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Grass roots soccer, African style

Chicome, Mozambique (material wrapped with old rope and grass)

In honor of the opening week of the World Cup we bring you these images of grass roots soccer from photographer Jessica Hilltout. Over nine months, Jessica made two trips through Africa—one up the south coast—South Africa, Lesotho, Mozambique and Malawi—and one through a swath of West Africa—Ghana, Burkina Faso, Niger, Benin, Togo and the Ivory Coast.

Gondola, Mozambique (yarn ball)

During her trip she took pictures of worn shoes, tattered jerseys and hand-made balls, capturing the spirit of the sport and its players through these small, homely objects.

In one of the first villages she visited, in Mozambique, she gave the local team a brand-new ball, one of 30 she had brought with her as replacements for the home-made samples she collected. When she came back the next day, it had already begun to come apart. “They had already stitched it,” she wrote. “I felt terrible. The white lady gives them a ball with a shorter life span than any of the ones they make.”

These pictures are a welcome antidote to the commercialism and hype that come along with the FIFA tournament.  From the introduction of Jessica’s new book of photographs, by football historian David Goldblatt:

In South Africa, the world will see that the continent, at its leading economic edge, can build world-class infrastructures and run major global events. This is a good thing, but what the world may not see, and that would be everyone’s loss, are the World Cups that are played every day by teams, friends, communities all over the continent; the leading informal economic edge of Africa where they are making balls, marking pitches, scoring goals, and above all, pleasing themselves. If somehow, the corporate carnival should make all this invisible, we are lucky that Jessica Hilltout’s photographs can take us some of the way there.

Preview the book here, see more of Jessica’s video slideshows on vimeo, or read the journal of her trip (caution: this last link requires a fast connection).

NOTE: There is a video embedded in this post. If you can’t see it, click here instead.

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  1. Matt Richmond wrote:

    I remember using anything resembling a spherical object as a stand in for a soccer ball (football for you “cultured” folks) when I was a kid. It’s fun to see others doing the exact same thing across the world. A very interesting sport in that regard, truly universal.

    Posted June 15, 2010 at 10:03 am | Permalink
  2. Kim Yi Dionne wrote:

    One of my favorite short films about condoms in Africa:

    Posted June 15, 2010 at 11:28 am | Permalink
  3. Matt Richmond wrote:


    I’m not even going to watch that. I’m just going to pretend it’s about home made condoms and all the ingenious ways africans have found to make them. That would be my favorite video on condom usage too :)

    Posted June 15, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  4. Jess wrote:

    No worries Jessica, it’s not the white lady’s fault – it’s the balls made in China.

    Posted June 15, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  5. Dennis Bennett wrote:

    My personal favorite soccer ball substitutes from Eastern South Sudan are 1) large round rocks (game play moves very slow!) and 2) large dead rats (not as spherical, but they keep game play moving better than soccer-ball sized rocks). I have seen both used routinely, when soccer balls are not available.

    FYI – We found one of the best ways to motivate school attendance was to provide real soccer balls to the schools. Beats dead rats!

    The best soccer fields we’ve seen are the dirt airstrips. Often the schools are located nearby, the ground is cleared much better, and there’s no grass. Grass fields in Southern Sudan are dangerous – too many poisonous snakes hiding in them. (the term “snake in the grass” is literal and deadly in this region).

    Posted June 17, 2010 at 6:05 pm | Permalink
  6. Ryan Davies wrote:

    @ Jess actually 90% of balls are made in Silcot, Pakistan. Surprisingly few are made in China.

    I believe there is now one manufacturer in Africa too.

    Posted June 21, 2010 at 4:38 am | Permalink

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