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Football – A powerful tool in uniting nations

Last year, on September 21, there were more than 3,000 games of football played between otherwise conflicting sides in all of the 192 UN member countries.

September 21 is a global day of world peace, the focal point of the Peace One Day initiative, founded by film maker Jeremy Gilley.

After experiencing numerous examples of opposition sides in conflict coming together in peace on the football pitch, he realised football was the perfect game to play on peace day.

The world’s undisputed most popular sport can divide families, friends, cities and nations. The depth of its feeling and power can often be viewed when the game is displayed in its most ardent form, when division and rivalry are at their most acute.

This power of arousal, interest and passion can produce a force that moves people to change the way they think, act and behave towards themselves and the people around them. It is on this premise that development through football is based and as a movement, continues to achieve remarkable results where other approaches have tried and failed. 

Football For Peace

After the shocking and sad murder of Colombian defender Andres Escobar (pictured), widely reported following his own goal at the 1994 World Cup, Jürgen Griesbeck was moved to set up Football For Peace, aimed at combating drugs and violence on the streets of Medellin, Colombia.

Griesbeck would later become the figurehead behind the Street Football World movement, founded in April 2002. Since its launch it has gone on to provide a global support network to organisations that use football as a tool for social development. There are currently in excess of 80 organisations in 50 countries. In 2010, 600,000 young people were engaged around the world.

Asked about the greatest achievements of the Development Through Football initiative, Griesbeck said: “It is spearheading the development through sports movement as a whole. Football, as the most universal language, is seen as the one sport local civil society organisations have identified as accelerator for them to achieve their missions.”

He also highlighted the fact that FIFA, UEFA and some clubs – Barcelona included – have committed to investing in the project. The World Cup finals now incorporate Development Through Football as official elements of their programmes.

The Development Through football movement has for many years understood the power the game has to change lives. Whether it is engaging with individuals and groups on the margins of communities, breaking down divisive barriers constructed by ignorance, fear and tradition, or challenging negative perceptions, across planet football there are examples of organisations, charities and non government organisations harnessing the fascination with football to achieve positive outcomes.


In the UK and across Europe, professional football clubs are playing their part in using the draw of their clubs on their immediate communities, with the work done through their Football in the Community schemes.

In most cases these organisations, although linked to the club, in reality sit outside of the clubs themselves – which arguably says everything it needs to about the clubs’ approach to its influence beyond kick-off and the full time whistle. There are some good examples and individuals in this set up, but unfortunately they are not, as maybe they should be, the rule.

Outside the football clubs, charities such as the London-based Street League have produced amazing results and individual case studies by using football sessions as a hook to engage the unemployed, recovering addicts, the homeless and ex-offenders and then help them turn their lives around and get back into education, training and employment.

Around the globe, Development Through Football comes in many guises and achieves numerous goals. One of the biggest and longstanding projects is found in Kenya. This year the Mathare Youth Sports Association celebrated its 25th anniversary.

Activities of the organisation include providing training and organising tournaments within the 16 most deprived slums of Nairobi. Young people are involved in leadership training, environmental clean-ups, HIV/AIDS awareness programmes, and other community service activities.

Global awards

At the core of the project is its football programmes, 14,000 of the 20,000 participants take part. The project’s work has attracted numerous global awards, most recently in 2010 when it was awarded the Common Ground Award – for its innovative community and peace building programmes – at a ceremony in Washington DC.

Organised by Tackle Africa, every year on Clapham Common in London, hundreds of amateur footballers take part in a football tournament that lasts from 9am to 9pm.

Having participated on two occasions, I can confess that it is a gruelling experience. The desire to stop, or not get up from the brief respite between games, is only defeated by the cause that brought the players there in the first place.

Tackle Africa’s football marathon raises thousands of pounds for the small charity which uses the money to deliver HIV education through football coaching to young people across Africa. Skilfully, the game of football and its various training sessions are used as a metaphor for the virus or to promote discussion about it and the behaviours surrounding prevention and treatment.

Tackle Africa, like many development through football projects around the world have realised the potential of the football coach as a role model.

Attention and respect

I can testify that the effect of what you say and do as a coach burns deep within the participants, long after the bibs and balls have been put away.  Someone who can command their continual attention and respect, who will encourage and support their development and who can weave key social messages into the techniques and mindsets of regular football coaching, can thus capture the hearts and minds of a new generation and have a very powerful impact indeed.  

Development Through Football, when conducted properly, can leave an indelible mark of positivity on the people it engages. Are the successes and potential of the movement taken seriously enough? Griesbeck doesn’t think so. He believes both football for development specifically, and sport for development in general, are often confused with sports programmes.

They are not recognised as high impact development programmes, capable of working across sectors and to reaching out to a high number of hard to reach youth with quality service. For Griesbeck, the services offered, and impact achieved, are more efficient than other approaches.

With football arguably being at its most powerful point in its history, both in its coverage and economically, can the game as a whole embrace the work done by Development Through Football projects and Street Football World and harness all of its power and influence for the greater good?

If it can, perhaps those who watch it (and even those who don’t) can see the real beauty in the beautiful game. 

By Jason Mckoy
Mercurial Sports
Twitter: @mercurialsports

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