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Not Just a Game: The True Power of Football

Love and Hate; War and Peace; Life and Death. Bill Shankly once famously announced that football was more important than a matter of life and death. Those less interested purely see it as twenty-two people running after a ball on a pitch. The reality is that the true importance of football probably lies somewhere between those two extremes, but the power of football as a tool for good cannot be underestimated in the current international climate.

Football, whether directly or indirectly, has started wars and has ended wars. The so-called ‘Soccer War’ in 1969, whilst not solely as a result of football, was sparked off by a match between Honduras and El Salvador, and tragically led to the death of over 3,000 people.

On the flip side, the Cote d’Ivoire is a wonderful example of the healing power of football. A temporary ceasefire was declared during the 2006 World Cup to focus on the nation’s football team. Twelve months later, Didier Drogba made the suggestion that an international match between his side and Madagascar should be played in Bouaké, the capital of the rebel-held region.

It was the first time since the outbreak of civil war that government troops had been in the rebel capital and the first time in five years that the two sides had come face-to-face in a non-hostile setting. This match is seen as a major catalyst in the permanent ceasefire that marked the end of the civil war.

The conclusion from these two short examples is that football can impart an inordinate amount of power in bringing groups together or driving people apart. Again, a quote from Bill Shankly sums this up well; “Football is not just a game, but is also an economic force, a model of globalisation and, more importantly, a vehicle for conflict resolution.”

It is the use of football in this role that has inspired a group of students at the School for African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) in London to develop Football Beyond Borders. On their website, it is described as ‘a student-led movement using football’s level playing field to empower communities and enact positive social change.’

The original plan, devised by SOAS student Jasper Kain, was to take the university’s football team to Iran to try and connect with the average Iranian person and fight against the prevailing view of the Iranians as ‘a dangerous and opposite society of extremists and fundamentalists.’ Whilst this original tour was derailed by visa issues, a tour was carried out, travelling around Turkey, Syria and Lebanon playing matches against local teams from all different ethnicities, religions and tribes.

Twelve months later, a second tour saw the group visiting West Africa. As well as playing matches against local teams, the team now expanded their remit to run a series of intercultural and educational workshops for local children and worked closely with various charitable and grassroots developmental projects in the region.

In the words of the team themselves, “the programme we embarked on sought to utilise education, literature, sport and art to galvanise the youth and see a return of the development agenda to the peak of international consciousness.”

2011 has seen a further expanded programme of events for the Football Beyond Borders team. A London event that has just finished saw universities from Cairo, Turkey, Uruguay and Finland sending teams to participate in a football tournament. However, the football was almost a sideshow as the key aim of the project was to bring together students, and potential future leaders, from a range of ethnic and religious groups, to engage in dialogue and debate.

This is not to belittle the impact of the football on a sub-conscious level. When researching this, I stumbled upon an interesting interview with a Iraqi teenager from Basra. He explained that, “a football team sets a perfect example for us of unity and perseverance. The group of players, each from a different background, train together and perform in such a harmonious rhythm that each complements the other.”

Later this month, the Football Beyond Borders team will return to the Middle East and North Africa, visiting Palestine, Egypt and Jordan. Projects aimed at bringing together Coptic and Muslim orphans, via the medium of football, are planned in Egypt, whilst in Palestine, they are hoping that the power of sport will be able to transcend cultural boundaries and promote peaceful, but meaningful, interaction amongst the young Palestinian people.

I spoke with Tomas Rodriguez Perez, a current SOAS student, who will be involved in the tour to the Middle East, about why he felt that football held the power to bridge cultural divides and bring different groups together:

“Once you get past the superficial ideologies and nationalisms that divide us, we are all essentially human beings. This is something that people often forget. When you are all together on a football pitch, this simple fact becomes more apparent.”

SOAS itself brings together a huge range of students from different countries, religions and ethnic groups, perhaps more so than any other university in the UK.

Naturally, this means that the football team, the driving force behind the Football Beyond Borders enterprise, is a very multi-ethnic group. Tomas explained that “it is our friendship and understanding on the pitch that has provided the basis for our dialogue and mutual empathy off the pitch. This is something we hope to achieve with our projects around the world.”

I put forward the question of what they were hoping to achieve from the trip and what they would say to people who may claim that it was simply a football tour – that there could be better ways to connect with the local population.

“The project will open all of our eyes to the realities of life in these areas. But more importantly, we hope to make a tangible impact on the communities that we will be visiting. Obviously, these are just small projects, but we hope that when people hear about what we are doing, there will be a ripple effect that helps to inspire more initiatives like this.”

It is clear from speaking with some of the participants and researching the project that the football itself is merely a tool to help bring people together to provide the opportunity for meaningful dialogue.

However, describing it as merely a tool does not do justice to its importance. Whilst the popularity of cricket in India means that it is now rivalling football as the most played sport, it does not have anywhere near the global reach that football does. Some of football’s most recognisable personalities are among the most recognisable on the planet. An interesting study several years ago demonstrated that more people worldwide recognised David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo than recognised George Bush, supposedly the most powerful man on the planet.

From the slums of Brazil and India to the modern cities of Dubai and Qatar, from the streets of London and Paris to the villages of sub-Saharan Africa, names such as Manchester United and Barcelona, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo are familiar to the majority. This simply shows the true global nature of football.

“It may be a cliché, but football is truly a global language,” explains Tomas. “It can bring together communities and we hope that we can use football to show people that we treat them as humans, not just as victims or enemies.”

The recent London event ended in an all-English final, perhaps not the ideal match to emphasise the cultural diversity of the event. However, the forums and seminars that accompanied the event were a major success in bringing all the players together to discuss pertinent issues with groups that they may otherwise have never engaged with.

“Cross-cultural dialogue may not be an immediate solution to the conflict, but in the long-term, we hope it will contribute to improving social relations between different nations and cultures, and showing that, ultimately, we are all similar despite our perceived differences.”

Football ignites a passion within people than very few other sports or activities can achieve. The Football Beyond Borders project has channelled this into making a real difference on an international stage. In the words of the former German international, Jurgen Klinsmann, “football is the perfect tool to correct false perceptions of different people, of different cultures. Football reminds us that we are all the same.”

To learn more about the Football Beyond Borders project, visit their website at http://www.footballbeyondborders.org/

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