The ball is mightier

Chico State grad uses soccer balls to take on poverty in Africa

Michael Mitchell speaks to the villagers of Liboré in Niger, Africa, in 2008.

Michael Mitchell speaks to the villagers of Liboré in Niger, Africa, in 2008.


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About a month before his arrival in Niger, Africa, in 2011, Chico native Michael Mitchell received disturbing news: two French nationals in that country had been kidnapped and killed by militants linked to the terrorist network al-Qaida.

Many of Mitchell’s friends and family, fearing for his safety, urged him not to go. But Mitchell considered his mission too important. “I get there, and sure enough, there’s all these Tuaregs—the nomads who live out in the desert—staring at me,” he said. Sensing their hostility, Mitchell decided to make a peace offering. “I went out to the car, got a soccer ball, kicked it to them, and the aggression just went away.”

For the former Chico State soccer player, who now lives and coaches soccer in Brazil, the soccer ball has represented more than a game—it’s a community-building tool, a means to alleviate suffering and a general “miracle worker,” Mitchell said. He’s seen first-hand the effect a ball can have on schoolchildren in Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries.

“They don’t have anything at these schools,” he said. “You can’t imagine it—there’s no running water, there’s no electricity, maybe a mud hut or hay hut [school building]. One ball will change their lives.”

Through his brainchild, Project Play, Mitchell has donated thousands of soccer balls to schools in Niger and other African countries over the past two decades, expanding the project’s vision each time he returns. His efforts recently received a big boost: a $500,000 grant through One World Futbol and Chevrolet that will allow Project Play to distribute 11,750 soccer balls to 4,500 different schools. Mitchell estimates that, as a result of the grant, some 100,000 African children will no longer have to make due with makeshift soccer balls—often just bits of plastic garbage rolled together.

Former Chico State soccer coach Mike O’Malley has seen Project Play develop from an idea into a large-scale operation. “It’s been fun to see how it’s grown each time he goes back [to Niger],” O’Malley said. “It’s really great to see him focus his energies on something as beautiful as this social-entrepreneurial project.”

The seed was planted during a conversation between Mitchell and O’Malley’s brother Patrick at One-Mile Recreation Area in 1979. Mitchell was preparing to leave Chico to join a collegiate all-star soccer team that would tour eight African countries, and he didn’t know what to pack.

“My brother said, ‘Don’t worry about clothes, just take as many soccer balls as you can—you’ll make all kinds of friends and you can get clothes once you’re there,’” O’Malley said.

The desperate poverty Mitchell encountered in Niger affected him profoundly, as did the schoolchildren’s reaction to the seemingly simple gift of a soccer ball. “If you’ve got a ball, you’re smiling, you’re interacting,” Mitchell said. “You’re not thinking about how bad it is—you’re thinking about touching the ball.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree from Chico State, he returned to Niger as a member of the Peace Corps in 1983. Eight years later, he completed his master’s degree in sports psychology at Chico State, and his thesis laid the groundwork for Project Play. By 2011, Mitchell had given away about 4,000 soccer balls.

About two months ago, the One World Futbol grant “landed in my lap,” he said. The soccer balls are set to reach Africa within a few weeks, and Mitchell believes the effort will make a real difference.

“Did you know that Osama bin Laden was a soccer fanatic? If only President Bush had sent a load of soccer balls.”