The first of a two part article looking at the transformational powers of football.
Girls giggled as they chased around the round ball so many of us have come to love. A shot rifles between two cones that have been designated as the goal. The whistle blows. Shouts of joy escape the lips of the girls as they run to congratulate the scorer. I could be describing a normal game of women’s football happening anywhere on the planet but I am not.
Pan out a little from this scene and you will see that this is taking place in the shadows of the booming mountains of the Himalayas. This is a small game of girls football taking place in Gilgit, Pakistan. The participants are dressed in their shalwar kameezes, their dupatta’s flow in the wind as they glide around the pitch. Here I am witnessing something that is somewhat unique. Women's football is no stranger to Pakistan. There is a women’s national team, although they do not play often and rarely enter tournaments. There are even youth teams. But, most of this takes place in the southern portion of Pakistan and in the large cities of Islamabad and Lahore. I am in the far North, just hours from the border of China. Here women don’t play football. Gilgit is a mix of conservative and liberal muslims, but a degree of conservatism rules supreme in the overall culture. Walk the streets of the market and you will see very few women, until you enter a walled off, more liberal area. So you can appreciate that in this area this is somewhat unique.
My friend had asked me to come and help coach for the day. This is the day I truly began to believe in this idea of football being able to transform communities and bring hope into areas where it is a rarity. Standing on its own this was nothing more than some organized coaching and games for girls. There was nothing else attached to it. But, to me, it showed the sheer power and potential of football. To these girls this game was sending a message loudly and clearly. That, in the words of the poet L’oreal, you’re worth it! They’re worth the time of an English football coach visiting Pakistan and an American teacher who organizes these classes. They’re worth spending a few hours on a Saturday with the sole purposes of having fun and teaching a game. In a society like Pakistan this is a powerful idea to teach young women.
I first began to think about the potential for transformation through football whilst I was visiting Kenya and Ethiopia 7 years ago. Africa loves football, this is no secret. It lead to some very interesting experiences for me. From paying 10 shillings to watch Chelsea vs Manchester United on a small TV, in a crowded room in the marketplace to being chased by wild dogs walking to the cinema to watch a Champions League game in the middle of the night. Those were all fun and unique experiences but I learnt something more about football on that trip.
There is something quite striking about being in the middle of a large slum, seeing absolute poverty, malnutrition and rampant disease but still finding a game of football. It’s then that you discover there is truth in that old cliche about football being the global game. When you drive to the last small little village on the road on the edge of the African bush and find locals gathered around a TV watching the African Cup of Nations you know it. When you off-road deep into the valleys of the Himalayas and discover school children chasing around a round ball of trash bound together with cheap rope you know it. You know that football is global. Astonishingly global. Maybe even more global than Coke-a-Cola.
With that audience comes incredible potential. I realized in those moments playing football in the slums that perhaps football could change the world. But I wasn’t sure if I fully believed it. 5 years later in Pakistan coaching those girls, and after running a football camp for 20 boys, I realized that I think it might be true. I decided that the best way to discover just how true it is would be to find out how different people are using football to bring positive change. In this article and a follow up article we’ll review some of the people and charities I found.
But first a quick story from a Nike Under 17 International Friendly tournament. It’s the final between the USA and Brazil. The US have a freekick about 10 yards in from the corner flag. A decent cross is floated in, the ball is contested close to the penalty spot and loops out toward the far post. There awaits Rubio Rubin, who has the audacity to try a cheeky overhead flick volley that beats the Brazilian goalkeeper at the near post. He wheels away, his joy and excitement evident to all. This is Rubio’s first goal at this level and he’s just scored against Brazil in a final. That’s a pretty magical moment for a footballing youngster and one that most of us can only have dreamed of. Of course Rubio is full of hope that he’s career will hold greater moments than this. He wants to play professionally. He has had his heart set on playing in Europe since he was a kid. It’s too early to tell just how far he will make it. The signs are promising. rumours are already stirring of tryouts at European academy’s. Maybe Rubio Rubin is a name we will hear again. Maybe it’s a name that will appear on the hallowed pages of IBWM in the future.
Rubio’s story is one to which I have a personal connection. Its a very small personal connection; but its one that many people share. It began in 2007. When I walked into PGE park to attend a football game. I strode down into section 107 and as I entered the little tunnel my ears filled with noise. Drums beating and loud continuous chanting. The game wasn’t starting for another 30 minutes. I hurried excitedly down the tunnel anxious to exit it. As I did I beheld the Timbers Army, Portland Timbers famous supporters group, for the first time. It literally made the hairs on my neck stand up. I was instantly taken back to the few years I attended standing games in England. The atmosphere was electric. The noise coming from these few sections was unreal. Everybody on their feet, everybody chanting. I fell in love with the Portland Timbers that night and have been attending games as often as I can. It was the Timbers Army that drew me in. But I hadn’t even began to discover what I consider to be the best thing about the Timbers Army. I love the great game day experience they create, their passion for the game and the sense of community that exists within the army. But what I love most is their commitment to charity within the Portland area. It’s been a part of the identity of the Timbers Army for years and has grown stronger and stronger. It’s one of the things that makes me proud to be a member of the Timbers Army.
Such is the commitment to the pursuit of community development amongst the Timbers Army that they registered their own charity in 2010. As the supporters began to prepare for their looming debut in the MLS the need for greater organization arose. Out of this need the 107ist was formed. It's activities are not limited only to community development projects, a large part of its responsibilities include the funding and creation of TIFO's, banners and other aides which add to the famed atmosphere the Timbers Army create. However, the 107ist does pride itself in its work within the community and many of its projects are football focused. Last year the 107ist was responsible for $40,000 in donations to local community projects. Including over $10,000 for Youth and High School Soccer programs and $2,000 for improving local football fields. They also gave out several thousand in sports scholarship.
Some of that money went to Rubio Rubin. Rubio is a local to the Portland area. Fernando Xavier, a board member on the 107ist, heard of Rubio’s selection for the USA U17 team along with a challenge it presented his family. There were requirements to be in the squad that would take significant financial investment. This is something they just couldn’t afford. Rubio was endanger of seeing a tremendous opportunity fade away. For the 107ist this was just to good an opportunity to turn down. A promising local football star in need of some help. It’s this kind of thing the 107ist was made for. It’s really the kind of thing that footballing charities around the globe dream of. Helping to discover the next star. An underprivileged kid with footballing talent that we can elevate to the stardom he deserves. Making the next Ronaldinho-esque rags to riches story. Rubio’s story is inspiring and it’s a wonderful contribution from the 107ist. But for the majority of projects there will be no such story. That’s where these charities have to get down into real life and ask how they can help transform the lives of everyone that comes through their programs regardless of how talented they are.
AC Portland, an official partner charity of the 107ist, is a charity that does just that. With the surging popularity of football in the Portland area in the lead up to the Timber inaugural MLS season there was opportunities to launch football programs throughout the area. AC Portland was developed to bring together two existing campaigns, America SCORES and US Soccer Foundations Soccer for success, endorsed by Adidas America. The idea was to use the footballing hype to bring these programs across the city. Both programs serve low income youth and offer educational enrichment and mentoring in addition to football skills advancement. Soccer for Success teaches kids about both football and nutrition while offering them mentoring relationships that help them to gain confidence in their abilities and provide them with the social and academic support that many participants do not receive at home. America SCORES combines football, poetry, and service learning curricula to help participants develop skills in a variety of areas while learning more about themselves and about their community.
The primary goal of AC Portland is to use football as a means of improving both the lives of program participants and the Portland community at large. America SCORES and Soccer for Success participants receive programming 4 days per week, which keeps them active, healthy, and engaged in a positive and stable after-school activity. Both programs are inclusive and focus on helping all participants to develop positive life skills, not just those who entered the program with football talent. When I talked with Rebecca Armitage, program coordinator for AC Portland, one thing she emphasised was their attempts to make their programs sustainable. Sustainability is an area were many sports charities fall short. AC Portland creates sustainability by focusing on bringing as many outside groups and individuals in to play as possible. If you can make a program simple, reproducible and sustainable you are well on your way to success. That is exactly what a saw when I attended one of AC Portland’s day camps. In fact I was inspired to replicate some of the things I saw in future charity camps I might be running. Something that inspires others and can be replicated possesses much more potential for transforming communities and even the world.
One organization that is trying to change communities across the globe is Soccer Without Borders (SWB). SWB was founded in 2006 to address three critical issues facing young people in underserved communities throughout the world:
1. A lack of safe spaces where young people feel cared for, have a voice and can experience the joy of sport.
2. A lack of opportunity for youth to actively explore social issues and community challenges.
3. A lack of social capital and access to potential opportunities for education, employment and personal growth.
Founder Ben Gucciardi launched SWB in 2006 while completing his Master's Degree in Global Educational Leadership at Lehigh University., where he also played NSCAA football. The innovative curriculum at his school helped him develop the idea and support from within Lehigh provided the infrastructure for the idea to take root and develop into a full non profit. Over the past two years, SWB has grown considerably, both in terms of new locations and by expanding the opportunities available in our current programs. SWB operates it’s full programs in Nicaragua, Uganda, Oakland and Baltimore. It’s also operated it’s shorter term programs in Egypt, Guatemala, South Africa, Argentina, Zambia and various locations across the United States. There are plans to add a new programs immediately in Boston and Los Angeles. Following that, they have had significant interest surrounding new international programs in Haiti and or Colombia, as well as interest in a new domestic program in Chicago. It’s fair to say they are using the global nature of football to their advantage!
SWB runs three types of programs: Core, a year round program of at least 3 days a week. Seasonal, at least 26 weeks and 1-2 days a week, and Camps, at least 12 hours of programming. All programs use football as the platform, but combine football playing and instruction with team-building and community responsibility and integration, off-field workshops, and cultural exchange opportunities. Mentors are utilized and creating a positive peer environment is seen as essential to allow youth in their programs develop the skills they need to pursue their goals in football and beyond.
SWB workshops are designed to be culturally relevant and age appropriate. Workshops have taught on issues such as HIV awareness, resume writing, the college process, entrepreneurship, women in leadership, sexual health, nutrition, and hygiene. When running their programs SWB seeks to integrate the local community in as many ways as possible. They utilize local resources seeking to find leaders from within the community. This is a crucial principle for charities, particularly if they work internationally, as it enables them to bridge the gap to their audience and breaks down barriers. Football itself partially does this due to it’s multicultural nature but there is need for more than just that. The less barriers there are between the charity and it’s participants the greater the impact it can make.
I asked Mary McVeigh, executive director of SWB, what she considered to be one of their greatest success stories. She told the story of their journey with girls football in Granada, Nicaragua. 4 years a go women's football was virtually unheard of. There was barely enough funding in the city to support the football programs running for men and so the women were overlooked. The general landscape of the city is often bleak for women in general. Their education is less valued and the career prospects slim. Over the course of the last 4 years, SWB in Granada has specifically targeted girls in the Granada community, challenging some of those barriers locally and supporting the growth of women's football in the country as a whole. Last month, SWB Granada graduated it's first girls out of the program, young women who will now serve as coaches, role models, and mentors for the younger girls while pursuing their higher education and career goals. It has taken time but SWB has changed the lives of women in Granada and is well on it’s way to bringing transformation to the community as a whole. If it can happen in Nicaragua one most ask can it happen anywhere? Can football really change communities? Or change the world? We’ll look at some more excellent charities from across the globe in the next article as we seek to answer these questions.
Andy is on Twitter @andyyax