Juan Rendon never really liked soccer.
Sure, he played the game and followed the professional leagues a bit when he was growing up in Colombia in the 1980s and early ’90s. But he thought soccer was boring. And he came to believe it was corrupt as well, in an era when drug cartels and soccer clubs often had close ties.
Then Rendon made a film: This Is Not a Ball (available on Netflix), exploring what the soccer ball means to people around the world. The documentary changed the way he saw the sport.
In 1994, the captain of Colombia’s national soccer team, Andres Escobar, was murdered 10 days after accidentally scoring against his own team in a World Cup match against the U.S. How did that influence your outlook on soccer?
What happened in the 1994 World Cup [the murder of Escobar] was heartbreaking. Anybody would be turned off of soccer because of all that. You think, why put my hopes up on something that is so volatile and can bring about this type of event?
In This Is Not a Ball, you profile an organization in Brazil that hires former drug traffickers to work as soccer coaches in the slums — the favelas.
IBISS is a program that strives to keep kids in the favelas out of the drug trade. Many of these kids aspire to be drug traffickers [because] there’s nothing else for them to do. When they walk the streets and see a guy with a gun, that’s the guy with the power. So they start talking to him and befriend him, and before they know it, they’re involved in the drug trade.
So what IBISS tries to do is keep these kids in a community that’s healthy, and playing a sport, and teaching them something useful. When you do that with coaches who have been on the other side [of the drug trade], it’s extremely useful because they know what the other side is like. When they see that the kids are starting to get drawn to that side, they can tell them with authority, that’s not a good idea. Go the other way.
There was one coach in particular who made a big impression on me. He makes a fraction of what he used to make when he was in the [drug] trade, but he sticks with coaching. You can feel his passion for soccer. You can feel his passion for working with kids.
You also profile a soccer league for amputees in Sierra Leone. Most of the young men lost limbs in the country’s brutal civil war.
That was probably the story that struck me the most. These kids are not only fighting a physical [limitation]; they’re fighting a national stigma. Amputees in Sierra Leone are stigmatized as people who can’t work, who can’t be positive agents of society — all they can do is beg. So they are playing soccer not only to entertain themselves but also to prove that they can do something [productive]. That really made me understand the power that this ball can have.
When you see them play, it’s unbelievable the way they move, and what they can do with these crutches. And at no moment are you thinking, I’m seeing somebody with a disability, I’m seeing an invalid. They are completely empowered. Like Musa [one of the amputee players] says, they are not disabled, because they can do something beyond our imagination.
You weren’t a soccer fan when you went into this project. Have you changed?
Most definitely. When you see how global soccer is, and how much it can be used for good, you have to become a fan of it. It’s something that teaches teamwork, builds community and teaches kids how to compete in a healthy way, abiding by certain rules and standards and fair play. If you bring these concepts to kids at young age, it will get imprinted on them, and it can affect the way they do everything — not just how they play soccer, but how they face life and the challenges that come along with it.
The billion-dollar industry of soccer can be critiqued. The way FIFA operates, what people were protesting in Brazil, there’s a lot truth to that. Why spend billions of dollars on a stadium when you don’t have hospitals? So that part of soccer I’m still skeptical about. But the other face of soccer — sport for the sake of sport, for the sake of play, and for doing good — I’m definitely a huge fan of that now.
In the film, your co-director, Vik Muniz, makes a massive piece of artwork from thousands of soccer balls. What happened to all of those balls?
We are selling the balls and giving money to IBISS and the Sierra Leonean amputee league, and other soccer development organizations that we visited but couldn’t fit into the documentary. People can buy a ball on our website and allot whatever they paid for that ball to one of these organizations.