BERKELEY -- The inspiration was a heart-tugging news report about traumatized refugee children from Darfur living in such horrific conditions that they were kicking around rolled-up trash as an improvised soccer ball.
What if there was an all-terrain ball, Tim Jahnigen thought, that was capable of lasting even in the harshest conditions and could be distributed to regions of extreme poverty?
And when an international rock star with a social conscience heard about Jahnigen's bold idea, he issued a bold challenge.
Let's make it, Sting told him.
The result: One World Futbol, a durable ball designed to never go flat or wear out -- putting smiles on the faces of countless children in desperate regions around the world as well as some disadvantaged youngsters in the United States.
"All kids just want to play, whether they were born in Beverly Hills, Belfast or Beirut," Jahnigen said. "Play is in our DNA. This allows them to do that. The magic isn't in the ball. It's in the kids who are playing with it."
As global soccer fans focus on the World Cup in Brazil, the Berkeley-based One World Futbol Project -- founded by Jahnigen and his wife, Lisa Tarver -- soon will ship its 1 millionth ball.
That's why in regions struggling with conflict or hardship -- places such as Burundi, Haiti and Malawi -- you now can find the blue and yellow balls being booted around by kids seeking a temporary escape from unimaginable challenges.
Or as Sting put it in a promotional Web video: "We're bringing the power of play to the children who need it the most."
Images on CNN
The memory of the 2006 news clip on CNN never left Jahnigen, an entrepreneur with wide interests that include being a music lyricist. Soccer is the world's most popular sport in part because all you really need to play is a ball.
But even that can be out of reach for many of the estimated 1 billion children living in poverty. And Jahnigen learned that what often passes for soccer balls in developing countries are plastic bags tightly bunched by rough twine. Desperate kids even resort to playing with rocks when nothing else is available.
Two years after seeing the clip, Jahnigen and Tarver were at breakfast with Sting, who was in the Bay Area on a concert tour. They had become friends when Jahnigen helped produce Sting's Rainforest Fund benefit concerts.
Sting told them he was helping build a soccer field for children in the Gaza Strip. Jahnigen mentioned his notion about an indestructible ball.
"The conversation moved on and then Sting said, 'Wait a minute. Tell me more about this ball. Why haven't you done that already? You have to do this right now, and I will pay for the development,' " recalled Jahnigen, 54.
Soccer balls essentially have always been an air-filled bladder covered by a protective surface.
"And if you put a hole in it, the ball becomes a piece of trash," Jahnigen added.
His solution? An innovative design with a cross-linked, closed-cell foam material similar to what's used in Crocs shoes and sandals. When a ball is crushed or punctured, it just returns to a round shape. It's not meant for elite competitions, like the World Cup. But it works for the world's children, who often play in dirt fields, dodging sharp obstacles.
"It's kind of hard to wrap your mind around a soft ball that's not inflated, and doesn't have a bladder and a valve," Tarver said. "It's a brand-new technology."
The ball went into production in 2010, with Sting contributing the name, a reference to his song "One World (Not Three)."
Big world, big mission
Giants pitcher Jeremy Affeldt has done charity work combating child poverty in countries such as Kenya, Guatemala and Haiti. The problem with sending regular soccer balls overseas, he said, is that they rarely last long.
"They get taken by a stray dog, or hit thorns or barbed wire and they pop," Affeldt said.
But after learning about the One World Futbol, he became sold after driving over a ball with his truck -- again and again -- and inflicting no damage.
"It's just a great way to keep the kids playing," Affeldt said. "When you're in a poverty situation, you immediately are put in an adult situation because you're fending for your life. And you shouldn't have to, especially as a kid. They should play and imagine and dream."
Today, there are 850,000 One World Futbols in 165 countries. Chevrolet signed on as the founding sponsor to distribute 1.5 million balls to war-stricken regions, refugee camps and disaster areas. The balls also are sold online for $39.50 in the "buy one, give one" program, in which the donated ball goes to organizations such as relief-aid groups, schools and orphanages. The idea is that each ball can be used by 30 kids.
"A million balls might sound like a lot, but it's really not in terms of the need globally when you look at the number of children living in abject poverty," said Tarver, 54, whose nonprofit work includes a five-year stint in El Salvador. "We could ship a million balls for 10 years, and it would still be just a drop in the bucket. It's a big world."
Playing in Oakland
Most Americans, said Julie Foudy, the Stanford alum and former captain of the U.S. women's national soccer team, can't appreciate the importance of a simple ball.
"It's not until you go abroad," said Foudy, who said her children play with a One World Futbol in their cul-de-sac. "Then you go to Africa and you're playing in Soweto with shards of glass on the ground. Then you get it. To have a ball that can withstand everything means so much."
It also means a lot for the kids in Oakland who are part of Soccer Without Borders, a program helping refugees from 26 countries adjust to their new home. Ben Gucciardi, the founder, said high-end balls wouldn't last on the concrete surfaces where they often play -- even if they could afford them.
"We're on a shoestring budget," Gucciardi said. "So having balls that don't wear out or go flat is a plus. What it comes down to is these kids are pretty happy to just have a ball."
Nearby, Nyunt Khin, a 16-year-old native of Myanmar, was kicking one around with five other boys.
"If you step on it, the ball just comes back up," he said, smiling. "It's perfect."
Elliott Almond and Alex Pavlovic contributed to this report. For more information, visit www.oneworldfutbol.com
What: Durable soccer ball that is impervious to water and designed to never go flat. About 850,000, in both adult and youth sizes, have been introduced in 165 countries, and in quantities of 5,000 or more to 60 of those nations.
Who: Husband-and-wife team Tim Jahnigen and Lisa Tarver founded the Berkeley-based One World Futbol Project, which they describe as a for-profit company with a mission.
Why: Children in developing countries often resort to using makeshift soccer balls because they either don't have access to real ones or they go flat quickly in rugged conditions.
Partners: Music icon Sting financed the development of the ball. Chevrolet has a sponsorship deal to ship 1.5 million balls worldwide and is distributing 5,300 in Brazil during the World Cup.
Design: Made from material similar to the kind used in Crocs shoes and sandals, the ball doesn't need to be inflated with a pump because there is no air bladder. So it won't pop if punctured or flattened, and instead will return to its round shape.
The name: One World Futbol is named, in part, after Sting's song "One World (Not Three)." Also, soccer is known throughout most of the world as football or futbol.
Quote: "The goal of the One World Futbol Project is to distribute indestructible soccer balls where they're needed -- in impoverished areas, refugee camps, conflict zones and U.N. hot spots around the world," Sting said in a promotional Web video.
For more information: www.oneworldfutbol.com