Sharpie and The Players’ Tribune have partnered to create a series around Uncap the Possibilities,
which shows how a Sharpie gives people the power to unleash their imaginations — and to express how they’d like the world to be. Here, Alex Morgan discusses what inspired her to support UNICEF Kid Power and give back.
A soccer ball can tell a story.
The one I’m thinking of … it actually wasn’t much of a soccer ball at all. It was really just a bunch of balled-up old T-shirts stuffed into a black plastic bag and wrapped up in green yarn — like the twine from a bundle of newspapers. The plastic bag had holes in it, and through them, you could see another layer — something brown, maybe cardboard — around the T-shirts. And, at its core, there must have been a rock or something, because the ball was heavy. Too heavy to launch down the field. You couldn’t really pass it more than five yards. I don’t think you could even play a full-on game with it.
I’ll never forget that soccer ball. Not because of what it looked like, or how it felt. But for what it represents.
For the story it tells.
My husband, Servando, and I both play soccer, so we’re lucky enough to have the same off-season. And when we had a four-week break a couple of years ago, we wanted to do more than just take a vacation. We wanted to do something important — something where we could use our platform to spread the game of soccer and have a meaningful impact on others. We knew we wanted to do something internationally, but we had no idea where we wanted to go, or where to even start.
Then, an opportunity came up through the U.S. State Department to take advantage of a sports diplomacy program in conjunction with the embassy in Tanzania.
So we decided to go to Africa.
The goal was to talk to kids at schools there and to conduct soccer clinics. But, having never been to Africa, we had no idea what to expect.
After we landed at Kilimanjaro International Airport in Tanzania, we got into a Land Rover–type vehicle — an older model, exactly the kind you’d imagine taking for a drive through the desert — and we drove for about an hour and a half to our first destination.
Most of the drive was across flat, dry desert. The main road from the airport was paved, but once you got off that the roads were made of dirt and mostly lined with brown and gray brush. There was very little green.
We passed through several small towns and villages, where we saw people riding bikes and sitting outside little cafés and restaurants that were basically shacks — small buildings with tin roofs and walls made of wooden planks covered in large woven bags, like the ones you’d use for a potato-sack race.
Most of the cars on the road were these old Mercedes Sprinter vans, each painted with a different theme. One was USA-themed. Another had the Jamaican flag on it. One was painted in Real Madrid colors with Ronaldo on the side, and another in Barcelona colors with a picture of Messi. One even had Elvis on it.
I asked our driver about the vans, and he said that they were for public transportation. Each van had a route, like any normal bus would, and most people used them because very few people owned cars.
It’s like if you live in New York City and you take a certain train uptown and a different one over to Brooklyn. In these villages, maybe you’d take the Messi Line to work, or the Ronaldo to the market, or the Elvis to the next town over.
We spent six days in Tanzania. Our first destination was in the northern region — the Monduli district of the Arusha region. We met with kids at the Orkeeswa secondary school.
That’s where I saw the makeshift soccer ball made up of old T-shirts.
For some of those kids, it was the only soccer ball they had ever known.
Monduli is home to very traditional African villages. Their homes are more like huts, made out of sticks or cow dung. The people dress colorfully and sell bracelets and other handmade jewelry to tourists and visitors. They have no running water and there is little or no opportunity for any type of higher education.
But they are so passionate about the game of soccer.
I saw the makeshift soccer ball made up of old T-shirts. For some of those kids, it was the only soccer ball they had ever known.
We saw the same passion when we left Monduli and went to Dar es Salaam, the most populous city in Tanzania, and Zanzibar, an island off the Tanzanian coast. And with each new stop, we experienced kids who faced different obstacles.
Dar es Salaam is home to more than 4.3 million people. It’s very crowded and there are not very many opportunities for jobs. The gap between the wealthy and the lower class is incredible, and there is no middle class. You are either wealthy or poor.
The overwhelming majority of people there are poor.
Zanzibar is predominantly Muslim, which presents a lot of different challenges for young girls on top of what other kids in Tanzania already face. Some young girls I met had been completely disowned by their families just because they played soccer, which, for girls, went against the cultural norm.
But the common thread in each of the communities Servando and I visited was the reason we went there in the first place.
The joy those kids experienced while playing soccer in spite of all the challenges they face in their everyday lives was incredible.
Especially the girls.
In between soccer camps, we had little Q and A sessions or general discussions with the kids. And although we tried to keep the boys and girls together, when it came time for the girls to have some of the more difficult conversations about their roles in society and the challenges they faced, Servando went off with the boys and I stayed with the girls.
And I have to tell you, these girls … they were so bright and so confident. They had amazing energy.
But what really blew my mind was the amount of hope they had.
These young girls have very few role models to look up to, and there are no professional soccer leagues in Tanzania for them to aspire to play in. But they continue to dream. And despite everything around them suggesting otherwise, they believe that their dreams are attainable. They want to represent their country in the Olympics one day, even though very few Tanzanian women have ever made it to the Olympics. They want to inspire the younger generation to love the game of soccer the way they do — to show them that they are not limited in what they can achieve just because of where they grow up or what their culture or society says.
And for kids growing up under circumstances like theirs — for them to have that kind of hope when they don’t even know what the next step is, or if they even have any real shot at a future … for them to still believe and show that kind of determination?
It was truly inspiring.
I’ll never forget that soccer ball.
While many of the kids Servando and I met had cleats and shin guards and real soccer balls, whenever I think of our trip to Tanzania, I always go back to that one soccer ball — the one made of balled up old T-shirts. It just feels like a perfect metaphor for the basic necessities and opportunities those kids lack.
And the luxuries we have in this country that we take for granted.
I owe everything I have in my life to a number of things. My parents. My teammates. The great coaches I had growing up. My work ethic.
But when it comes down to it, I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for one thing.
A soccer ball.
That’s where everything started for me.
A soccer ball can tell a story. And it’s my sincere hope that in time, the stories that come from the young boys and girls we met in Tanzania will be more than just stories of hope.