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TO THOSE WITH NOTHING, SOCCER IS EVERYTHING

Far from the South African stadium where the World Cup soccer championship will be played this afternoon, Jessica Hilltout, a nomadic, 33-year-old Belgian-born photographer, documented the continent's love of the game among people so poor they had to make their own ball.

Last year, she loaded sacks of deflated soccer balls onto the roof of a battered yellow Volkswagen Beetle and began a seven-month road trip across Africa in search of those who love the game. She found it in villages where children played with joyous abandon on dusty patches of ground, sandy beaches and lush fields.

"They are all stars in their own corner," said Ganiyu Abubakari of Ghana. "Happy yourself wherever you are. No matter the condition make yourself happy. Play the game."

The most oddly soulful images are of objects: the homemade balls fashioned by children from whatever is at hand. Hilltout traded each of these handmade balls for factory-made ones she had brought along.

"The beautiful game exists in its purest form in what I saw - people playing for the joy of playing," Hilltout said.

The people she met in villages stretching across west and southern Africa had no organized support: no free uniforms, no corporate sponsors, no subsidies of any kind.

"So many people have so much and do so little with it," she said. "The people I met had so little yet managed to do so much with it."

Read more at her website www.jessicahilltout.com/amen/lookbook.html.

Celia W. Dugger, New York Times

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