Soccer art in Africa

Soccer art in Africa
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POSTED: Saturday, February 16, 2013 - 7:25pm

UPDATED: Saturday, February 16, 2013 - 7:44pm

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from the February issue of National Geographic magazine.

(National Geographic) -- Miles from the main roads, in rural Africa, soccer balls bounce unevenly. Playing fields are arid, lush, weedy, sandy—any flattish space will do. Goalposts might be made of gathered mahogany or driftwood. Some feet are bare, others shod in fraying sneakers, boots, rubber sandals. Yet children kick and chase handmade, lopsided balls with skill and abandon, competing for pride and joy—for the sheer pleasure of playing.

Has the "beautiful game" ever been lovelier?

Jessica Hilltout doesn't think so. In 2010, when the World Cup came to Africa for the first time, the Belgium-based photographer set out to see what soccer looked like far from the bright lights and big stadiums. What she found—over seven months, ten countries, and 12,500 miles—was a grassroots game where passion trumped poverty, a do-it-yourself ethic prospered, and one ball could "bring happiness to an entire village."

In the 30-odd soccer-loving localities she visited, in countries from South Africa to Ivory Coast, balls are spun into being with whatever's at hand: rag or sock, tire or bark, plastic bag or inflated condom. Each might last days or months on a field of gravel or hard earth. Wherever Hilltout went, she swapped the store-bought balls she kept in her car for these "ingenious little jewels," most of which were made by children.

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