With the recent events off the pitch taking more of the limelight than the action on the pitch at the UEFA European Championships, as well as growing uncertainty ahead of the upcoming EU referendum, it’s worth remembering the role that sport can play in tackling a number of these issues…
Two hours to the kick off of the most prestigious match in club football, the UEFA Champions League Final, and some 250 children are running off a convey of buses as a football appears from nowhere. Within seconds, a match has broken out in the car park with young children from the UK, Syria, China, Brazil, Algeria, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Japan, amongst others, all involved. One parking attendant pleads with them to stop in a number of languages. None of them listen.
In all, 32 teams of 12 to 14-year-olds from Africa, Asia, Europe and South America travelled to Milan for the fourth International Children's Forum as part of Football For Friendship, Gazprom’s large-scale social project, aimed at developing youth football and fostering tolerance and respect toward different cultures and ethnicities.
The Football For Friendship international children’s forum is an initiative by Gazprom, the Russian energy company that partnered with the UEFA Champions League ahead of the 2012/13, and aims to develop youth football and foster tolerance and respect for different cultures among children worldwide. The project is implemented within the Gazprom for Children initiative to support and promote its key values to the participants, including friendship, equality, fairness, health, peace, devotion, victory, traditions, and honour.
“It means that children value peace and friendship above all else, regardless of cultural and traditional differences," explained Alexey Miller, chairman of the Gazprom Management Committee. "Not only do boys and girls learn to respect one another, but also they themselves become the champions of fundamental human values. The Football For Friendship project helps them achieve that.”
Asked why the company invests in the project, Gazprom’s Vyacheslav Krupenkov (pictured below, left) commented: “The happy faces are fantastic, we love football and we want everyone to have a healthy lifestyle. That’s why we support this wonderful project.
“It’s important that the children participating in the project will transmit the nine values into their everyday lives. Along with this wonderful game, it’s very important for the next generation.
“We’ll continue our support next year, and I hope we can continue to grow this tournament far beyond the 32 teams currently involved. Football is a game for peace, no matter where you are from.”
From the UK, eight children from the West Ham United Foundation took to the skies, several stepping on a plane for the first time. The Premier League club’s foundation works with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and the players it chose for Milan included those who have grown up in the shadow of violence.
The Forum, taking place the day of the UEFA Champions League Final, culminated with the awarding of the Nine Values Cup, a unique prize presented to a professional football club for its achievements in social responsibility, with the final decision made by the Football for Friendship project’s participants. This year, the cup was awarded to FC Bayern Munich for its support of children with disabilities, its health care initiatives aimed at children in different countries, and its assistance to those in need.
Vladimir Serov, global manager, Football for Friendship, concluded: “Four years ago we started to develop an international social programme, and at the same time Gazprom became a UEFA Champions League sponsor. At that moment, the idea was to combine the two activities into one, to develop something that would focus on kids from a lot of countries.
“It’s a huge programme, and we faced many difficulties logistically in getting them here. For example Syria we faced many challenges. The kids had to receive their visas from Lebanon, so they had to cross the borders a number of times for applications and documents.”
For West Ham’s goalkeeper, 14-year old Elliot Wavika from Hainault, it was particularly emotional to meet the Syrian (pictured above) players: “It must be hard for them, how they have come straight out of a war zone and have had to go back. It is hard for them to forget about what has happened and play football, but it can help, too. Football gives them something to take their mind off what is happening in their country.”
West Ham’s side eventually lost in the last 16 to eventual winners NK Maribor from Slovenia after qualifying from a group with sides including Atletico Madrid and Inter Milan.