DIDIER DROGBA bulldozes through defenders to score for Ivory Coast and Chelsea, Samuel Eto’o saves the day for Inter Milan and Cameroon with a last gasp winner. Osamoah Gyan writes his name in the history books of Sunderland and Ghana, while our own Benjani Mwaruwari gives Blackburn fans reason to believe.
What do these players have in common? They are not only great ambassadors of African football in Europe’s top flight leagues, they are goal scoring machines who are as good as the Wayne Rooneys and the David Villas of Europe.
Over and above all they are players whose football skills were cut and polished in the dusty streets of Africa. Players who woke up every morning to kick and dribble, not a Jabulani ball or any other decent ball, but a plastic ball. A ball made by collecting papers and wrapping it with a plastic bag.
Football academies and club junior policies are credited with producing players who grow up shine locally (In African leagues) and abroad and few if any remember the role that the paper ball played.
Few remember that the paper ball was the launch pad; most forget that Knowledge Musona’s cool grace on the ball was acquired kicking that plastic ball on the dusty streets of Norton. Most believe that Marc Duvillard’s Black Aces Academy is responsible for Musona’s scoring touch.
If you thoroughly interrogate the legendary Peter Ndlovu or his rival for the best player after independence, Moses Chunga, they will give thumbs up to the paper ball. They will tell you that it laid the foundation for their astounding exploits.
Even Abedi Pele and Roger Milla will tell the same story. They will tell that that ball which does not bounce, that ball with the awkward shape, that ball which has to be surgically repaired after every match is the one that made them into cult heroes and legends of African football.
Any child who desires football greatness should know that the roots of African football are found in that underrated paper ball, which ends up in the rubbish bin after being used. A paper ball confers advantages and raises a budding footballer’s skill levels. It makes success for those who are serious inevitable because if you ask how to walk the steps of legends, Africa provides a short answer: paper ball.
Granted, the paper ball has its disadvantages in that when a footballer makes the transition to the standard ball he will take time to master it, but you can not take away the fact that the shooting ability and the ball control on display were horned by a paper ball.
In a continent where little money is invested in football and where the majority is poor, the plastic ball is more than a stopgap measure; it can be the gateway to riches. At home the likes of Peter Ndlovu, Mwaruwari, Musa Mguni, Esrom Nyandoro, and the likely Messiah of Zimbabwe football, Musona are living large because of the plastic ball.
The paper ball can be likened to pre-school. While that academically gifted child starts showing signs of his prowess at crèche, that next superstar starts shining on the streets. His graduation to school football is similar to the professor’s primary school stay. His elevation to a football academy can be compared to that doctor’s time high school. You get the analogy.
Africa was introduced to football in the 19th century but it was not meant for Africans as it arrived as a by-product of colonialism.
British, French, Portuguese priests, sailors, soldiers and missionaries brought a game unseen and not played by any in Africa. Traditional sports abounded but there is no record of anyone kicking a ball until the brutal transformation of the continent.
No record because the pioneers of African football, those unsung heroes who were denied the chance to play by a brutal and suffocating system used the paper ball when the standard football was not availed to them.
The plastic ball gave birth to African football and football proved vital in both providing a space for self-organisation and even resistance.
From Algeria to Zimbabwe, as the empires crumbled, football became essential to nation building. Think Highlanders, aligned to PF Zapu and Dynamos then believed to be an extension of Zanu PF, two clubs formed at height of colonialism.
The struggle for Africa’s place in world football, which began through the paper ball, has been intensely political and has reshaped not just the politics of the game, but also the globalisation of sport. It is a story rife with intrigue.
So when that innocent boy who has dreams of emulating Peter Ndlovu runs into the make shift football field, on the dusty streets of his neighbourhood, how much does he know about the unique history and impact of the paper ball he is about to kick?
Not much really, but that does not take away the fact that the paper ball is the be all and end all of African football. For, for all the paper ball’s faults it remains one of the most effective tutors of junior football.