Giving youth its chance


"This gathering was organised for young people and it was important to do something for them. Above all because it heightens awareness of the problems of children, not just European children but other children who often lead very different lives from those that we lead here in Europe."

The above speaker is not a politician, a social worker nor a priest but rather a soccer coach. In this particular case, the coach in question is AS Roma's Fabio Capello and he made the above remark after he and the Roma squad had attended the first major appointment of the Holy Year 2000, namely a Jubilee gathering for children attended by more than 150,000 people and presided over by Pope John Paul 11 in St Peter's Square on Sunday.

Along with star players Francesco Totti, Brazilian Aldair and Vincenzo Montella, Capello and club president Franco Sensi participated in a ceremony that focused attention on underprivileged children of the developing world. Not only did the Roman club turn out in force but owner Sensi also contributed more than $270,000 to help secure the liberation of 200 "soldier-children" from Sierra Leone.

Speaking after the ceremony, the Roma clan made no attempt to hide their emotion with owner Sensi admitting: "This was a wonderful day and one that will be impossible to forget . . . Roma football club is proud to have taken part in an event of this importance and to have contributed to the scheme."

All very well, you might observe, but what has all the this to do with soccer? Much, we would argue.

Foremost in this new calling has to be the world's most popular sport of all, namely football. For if one thing is true about association football, it is that it has been, is and will continue to be much, much more than just a game. A business for some, a passion for others, an obsession for many, football can reflect and express the most widely diverse of cultures, beliefs and political systems.

In Football Against the Enemy, one of the most readable and fascinating football books ever written, author and researcher Simon Kuper visited 22 countries from the Ukraine to Argentina, from Cameroon to Scotland, from Botswana to Brazil and from Lithuania to Hungary in search of answers to two deceptively simple questions: 1, how does football affect the life of a country? 2, how does the life of the country affect its football?

Wherever Kuper went, after he had explained himself and his mission to players, directors and managers, he was often met with the same intriguing response: "Football and politics! You've come to the right place here."

Whatever about the answer to the second of Kuper's questions (a question initially envisaged as relative to a country's playing style), we would argue that the time has come for football to start paying rather more serious social dues in relation to the first question. In many countries over the world, football has a huge capacity to affect the life of a country in a positive manner.

Predominantly, as on Sunday in St Peter's Square, we are talking about developing-world countries. Until now, it has often been thanks to the isolated action of one individual that the footballing rich of the west have raised a socially responsible head. Liberia and AC Milan striker George Weah, for example, runs a soccer school in his native Freetown where, he claims, even if no star players are produced, at least a number of kids are guaranteed one meal per day while they train.

As Roma's involvement in Sunday's Sierra Leone initiative may be one-off. Here's hoping, however, that as soccer moves into the next millennium, such initiatives become commonplace expressions of football solidarity from the affluent north to the underprivileged south.