Titular noticias

Peace Cup: a round dream for peace and football

Domingo 18 Marzo 2012

Top flight teams, disabled, immigrant, youth teams, women's teams and international teams meet every two years for the Peace Cup. The goal is to bring back the original spirit of international competition, where confrontation between nations are fought out exclusively in the sporting arena.

By: Cristina Ávilla-Zesatti – Corresponsal de Paz
Translation:  Andrew Rynham
Pictures: Peace Cup

For referee Francisco Jesús Ballesteros Prieto, the most difficult match he has had to oversee came in Andalusia. It was a meeting between two football teams with players of severe disabilities who didn't fully understand the rules of the game: “I was blowing the whistle but they didn't listen and just carried on playing, I had to go and get the ball myself and put it down where the foul was committed (…) it was difficult but I really enjoyed it, for personal reasons and sporting ones”.

This Spanish referee has almost 17 years experience on the football pitch and has overseen many matches in spite of not being an 'official' referee. The reason? He himself is also physically disabled and mentally ill, because of this, he was refused the relevant qualifications in spite of his demonstrated ability to referee football matches.  

In April 2009, the tournament 'Goles por la Paz' (Goals for Peace) allowed teams, that would normally find it impossible, to come up against each other in football grounds all over Andalusia: immigrants, senior citizens, people with physical and mental disabilities, and the bright young hopes of football. Ballesteros Prieto refereed 7 of these games without earning a single penny. The tournament was the warm-up for the Peace Cup, and the original idea achieved its expectations by making dreams come true for those sportsmen that the 'normal world' often leave neglected.

A unifying dream that uses a ball

The Peace Cup started in 2003 just after the FIFA World Cup in Korea and Japan (2002), and is actually just one of the many activities of the Peace Dream Foundation, although almost certainly it is its main project. From the money that the Peace Cup brings in, the Foundation is able to support the other social initiatives it represents, all sport related and always directed at the most disadvantaged places in the world, and it doesn't matter if the cause is war, natural disasters or poverty.

The reverend of the Church of the Unification, Sun Myung Moon, is the founder of “Peace Dream” and although the idea's objectives have already transcended borders, the Peace Cup always used to be organized every two years, solely, in South Korea. The 2009 edition was the first one that took place in a European country with 12 top class teams playing, as opposed to 8 teams in the previous years in Asia

“To create peace through football is our main motivation, because it is a key sport practiced almost all over the modern world, this makes it the perfect vehicle to bring hope and union to the most desperate places on our planet”, said Alejandro Moon, Assistant to the International Division of the Peace Cup 2009, in an interview with Peace Correspondent.

It is undeniable that football nowadays is - also but most of all - about putting on a show, signing multi-million pound contracts and earning lots and lots of money. The organizers know this, and given that the rest of their social projects rely on the money made from the Peace Cup, the teams chosen are the main attraction for the tournament and those that attend, are the leading teams from this passionate sport.

Juventus, from Italy, Atlante, from Mexico, Al-Ittihad, from Saudi Arabia, Fenerbahçe, from Turkey, Celtic, from Scotland, Liga de Quito, from Ecuador, Porto, from Portugal, Aston Villa, from England, Seongnam, from South Korea, Olympique Lyon, from France, Málaga and Seville, from Spain and to give it the golden seal of approval, Real Madrid. All of these teams represent a guarantee of a high level of the art of football to be displayed on the pitch.

To see these teams play together is exactly the main pulling power for the Peace Cup that helps them sell 600,000 tickets, transmit the matches into televisions in 130 countries and exploit the marketing of products in order to be able to contribute to, and so, celebrate the other social projects that the Peace Dream Foundation supports.

If the luminaries play.... maybe something will get noticed on land.

The indisputable star of the Peace Cup 2009, after receiving tough criticism for their investment policy of signing several of the most expensive players in history, all signed in the middle of a global economic crisis, can't be any other than Real Madrid. In order to assemble the latest line-up of “galáticos” they have spent in excess of €200 million on the likes of Portuguese striker Cristiano Ronaldo and Brazilian midfielder Kaká.

Politicians, ex-players, rival clubs and even the Vatican have declared themselves horrified at the astronomical figures being reached by the prices, wages, transfer fees and revenues in football.

The international press often enthusiastically reports these “success stories”, but in football, as in real life, for every happy ending there are hundreds of darker stories going on behind the scenes. They aren't looking for glory, but for a bit of sporting dignity and most of all, human dignity.

These 'other' stories are precisely the goal-posts where Peace Dream Foundation is looking to score some well-aimed goals. Goals that wake the ambition inside and the opportunities for the current and future players in the developing nations. Nations that are home to a lot of the current footballing stars.

There are plenty of examples, although most aren't well known. Does anyone ask themselves what happens to football in a nation embroiled in armed conflict?

The Iraqi national team, now in ruins after long years of war, was on the verge of taking home an Olympic medal in Athens just a year after being invaded by coalition forces in 2003. A bittersweet and heroic triumph, now forgotten.  

Adnan Harnd (Baghdad, 1960) currently manages the Jordan national team, but in 2004 he was the Iraqi coach for that moment of poignant glory. Today he talks of the conditions in his country he eventually abandoned:   “Iraq was always a strong, top level team in Asia but when the war started everything went down the drain (…) the war has not only destroyed the country physically but also everything that existed there, and everything that was done there. Football, therefore, also disappeared. They destroyed our stadiums, our teams, everything. You can't imagine how a footballer can exist in the middle of a war zone.  You're surrounded by occupation forces that stop you from living your normal life”, says Harnd 

This footballing story of looking to succeed through hardship is not unique. In early 2009 three members of the Palestinian national squad died in heavy Israeli bombardments that killed more than 1,400 people in less than two days.

Fate wanted that, just a couple of days beforehand FIFA (the international governing body of football) had commended the Palestinian Football Association for their work in maintaining their high footballing standards in spite of their continuing state of emergency due to the conflicts and for contributing to the construction of the first stadium in the West Bank that meets international standards. Later, during the heavy Israeli bombardments, these installations were severely damaged.

How many people know the story of Fabrice Noël? A star player, born in the troubled country of Haiti and, after being a victim of blackmail, saving himself from death via the clutches of a powerful fan from a rival club and having his two older brothers died in a bloody reprisal from said character, had to flee to the United States. There he sought asylum and worked as an immigrant before he was discovered by a coach in the US.

Few people know these cases where it is difficult to separate the sporting and human elements and still they find themselves buried under the publicity avalanche of “the great football luminaries”. These few fortunate souls have not only managed to escape the daily grind but have also been hoisted to such a level that they seem almost immortal.

Show or not, the social game must continue

If we imagine the world as an enormous football ground where the teams playing are North vs. South, any referee would give a red card to the global situation: economic inequality, at least 30 ongoing conflicts, ecologic crisis, financial and hunger crisis and as an added bonus; discrimination, inequality between the sexes and much much more. However, not everything is plagued by “foul play”, and the Peace Cup has emphasized stories that deserve to be rescued, imitated and most of all: supported. This is their ultimate goal.

There is, for example, the Guber Srebrenica. A team managed by the Bosnian muslim coach Jusuf Malagic, whose squad (according to the Peace Cup’s description) deserves to win an award for their multi-ethnic co-existence. Serbs, muslims and Croats make up the squad which must be a titanic struggle when taking into consideration the fact that former Yugoslavia was victim of one of the worst conflicts of recent times. With deaths numbering 200,000 through campaigns of “ethnic cleansing” affecting the diverse groups that lived at that moment in the country… a country that now stands divided in fragments.

In New Zealand, Wynton Rufer was voted one of the top 100 footballers by FIFA and was three times the Oceania Player of the Year. Now he coaches the young hopes of tomorrow at his own football school, Wynrs (a play on the word 'winners'), among his alumni you can find children from poor backgrounds, children of immigrants or political refugees for whom the ex-player provides personal support and looks personally for sponsorship so not to cut their careers short.

“At the moment we have 450 kids between 8 and 16 years old, some from Somalia, Afghanistan or Iraq. My job, apart from training them, is to look for assistance to be able to bring the best talent here and then take them abroad to compete”, said Rufer.

The world recognizes the distinctive Brazilian style of “joga bonito” with the names of Pelé, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and the latest edition, Kaká. While Brazil has been converted into the incubator of the best geniuses in football, few people know that this 'birthplace of the stars' discovered the relationship between football and social conditions, many years ago.

It has already been a decade since Brazil organized the 'Campeonato de Comunidades Carentes de Rio de Janeiro' or more commonly known as the 'Tournament of the Favelas'. 'Favelas' being the rundown shanty towns that exist in many cities throughout Brazil, with children between 11 and 18 years from these areas coming to compete.

Thirteen years ago, also in the Rio area, the installation of 300 pupil strong football schools started. This initiative now comprises of over 600 different districts. In the years that it has existed the program has seen 1.5 million children pass through its ranks, children that have found, in football, an alternative to the life and the violence of the streets.

Peace Dreams, very real, very peaceful dreams

Although football, like all competitive sports, is steeped in confrontation and rivalry between clubs, the reality is that its unifying ability is tried, tested and considerable.

Bora Milutinovic, a world renowned Serbian coach and new technical director of the Iraqi national team, has no doubts about the peaceful abilities of football:

“When Iraq won the Asian Cup it was party time for everyone; Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds. Everybody watched the game together, your religion or ethnicity didn't matter (…) football also shows its caring side”, states Milutinovic, “by earning money through the matches and other charitable events to help the most needy”

Didier Drogba, elite goal scorer for Chelsea, was born in Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast). Here is a clear example of the moral power that a star footballer carries in a country that lives on broken dreams. 

On more than one occasion, a single word from Drogba has achieved everything that 11,000 United Nations troops couldn't: bring peace to, even if for just a few days, the forces that have been competing for power in Côte d'Ivoire for more than 5 years. In fact, Drogba's successes on the field are celebrated by both factions in the war that has claimed the lives of thousands of civilians, especially women and children, according to the reports from several international organizations.

Therefore, with these examples and others so very similar, the founders of Peace Dream Foundation and the organizers of the Peace Cup recognize the enormous possibilities that they could find with the peaceful employment of a sport that is played by almost the entire world.

According to Alejandro Moon, Assistant to the International Division of the tournament, thanks to the dividends of the past Peace Cups in 2003, 2005 and 2007 in South Korea they have already helped up to 10,000 people through different partnered projects with UNICEF and other UN agencies, just as with their own 'peaceful football' initiatives.

Currently, the Peace Dream Foundation is carrying out programs like: 'Sports for Peace', which are sporting activities that take place in deprived communities throughout the world. 'Way of the Champions' is centered on football coaches so that they themselves are the ones who instill values in their students; the trial laboratory is being carried out in Jordan with 30 coaches from the country. The 'Peace Dream Cup' is a tournament organized in developing countries looking to strengthen cultural ties and is being carried out with the help of ACNUR, the agency for UN refugees.

At present, 'Peace Field' is probably their newest and most ambitious program, whose mission is to construct football stadiums on the frontiers of conflict zones so that they can serve as a meeting place between the young people of the warring factions. The first 'peace pitch' is currently being implemented between Israel and Palestine and is taking shape gradually due to the prevailing situation in the area. The oldest conflict of our time, with more than 60 years of troubles, is not to be taken in vain.

A peace ball, outside the playing area

The 2009 edition of the Peace Cup took place outside Korean borders for the first time. Andalusia, Spain, was chosen from various European candidates to be the European home for this international tournament and will bring together 12 of the best clubs in the modern footballing world for this exhibition.

The event was televised privately in more than 130 countries, hoping to obtain close to €6 million, which will then be destined for the diverse projects of the
Peace Dream Foundation.

Teams invited also ‘fight peacefully’ for a €2 million prize for first place, while the second placed team will receive one million Euros and the semi-finalists half a million each. Not inconsiderable amounts for some of the teams involved. Furthermore, their players will have displayed pride in the notion that their art could later transform into tangible humanitarian aid with sporting overtones.

Nelson Mandela, the South African leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner once said: “sport has the power to unite people in a way that few other things can. Sport brings hope to where there had only been desperation, it breaks racial barriers, it laughs in the face of discrimination.... sport speaks a language that the entire world can understand.... it is one of the most effective forms of communication in the modern world.”

To break barriers and influence the destiny of some of the thousands of millions that play on the pitches of the world is precisely the goal of the Peace Cup. The same cup that let Francisco Ballesteros officiate despite his disabilities and not being recognized by an official refereeing association, denying his entrance into “the world of stars”.

Francisco Jesús Ballesteros Prieto, who suffers from cerebral palsy and a motor impulse control disorder, does not hesitate in saying that “the current barriers are, most of all, social and attitude”.

Meanwhile, he will continue fighting so that disabled referees can have their own space in the footballing world, for the moment, his participation in the Goals for Peace tournament means that he has completed a small part of the big dream of  recognition because they have “been brought together in the game”...

This is the main goal of Peace Dream Foundation: whoever wants to play football can do so, in a world disputed only on the football pitch, not in war, where rivalries last only 90 minutes and the differences between one another, are defined by their abilities in the playing area... because precisely,  the world peace is something very serious to play with it.

Corresponsal de Paz - © Copyright 2012

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