Whenever I hear that distinct “olé… olé olé olé” melody, my mind travels back approximately ten years to the days when my dad spent hours in front of the television, watching the latest soccer (aka football) match. Whether it was the FIFA World Cup, or smaller European tournaments, our home was always filled with the sound of sportscasters, fans in the stadiums chanting the ubiquitous olé song, and the excited shouts of my father when a player missed or made a goal. At one point, he tried to teach me how to bounce a ball on my head… but that didn’t turn out very well.
I remember him telling me that, when he was a young child in Croatia, all he wanted was a soccer ball. Nothing more, nothing less. So… he made one. The sport, which brought such joy, was so accessible. Just one simple piece of equipment is needed. For some, shoes are optional. Goal posts can be fashioned from a couple of sticks or cans. All you need is the ball, and you’ve got yourself a game.
For all these combined reasons, soccer agitates a variety of emotions within me, some sad, but mostly very happy.
So, you can imagine my excitement and nostalgic heart-flutter when, yesterday, while browsing the magazine rack at a local bookstore, I came across the February issue of National Geographic Magazine. Inside, I was thrilled to find an incredible photographic essay by Jessica Hilltout. Entitled “Joy is Round,” photographer Hilltout chronicles the sport as experienced by everyday folk in Africa. Here, she discovered that soccer was a “grassroots game where passion trumped poverty” (114), and where balls could be spun from anything lying around: paper bags, rags, rubber, string. Pages 118-119 are a chart of all the homemade soccer balls she collected from various villages from across Africa. It’s amazing to see.
The “Joy is Round” spread in National Geographic also made me think of Invictus, and the social barriers between rugby, which was apparently the “rich man’s sport,” and soccer, supposedly being the opposite. I should say up front that, beyond the social politics depicted in this film, I have little to no knowledge of rugby and its social history in Africa. However, once you have the opportunity to see Hilltout’s work, the traditional definitions of “rich,” as I’m sure we’ve all realized at some point in our lives, begins to waver.
After further investigation, I visited Hilltout’s website and found that her book, AMEN Grassroots Football, can be viewed and read online. The heart in these photographs is incredible. Hilltout captures the soul of this game so exquisitely. Her images can also be seen in a series of videos on her YouTube Channel, the AMENproject.
If you find yourself at the library or bookstore, I hope you have a chance to flip through or purchase the February 2013 issue of National Geographic Magazine. The heart, the passion, the absolute love for this sport, as captured by Hilltout’s camera, will stay with you long after your eyes have moved on to other reading.