We spoke with photographer Simon Heger Knudsen about BALL, a photographic depiction of football culture in the Mozambique capital of Maputo, and how football transcends all…

MUNDIAL: Why did you decide to go to Mozambique?

SIMON: I’d always wanted to explore Africa and when my cousin told me he was going to Mozambique in relation to his dissertation, I decided to go with him. Mozambique was a Portuguese colony until 1975 and has a relatively stable political structure as compared to many of the other African countries, although it is by no means a country of prosperity and wealth. I didn’t have a plan to shoot anything in particular while I was there until I saw the kids playing football one day. Having played since childhood myself, I had a natural gravitation towards it and decided to narrow in on that.

What made you want to photograph the kids on the football fields?

Football has always had its place in my life. When travelling throughout Europe as a kid, I remember the openness of kids around the football fields, always inviting you to join in on the game. My parents had to stop at close to each and every small, worn-down Italian football field so I could play for a bit before driving on. With Mozambique being such a different country from Denmark, I wanted to explore that similar experience yet through the lives of the kids in Maputo, the country’s capital. It was about exploring how kids in a poor country with low income and high inequality have experiences and childhood dreams similar to those of myself and other kids around the world, although in a completely different socioeconomic climate.

You also brought some of your own jerseys from childhood as gifts for the kids.

Most of them were Nike and Umbro from the late nineties and early noughties—ones like the silver Barcelona away shirt from 2000/2001 with Marc Overmars on the back, the Dutch home shirt and red England away from 2000/2001, an old Portugal one and, being an Arsenal fan myself, their home jersey from 2004/2005, the one that came out after they went through the season as invincibles. All these jerseys are ones that I’ve cherished throughout my childhood and youth, having a strong sentimental value to me and I wanted to pass this onto the kids of the Maputo soccer fields, portraying those same emotions that I remember having when pulling a jersey over my head and pretending like I was playing in the 2000 Euros next to Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert and Dennis Bergkamp.  

Were the kids open to being photographed?

They were very open and welcoming. Everything was shot on film with my Mamiya RZ and I think the kids really wanted to see the photos there and then– I wish I could’ve brought a Polaroid one so they could see themselves in the images. What struck me the most about these kids was how the football field seemed like a safe haven from all the injustice and poverty that is happening in their country, a place that allows them to be just kids without having to worry about anything else. It’s that bubble that football can get you in when you’re a kid, thinking of nothing else than volleying the ball up into the far corner of the goal.

What’s the football scene in Mozambique, and Maputo, like?

It’s similar to anywhere else in many ways with the main difference being poverty. Not a lot of the kids come from families that can afford for them to pay for playing in a club so they go to play in the Mafalala or Maxaquene areas on the streets or open fields. Not all kids go to school either, so hanging out on a worn-down football field, kicking a ball made from plastic bags around is the best alternative there is to them.

How do you think your memories of playing as a kid is similar to the experiences of the Maputo kids? And how are they different?

To them and everyone else around the world, the game is about the same thing: having fun, challenging yourself and meeting new friends. Football is a universal language that connects you with others that you might not have met otherwise, and the joy of playing it is the same, whether you’re in Maputo, Copenhagen, or Tokyo. The circumstances that they play under are different—pitches are either completely dry or sandy, with plastic and glass sometimes sticking up from the ground with many of the kids playing bare-footed—yet the underlying sentiments and their childhood love for football run parallel to those of kids across the world.

Follow writer Nikolaj Hansson here.

BALL is released exclusively via 0fr Paris and 0fr Copenhagen on Thursday, August 2nd and is available for distribution via Antenne Books. Please click here for more of Simon Heger Knudsen’s work. Subscribe to MUNDIAL, which also has great pictures in it.