Across The Great Divide

In a sport awash with negative stories and stereotypes, it's very easy to forget football can be a unifying force. Welcome to IBWM Richard French.

Many great leaders have tried and ultimately failed to bring people together in the Middle East peacefully. It is a conflict which has raged on for decades, claiming tens of thousands of lives, dividing nations and academics all over the planet.

Perhaps they should have picked up a football earlier?

British organisation ‘Beyond Sport’ champions social change through sport across the globe, with ‘Mifalot’ one of the many initiatives to have received funding from the charity.

Mifalot was started in 1997 by Israeli giants Hapoel Tel-Aviv FC and has grown significantly ever since. Currently 20,000 children participate in its schemes each year. Chairman Avraham Burg is a firm believer in the game as a healing agent, and is keen to see this integration become commonplace in the future:

“I believe that eventually this should be the system. That kids our side and kids their side meet regularly and rather than shooting each other, playing with each other.”

It is a noble mission from the Israeli, and watching the children makes it clear that they are enjoying what they do. Any potential differences between kids are dealt with by both the Israeli and Palestinian adults present, who encourage talking about and resolving the dispute.

Teams are mixed, meaning that despite differences in language and culture, there is emphasis on teamwork and a common goal shared by all the children. The more difficult step will be moulding these young minds into adults who will one day work together for the common goal of peace.

Football has an almost magical quality which can diffuse any situation. World War 1 soldiers from both sides called a brief truce to the fighting on Christmas day in 1915, heading out of their trenches and into ‘No-mans-land’ to have a game of football. There are other examples but of course the fact remains that this region is deeply divided. For every family which enters a child into this sort of initiative, there will be one which will refuse to put the past behind them - even for the sake of the next generation.

Many would argue that after at least 51,000 (but perhaps nearer 90,000) lives lost, it will be impossible to reconcile any differences and that the anger is fully justified. The football pitch though, should act as sanctuary from the bloodshed for children (if not adults) who know not why they are surrounded by killing.

Mifalot has expanded its horizons, getting involved with communities in Jordan, Cameroon, Rwanda and Haiti. The focus of all the projects is to help bring about social change, tailoring the campaign for each country’s specific cultural constraints.

Whilst many see the sport as something for stars such as Wayne Rooney, Lionel Messi or Wesley Sneijder, it is in fact everybody’s. The view that football players are “overpaid idiots who cannot string a sentence together” is an ignorant one and offensive to all those who actually play football. The elite are just a tiny minority of all those who escape terrible realities in life through playing the game.

Senegal hosts an annual tournament in which local amateur sides compete, with a team for each district. The event celebrates local pride as well as bringing together a nation which is still (like so much of Africa) terribly poor. A former player in one of the local teams there described the event as “the best thing in the world” when I spoke to him earlier this year.

Schemes such as Mifalot could even be implemented into schools. If for two hours a week the very youngest children from both sides got together for a game, it might serve to rid the next generation of certain prejudices so that there is more understanding in the long term.

For all the negative headlines circling the modern game, it is still deserving of the word beautiful. American sports can be effective in helping areas of social deprivation in the US, and boxing is used for troubled kids in dangerous cities across the world. However, no activity (besides breathing) is as universal and as binding as football.

The dream is for Israel and Palestine to co-host the World Cup. At the moment it is nothing more than that, though perhaps the kids playing together today will one day welcome the rest of the world as team mates, not as opponents.

To learn more about Mifalot & possibly donate to what is not only a great but important cause, visit their website here.

Richard contributes to the Football Speak blog & GX magazine as their football expert.