CHICO, CALIFORNIA - For a quarter century, Michael Mitchell and Dave Stahl tried to harness the powerful worldwide appeal of soccer to bring hope and happiness to people living in the some of the poorest, least developed places on Earth.
Now, after years of hard work, their dream is coming true.
Mitchell and Stahl were soccer teammates at Chico State University in Northern California. When Mitchell joined the U.S. Peace Corps after graduation and was assigned to work in Niger in West Africa, he took soccer balls with him.
“Soccer is the international language of the world," Stahl says. "People play soccer everywhere and they get a lot of joy out of it. It brings communities together.”
After his two-year assignment, Mitchell returned to Chico State to get his master’s degree in physical education. His thesis, which Stahl helped him structure, was that soccer could improve the lives of African children. The paper was called, “Project Play Africa.”
It took more than 15 years for the two friends to turn that thesis into reality. But finally, with $30,000 in seed donations, they ordered 2,000 soccer balls from China. But that turned out to be the easy part.
“It was very difficult to get the balls to Niger because there’s not a lot of commerce going into Niger and it’s expensive to ship the balls," Stahl says. "You have import duties and where are the balls going to be when they get there, et cetera.”
Once they worked out the details, Stahl and Mitchell went to Niger, rented a car and headed into the countryside, to hand out the balls and air pumps in settlements, roadside villages and schools.
Stahl recalls one particular stop when they drove by a dozen kids trying to play soccer using a sock filled with sand. They stopped and got the soccer balls out.
“We started kicking the ball around and we started kicking it with the kids," Stahl says. "And then we got our translator to communicate that, ‘Hey, we’re going to leave you guys this soccer ball.’ And when the kid had the ball in his hand, all the kids just started jumping up and down and screaming.”
In 2010, with help from the Peace Corps, Project Play Africa volunteers went to Benin, but on that trip, they realized their efforts were not measurable, traceable or sustainable.
So, in 2011, they returned to Niger, deciding to focus only on Libore, a small, rural community on the outskirts of the capital, Niamy. This time, Project Play Africa went armed with a plan for a soccer league. Their goal was to involve local clubs and schools in the effort, creating a lasting organizational infrastructure.
When Project Play Africa volunteers returned to Libore this year, they were astonished to see how much had been accomplished with the equipment and information they'd left behind.
“They embraced the idea and staffed all the positions and created the league and played the games and were hungry to expand it. It engaged boys and girls, which is very unusual for a Muslim country to know that the parents were letting their girls participate in an activity because usually the girls are doing housework, fetching water and wood and so on," Stahl says. "We found we had the support of both the tribal and the political leaders of Libore. We saw that the program created pride in the village and the school.”
For Stahl, a highlight of the trip was watching the boys’ and girls’ championship soccer games.
“We drive up and they had literally a thousand to two thousand people there, both adults and children to watch these kids play soccer. They were probably aged between six and 12-years-old," he says. "So the field is totally lined with spectators and they had a lean-to tent at the center of the field where the mayor and the chief and the dignitaries were sitting. And it was incredible to watch.”
According to Stahl, Project Play Africa’s greatest challenge is to find a soccer ball that is affordable, easy to transport and durable enough to survive more than a few weeks on Niger’s rocky playing fields.
Once they come up with one, Stahl says, Project Play Africa intends to bring soccer balls to all of West Africa.