Football Beyond Borders
| Sam Bailey |
As Gabriel Kuhn so eloquently articulated in the last issue of STIR, football is more than just a competitive sport, and if we look beyond the multi-billion-pound football ‘industry’, with its widespread corruption, celebrity players, excessive consumption and clubs run as multinational businesses, then there are still many examples of football as ‘the people’s game’, using the power of football for a positive social cause.
Football Beyond Borders is one attempt to do just that. The broad aim of the organisation is to use football as a tool to cross the constructed national, racial, social, political and religious boundaries which separate us, and to try to build bridges between various communities, which could then be used to promote positive social actions, and to champion education and understanding. It is an entirely student-led project, with an informal organisation that is designed with the intention that anyone can get involved and be empowered to generate a project or champion a cause.
The idea was first hatched in 2009 when Jasper Kain, who was captain of the SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) football team at the time, decided he would like to take his team on a football tour with a difference: one that addressed a very current issue by interlinking the politics of the university with those he held personally, through the lens of his major passion in life – football.
At the time there was much in the press about a potential invasion of Iran by the so-called ‘Allied Forces’, and a lot of the media scaremongering portrayed Iranian citizens as religiously fantatical haters of the ‘West’, hell-bent on the ‘Islamification’ of the world. However, the Iranian students he sat with in his lectures, and the larger Iranian community in London, painted a very different picture. They are, of course, normal people who enjoyed many of the same things he does, including football. And so the idea was born to take 15 student-footballers out to Iran, to play games against Iranian universities and community clubs, and to make a film of their experiences whilst there in order to attempt to go some way to redress the narrative balance around Iran and young Iranians, using the global language of football to connect with their peers, form friendships, and bridge cultural divides.
However, in a twist that would become typical for Football Beyond Borders’ projects, the summer of 2009 saw mass upheaval and protests in Iran, which followed the disputed elections of that year. Thus, the team’s visas were rejected, and the plans were scuppered. Luckily though, there was a back-up plan in place, and a tour of Lebanon, Turkey and Syria was instead arranged. Whilst there, the team played games against eight different nationality groups, including Iraqi and Palestinian refugees, and Kurdish separatists in the Kurdish region of East Turkey. Although the four weeks spent in each other’s company proved testing for the personal relationships in the team, and the narrative of the resulting film was not what they had intended, the idea was borne, and the underlying message was felt to be a positive one.
In 2010, the new SOAS football captain Toib Olomowewe took up the project. With his West African heritage and interest in the educational and developmental state of the region (as outlined by the UN’s Millenium Development Goals a decade earlier), he decided to take the group (some of whom had been previously involved, some of whom hadn’t) to Nigeria, Benin and Ghana. However, the road was this time blocked by a university chancellor in Nigeria, who at the last minute decided to withdraw the university’s involvement (and offer of accommodation and hosting). The Ghanaian leg was accordingly expanded and revised, and whilst in the region the team held cultural and educational exchange sessions with Ghanaian students and local communities, and worked on the ground with grassroots education-based NGO’s and charities, even helping to build new toilet blocks (in traditional Ghanaian style of course!) at a newly-built primary school.
With two years’ experience behind us, and with a dedicated core of people who were passionate about the potential of sport to be used for positive social good, 2011 was the biggest year for Football Beyond Borders. In July, Football Beyond Borders returned some of the gracious hosting they had received whilst abroad by holding their first-ever international football tournament. University sides from Egypt, Turkey, Uruguay and Finland were joined by two University of London sides to participate in a ten-day programme of events that revolved around cross-cultural exchange, student activism, community engagement and shared friendship through football. During the event we collaborated with other student projects, homeless and community centres, and charities for events, talks and workshops to run alongside the sharing of meals and experiences, and the football tournament itself.
In September of the same year, Football Beyond Borders embarked on its most ambitious project yet: to cross one of the most jealously guarded borders of our time, and enter into Palestine. The four-week project saw 18 students travel first to Cairo, where we linked-up with students who were involved in the revolutionary movement there, and worked with post-Mubarak movements and charities that aimed to use the opportunity to improve some of Cairo’s most impoverished, discriminated-against and neglected communities.
From Cairo we originally intended to travel to Gaza via the Rafah crossing, but unfortunately once again our intention was thwarted, as Israel laid siege to Gaza, bombing the citizens there for two weeks straight. Egypt reacted by closing the Rafah crossing, and, in a ludicrous turn of events, by bombing its own side of the border (a nation bombing its own people), in the hope of destroying the tunnel systems which are so crucial to Gaza’s survival. This was followed by the storming of the Israeli embassy by the Egyptian people.
It was on this note that we headed covertly to Jerusalem, via the Egyptian-Israeli border. With a multiracial team that included Middle-Eastern and Arabic players, as well as many players with passport stamps from Syria and Lebanon. This was no easy feat! However, after 6 hours in detention at the border, we were finally allowed through, and entered the West Bank via Jerusalem to be the first ever football team from the United Kingdom to play in Occupied Palestine.
During our time in the West Bank, we interacted and worked with universities, youth and cultural centres based in the refugee camps of Balata and Dheheish, and in the village of Farkha, and played some incredible games against local Palestinian teams who humbled us all with the strength of their welcome. Unfortunately it was all over too quickly, and we moved on to Jordan where we saw the true scale of the Palestinian refugee problem in the Middle East. A film was made of our experiences, which is due for release in March. Similarly to the first Football Beyond Borders project, we hope that this film, alongside the work we have been doing back in London since our return, will go some small way to redressing the narrative balance with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian ‘conflict’.
Since we have returned from the Middle East, we have pursued multiple goals. The first of these is to share our experiences of Egypt, Palestine and Jordan. We have held talks in universities and at Occupy London, with more scheduled for this spring, and we have redeveloped our website and will be updating it with blog posts, essays and photos from the trip. Photo exhibitions and workshops are also planned for March and April. And most importantly, the documentary film of the tour will be released in March, with screenings across England and Wales, and (hopefully) a television release to follow. One member has also set up Occupy FC, an informal group who bring footballs to Occupy London and to protests and marches, with the aim of creating unity between protestors and breaking down social barriers. It is amazing how an object such as a football can so instantly break down social barriers, encourage communication and integration, and create a sense of solidarity, with people’s reactions very visibly more relaxed and happy when around a ball that is informally being passed around.
Another major area of focus for us since our return has been the organisational structure of Football Beyond Borders, and its longevity as a student-driven project. For many of those who have been involved with the project (including myself), Football Beyond Borders has been a large part of the transition from fairly apathetic or uninspired student-footballer to a more politically engaged life. Others in the group are already extremely politically engaged, with some who are very committed activists. Whilst out in the Middle East, we joked that we had created the ‘perfect society’ amongst ourselves, with sharing roles and responsibilities, and all major decisions made only via consensus decision-making, usually after very long (and sometimes heated!) debates.
We have carried this on to an extent since our return, forming an interim ‘steering group’ to make sure that ideas get converted into actions. Another focus of this steering group has been to formalise our organisational structure, because although the informality of the past three years has served us well, it is an unsustainable model that has only worked because of the peculiarities of our group, and the fact that over the course of three or four years in university, we have had a sense of continuity running through the projects. With this coming to an end, and with our scope and ability to execute successful actions and projects increasing, we have decided to attempt to protect what we have built so far with a more formal structure – though we are very aware of the constrictions this can bring, and throughout our meetings have aimed to avoid rigidity of approach, and to keep the sense of collective ownership over the organisation.
We hope that by doing this we can expand into areas that we have so far neglected, and address issues that we have so far failed to engage with. The most glaring of these is the gender issue, which we have been confronted with on many occasions. We are at the moment a group of 20-30 young men, quite evidently not bridging the gender boundary. This is something that we are working towards addressing with our coming projects, and we hope that by formalising general meetings we will be able to invite a much wider selection of people to become involved with Football Beyond Borders, including women, non-students and local community groups in London. The ultimate aim would be to create a body which anyone feels they can approach with a potential project or cause, which they can then use as a resource and tool to empower themselves into making their idea a reality.
A recurring theme that has consistently been a source of positivity and strength for Football Beyond Borders is our shared desire to find ways to overcome difference and embrace commonality. The participants of Football Beyond Borders, past and present, all represent very diverse backgrounds and cultures; almost everyone has a connection to British culture, but everyone has another important dimension to their identity, such as language, national heritage, race and language. Since 2009, the Football Beyond Borders teams have included an eclectic mix of over 20 different national backgrounds, several religions and races, and multiple language speakers. The liberal notion of ‘common humanity’ may seem a platitude to some, but the unifying effect that football and compassion is something that, for me, (and we hope for many of the people who have been involved or come into contact with Football Beyond Borders in some way) is hard to deny.
What we must avoid, especially with our projects based abroad, is to fall into a neo-colonial power relationship whereby we impose an imported hegemony upon the communities we are supposed to be working with, and this is an issue we are very aware of and which caused hours of debate in the Middle East. However, I feel that by being aware of and addressing this potential issue, and more importantly, by being careful in our consideration when designing our itinerary and reacting to the sentiments of the local agents, we have managed to avoid this. However, many of us feel it continues to be a problem with the work of many NGO’s and developmental organisations.
One such example of this is in a game we played in Manshiyat Naser (also known as ‘garbage city’), which is a slum on Cairo’s outskirts. Though there are thousands of inhabitants in the area, the Mubarak regime chose to continue dumping Cairo’s rubbish in the community, which had very little infrastructure and almost no facilities (the one youth club and doctor’s surgery had been closed, though it has now been re-opened by the Nebny Foundation, with whom we were working). However, they did have a crumbling, small-sided concrete pitch, which we used to play extended, mostly informal matches against the local youth and adult teams, with the scores not counted, substitutes made continuously, and the teams mixing throughout the day. The community formerly had a club that competed in the Egyptian national league, but other Egyptian teams had refused to enter the area 20 years ago, and the club was expelled from the league. The intention of our visit was a demonstrative one: by using existing (somewhat false, at least with regards to our group) stereotypes of European footballers, we hoped to show that the community need not be feared and ostracised – after all, if a touring English football team are willing to play there, why shouldn’t a local Egyptian team?
Lining the pitch were hundreds of local kids who had come to watch and play with the resting footballers on the side of the pitch, and hearing of our visit, Egyptian actor Khaled El-Nabawy also came to join in the game, attracting local media attention to the cause and the work of the foundation. In this case, Football Beyond Borders as an entity could be co-opted by a local organisation, in order to be used as an empowering tool with which to champion their specific local cause, and the relative novelty of us being there was a useful tool to mobilise media and political support. It is in this arena that I think the project is most useful and politically relevant, and it is the direction in which we hope to progress in the future.
Sam Bailey is an MA student from London, currently studying Photography and Urban Cultures at Goldsmiths University. He has also worked for and with a variety of charities, student projects and youth organisations, primarily focused around access to education and providing sport and youth services to disadvantaged young people. He has been working with Football Beyond Borders for over two years and was the joint project leader of Football Beyond Borders: London 2011.
You can keep up or get involved with Football Beyond Borders by visiting www.footballbeyondborders.org, subscribing to their Twitter @FBeyondBorders, ‘like’ their Facebook, join their mailing list by sending an email with “mailing list” in the title to email@example.com.
You can support Football Beyond Borders and the making of their documentary film Over The Wall by joining their crowdfunding effort at Sponsume. According to FFB it “is about much more than just a football tour. Shot during enthralling times they capture several events that made front page news back home. By documenting the team’s personal experience, the film provides a humane insight into these events which are rarely found in the media. These young people express their opinions on the changing world around them and display increased awareness as a group eventually coming to find a political voice.”