More Than a Game
With chaplain’s help, Ontario Knights send new soccer balls to Nigerian schoolchildren
By Elisha Valladares-Cormier
In Nigeria, where soccer is king but leather soccer balls are expensive, children often resort to making their own balls using plastic bags, old clothes or even sap from rubber trees. Since earlier this year, however, schoolchildren in the village of Umuoji are hitting the field with 24 new soccer balls donated by Knights from St. John the Apostle Council 10470 in Ottawa, Ontario.
Father Emeka Onyeogubalu, pastor of St. John the Apostle Parish in Ottawa and council chaplain, delivered the soccer balls while visiting his hometown in January.
“Soccer means a lot to my people in Nigeria,” Father Onyeogubalu said. “It’s one of the things that unites every Nigerian, irrespective of tribe, tongue or religion. The tremendous difference and joy this [donation] has brought to these children is unbelievable.”
The gift was prompted by discussions about the Knights of Columbus Soccer Challenge that took place at a district deputy meeting in November 2022, as the FIFA Men’s World Cup was underway in Qatar. District Deputy John Schembri, a member of Council 10470, knew that Father Onyeogubalu would soon be returning to Nigeria for vacation. He also realized that Canada and Nigeria would be facing each other in the group stage of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, held this summer in Australia and New Zealand.
“I thought, ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be great if we could send Father Emeka with some soccer balls,’” Schembri said. “And we made it happen.”
In the few weeks before Father Onyeogubalu departed, Schembri purchased 24 K of C-branded soccer balls, and Council 10470 agreed to pay for the priest’s additional luggage costs to bring them on his trip. Once in Umuoji, Father Onyeogubalu distributed the soccer balls among five area schools that serve nearly 2,000 students, who received them with much excitement: “The kids wanted to run to the field immediately,” Father Onyeogubalu reported.
Father Onyeogubalu, who played soccer competitively in his youth and as a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Onitsha before his ordination in 1999, was delighted to deliver the donated balls. In addition to spreading love for his favorite game, the Knights’ small gift, he said, could help ease religious tensions in the community. Umuoji is centered in the predominately Christian southern half of Nigeria; two of the five schools that received soccer balls are Catholic, two are Anglican and one is nondenominational.
“There can be tensions between some denominations that are difficult for people in North America to understand, so this gift is a pathway to evangelization,” said Father Onyeogubalu, who has engaged in interfaith dialogue as a representative of the Archdiocese of Ottawa-Cornwall since arriving to Canada in 2010. “To see me, a Catholic priest, in those Anglican schools, bringing these soccer balls from the Knights, it preaches a homily that words cannot.”
It’s a reminder of why Father Onyeogubalu joined the Knights in the first place, he said. “Whatever parish I am in, I support the Knights and give them a platform because their grassroots evangelization is tremendous.”
For Schembri, the effort was an example of how Knights can provide direct assistance to people in need without relying on a middleman. “When we give money to a large organization, it goes into a big pot, and we don’t really see people benefiting from it directly,” he said. Whether it’s bringing food and funds to a local food pantry or donating soccer balls to children in Nigeria, he continued, “There’s a one-to-one correspondence between donating something and it being appreciated.
“And who knows? Maybe one of these students one day becomes a world champion, and they got their start with these soccer balls donated by the Knights. Wouldn’t that be great?”
ELISHA VALLADARES-CORMIER is associate editor of Columbia and a member of Sandusky (Ohio) Council 546.