Spirit of Football makes stop at Duquesne

Spencer Thomas | Sports Editor | Young participants gather at Rooney Field during the Spirit of Football event on Tuesday night. “The Ball” was present, spreading a message of combatting climate change through its travels.

Spencer Thomas | Sports Editor

Sept. 15, 2022

It was a jubilant scene at Rooney Field on Tuesday evening, as the Spirit Of Football and the Pittsburgh chapter of Borussia Dortmund’s International Academy collaborated to host a soccer event in preparation for the upcoming World Cup.

Spirit Of Football is an international nonprofit company that operates “The Ball,” a single soccer ball that travels the globe, spreading positivity via the world’s game.

“It is a perfect symbol of peace, love and respect,” said Benne Grunewald, one of the keepers of The Ball. He and Andrew Aris, who played professionally in Germany, are carrying The Ball on its journey. The tour will finish in Australia and New Zealand, at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

This year, The Ball’s mission is to combat climate change, a message it spreads through travels. The Ball’s journey began in July with a game at Battersea Park in London, where it is believed the first-ever soccer game was played. In recognition of that history, Aris said that the game was played according to 1864 rules.

This edition of The Ball has since traveled around Germany, Turkey and England, where it got to stop by the semifinal match of the UEFA Women’s European Championship between Sweden and England. The ball now travels through the United States.

Spirit Of Football holds a close connection with Borussia Dortmund, which brought The Ball to its academy in Pittsburgh.

After hosting a workshop for the Dortmund Academy coaches in the afternoon, the focus turned to that night’s event, where the players in the academy played “fair-play football.” The variation of the game encourages teamwork and fair play.

Teamwork is encouraged by the abolition of dribbling, forcing the ball to move through passes. Celebrations after scoring are exaggerated, and both teams — winning and losing — participate in the fun.

Teams were co-ed and shared by players aged 7 through 15. Players walked out to the UEFA Champions League Anthem during a done-up ceremony before kickoff, meant to replicate the environment of soccer’s biggest stage.

Before the games, Grunewald told the players, “I wish you a great game, especially in terms of teamwork, fair play and respect.”

After the games, players got the chance to sign The Ball, which has already accumulated over 2,000 signatures, including those from USWNT star Trinity Rodman, US Soccer Federation President Cindy Parlow Cone, and the entire Nigerian Women’s National Team.

“Every signature has the same worth,” Grunewald said, “because we are one. That’s why we say [our motto], ‘One ball, one world.’”

One signature that The Ball will soon be receiving is from the man who is responsible for much of its notoriety: Jurgen Klopp. One of the most-famous faces in world sport, Klopp is the manager for Liverpool FC, with whom he has won the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League, cementing his place as one of the best soccer minds around the globe.

His partnership with Spirit of Football began during his tenure at Dortmund, and Aris said that he remains with the organization as their fair-play ambassador. He met with Aris, Grunewald and The Ball in Liverpool, and also starred in promotional videos for the organization.

This is the sixth journey for The Ball, and first destined for the women’s competition. Aris says that the decision was made to forgo the men’s tournament this winter in Qatar, whose hosting of the tournament does not align with Spirit of Football’s mission.

The Guardian estimates that over 6,000 migrant workers died when building the infrastructure for the World Cup.

“It was a big mistake to give it to such an anti-democratic country,” Grunewald said.

Qatar’s hosting of the world’s largest sporting event is one of many black marks which Grunewald believes money has brought into a game meant to be fun.

The ball traveled to Russia for the 2018 edition of the World Cup, a memory which Grunewald recalled with mixed emotions.

“We had a really good time actually, people from all over the world coming together celebrating the sport,” Grunewald said. “Seeing the pictures now, it still feels awkward.

“Nowadays, soccer is so political, so much money in there, and the basics of football are getting lost. About teamwork, about having a good time playing sports and enjoying the love of this beautiful game. It’s all about money and about revenue. It’s a bit sad, actually.”

That is why Aris says he founded Spirit of Football in Germany, as a way to showcase the beautiful nature upon which soccer was created. It’s why the games they operate are built around fair play and fun.

“We are trying to show the positivity in fair play of football.”

Grunewald says they plan on returning for the 2026 men’s tournament in North America, at which point they will support both men’s and women’s events.