‘Sport does have a meaningful and powerful role to play in the social transformation of society if care is taken to provide the necessary conditions for success.’ Bishop Desmond Tutu – Secretary South African Council of Churches (Nobel Peace Prize Winner 1984)
This is the starting point for Football 4 Peace Initiative (F4P), but not the end. Unless carefully managed, history also tells us that bringing groups together in sporting competition can lead to more and not less conflict. We believe that it is not just playing the game that is important, but crucially how the game is played, what the spirit of the contest is, how long the game lasts, and what is learned and taken from the field of play.
For many years community football schemes have used the game to foster a spirit of fair play and collective civic responsibility with young people. Sport in general and football in particular is chosen as a neutral and universal tool that attracts people beyond their race, origin, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation etc. Games are often much more appealing to children and youth than textbooks. Such power of sport can be channelled to promote values, human rights, skills development and cooperative spirit, but only if games are carefully chosen and focused on cooperation and fair-play rather than confrontation.
When children engage in fun and non-competitive games, they cooperate with each other, establish contacts and relationships, and learn about each other, which breaks down the social barriers. Especially in the divided societies, sport often provides the first point of contact between children from different communities, and playing together can humanise ‘The Other’. Furthermore, since sport is strongly tied to the values of discipline, confidence, hard-work, fair-play and respect, games can be tailored to enhance and further develop children’s skills. Through active participation in group activities, children learn about leadership, organisation, communication and other applicable skills that are important for their personal development.
Such critical sports interventions and values based coaching not only have a direct impact on the programme participants, but on wider community and society, as demonstrated by the ripple effect model*. Through working with children and local coaches as well as partners such as NGOs, sports governing bodies and even governmental representatives, F4P methodology and values are shared with significant others (parents, carers, teachers etc.), local community, governmental and non-governmental stakeholders and as such awareness is raised and actions are taken across different levels of society. Working at the grassroots level is therefore the first, but significant step towards any social change.
Going back to the original quote, such reasoning about sport is valid when conditions such as neutrality, equality, cooperation, fair-play etc. are met. Since sport is ‘the opium of the masses’, its power can bring about negative consequences as well and therefore one needs to remain critical about its use for community cohesion, peaceful coexistence, and development. With this in mind, F4P utilises values based coaching centred around respect, responsibility, trust, equality and inclusion in their grassroots programmes, aiming to use the power of sport for a positive change in the community and beyond.
*Sugden, J, 2010. Critical left-realism and sport interventions in divided societies. International Review for the Sociology of Sport 45(3): pp.258-272.