rocks, trash, rags. They're a reminder of the project's goal and of how deeply children yearn to play the game.
"This is the reality," he said. "They have nothing."
The project, he carefully reminds me, is not a non-profit. It is a so-called B Corporation, or a company that has been acknowledged as a provider of social benefits.
In addition to meeting the needs of children who may never play on a lush grass field, where a ball does not succumb so easily, the project meets environmental needs by keeping carcasses of many, many dead balls out of landfills.
Jahnigen, by the way, does not play soccer. He played other sports as a young man, but hated the dictatorial style of coaches. He doesn't even see the soccer balls he created as part of a sport. He sees them as an element of play, a natural and creative instinct for every person, regardless of competitive instinct or athletic ability.
"Sport has become a winner take all, loser lose all mentality," he said. "In some cases, it destroys lives more than it builds them. … There is a place for organized sport, but people forget that it's play that brought us to it."
He wasn't talking about Brazil or the World Cup, and certainly not about the anger over the country's financing priorities. But he could have been.