Posted July 12, 2010
By Martha Richards
ALEXANDRA, South Africa – The situations are varied. In Asia, where females’ opportunities are extremely limited, a young, underprivileged girl has the chance to excel. Across the world, refugees learn to integrate into society. War amputees are provided trauma recovery. Individuals with intellectual disabilities are empowered to become productive and respected members of society. Children with low self-esteem build confidence. And young people learn about the dangers of HIV and AIDS.
There is one common denominator: soccer.
While the best teams in the world competed for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, a different type of international event took place in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra. From over 40 countries and five continents, 32 teams of young people from disadvantaged communities came together for a festival of education, culture and football (or soccer).
The Football for Hope Festival was an event jointly sponsored by FIFA and Street Football World, a network of organizations that develops approaches to social challenges around the world through football.
“The driving force of our social engagement can and must be football itself,” says FIFA President Joseph “Sepp” Blatter. “With its unique appeal and core values that reach across generations and cultures, football offers common ground for engaging in a wide range of social development activities, including education, health promotion, social integration and gender equity.”
The 15- to 18-year-old youth participating in the festival are members of organizations that tackle social issues through the sport. “I think it’s important to focus on social problems during such an event as the World Cup … and to have an event that is focused on the underprivileged people,” says Stephen Sonderman, a delegation leader for the Spirit of Soccer team from Cambodia.
“Our organization, using football, teaches a mine risk education. It’s an awareness of what a landmine is, what to look for [and] what to do if you find one,” says Sonderman. “Several of the kids on our team [have] family members [who] are missing limbs. All of them live next to landmine fields. So it’s a real thing for them.”
It is estimated that there are over 6 million landmines buried in Cambodia, and people risk their lives every day as they farm the land or dismantle the mines to sell the parts for cash.
As Sonderman kicks a soccer ball, he tells the children to try to outrun it. Then he uses the analogy to explain that they cannot outrun the blast of a landmine.
Participants in the Football for Hope Festival were selected based on their determination and contribution to building a better future in their individual communities.
The Peace Team, from Israel and Palestine, approaches the issues of conflict resolution. Team South Africa tackles HIV and AIDS, while the Espérance team from Rwanda struggles to reconcile ethnic divisions. Team USA combats street life with the motto “No drugs. No crime. Just soccer.”
As the mixed-gender teams competed in a soccer tournament, any disagreements on the field had to be resolved through dialogue.
“You basically have to be fair on the field. You don’t have a referee,” says Sonderman. “The teams work together to work out issues. It’s fantastic.”
Nigeria’s Search and Groom team, which fights corruption in their community, faced off against Kenya’s Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) during the final game of the tournament. The two teams demonstrated a perfect example of fair play as they publicly resolved a dispute regarding a questionable goal by Nigeria. After a brief discussion, the teams agreed to disregard the goal. MYSA, a team that tackles issues in the slums of Nairobi, went on to win the tournament after a penalty shoot-out.
In what symbolizes the very essence of the Football for Hope Festival, a Fair Play award was presented to the team that displayed the best fair play throughout the tournament, as voted by their peers. The winner was Spirit of Soccer from Cambodia.
“I think if you asked any of the teams here, [the Cambodians] are kind of the darlings of the tournament, because they are so sweet,” says Sonderman. “They’re going to take their experience back, and they are going to be future leaders [in Cambodia].”
The celebration in Alexandra has shown that young people in football really do have the power to change the world.
Martha Richards is a media producer for IMB’s Global Communication Team. She loves traveling, reading and being around children. Her passion is serving others and sharing stories about God’s work throughout the world.