Soccer for Peace

by Robert R. Selle

The match was no different from hundreds of others going on at the same time around a soccer-obsessed world. The sweating, panting players focused with Zen-like concentration on the ball, their teammates, their footwork, and their strategy. As they lost their sense of self, becoming one with their group, the team itself became a single organism that functioned to drive the ball into the beckoning net. The referees likewise became absorbed in the game, focusing on the ebb and flow of the players and their adherence to the rules. In the same fashion, a host of onlookers peered raptly at the play, breathless with excitement and bursting at times into paroxysms of cheering.

The match took place in Yaoundé, Cameroon, last October and was part of a string of soccer tournaments around the world, together called Play Soccer Make Peace (PSMP). The PSMP strategy sounds simple: find at least eight teams in each of even the losing teams a significant sum (by developing-nation standards) so they can build up their soccer clubs and spread the PSMP principles. The whole program is supported by a $1 million grant from the Sun Moon Soccer Foundation and is administered by the World Association for Non-Governmental Organizations (WANGO).

"Play Soccer Make Peace has been initiated as a means to bring unity among the youth soccer associations in forty-four different countries," says PSMP director Robin Graham. "It is designed as a model that can be used by NGOs to teach the youths of various cultures the basic skills of the sport, along with a foundation of ethical behavior and sportsmanship. An emphasis is placed on creating a culture of peace through teaching the principles of faith, discipline, teamwork, and respect for the opponent."

A referee for the PSMP tournament held in Mongolia agreed. "The Play Soccer the selected nations, train them in the Make Peace idea," says Ch. Sharkhuu, PSMP tenets of peace promotion, set "requires from players a high standard up a knockout tournament in which of morality and provides them with the eight or more teams play, and pro-education toward becoming people of vide a substantial purse that awards goodness. We referees enjoyed working in this tournament's warm atmosphere of peace and unity."

The program takes advantage of the fact that the world's favorite pastime is soccer, commonly called football by most of humanity. Seemingly, no matter where there are young people - with the glaring exception of the United States - there is a soccer ball and an exciting pickup game happening or just about to happen. This is the case in the dusty refugee camps of Lebanon, upscale new neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, and jungle hamlets in Thailand. No matter where one goes, soccer turns heads, stops conversations, causes breath to catch, and stirs hearts like virtually no other activity.

Soccer knits the world together

Every four years, the world sets aside its work and tunes in to the World Cup on television and radio. Much routine activity almost ceases as people are carried away by the thrill of soccer competition among the best teams on Earth. While the annual Super Bowl causes America to stand still, the World Cup is like a month of Super Bowls for the rest of the world.

As the world champion among sports, and perhaps the Earth's only (nearly) universal game, soccer is a natural bridge between cultures, religions, races, ethnic groups, and nations. Which is why the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Sun Moon Soccer Foundation, felt moved to harness this globe-spanning force in the service of promoting peace and reconciliation. Moon - who has said bringing peace on Earth is his life's calling - has frequently remarked upon the peacemaking potential of soccer.

Soccer's track record for peace around the world and through history (see sidebar) suggests that its potential has just begun to be tapped. Unlike other soccer tournaments, in which the only elements tend to be competition and prize money, PSMP events are additionally geared toward teaching principles and cultivating attitudes.

Football's morality

All participating teams must agree to a code of conduct and go through a brief training session. The players are taught the following principles, which PSMP defines as inherent, though often unrecognized, moral tenets intrinsic to the game.

Humanity is a family under God. The fact that soccer is enjoyed by all the world's peoples - rich and poor; illiterate and lettered; black, white, yellow, red, and brown - suggests they all have a common essence deriving from a single Source. It's a small step, then, to the notion that God is a parent who created all people as brothers and sisters. From this, it follows that everyone is actually a family member to everyone else. PSMP believes that with such an understanding-lived in one's daily life-real peace can dawn.

Personal responsibility. In soccer, each player must strive through self-discipline to contribute his or her strengths to the team and overcome individual weaknesses. In addition, each player must play a position and avoid usurping a fellow player's role. Thus the players experience a sense of peace within their own hearts and minds as they perform their jobs well.

Self-control.In soccer, players improve their mind-body coordination and learn to have better self-control, both on and off the field.

Respecting and relying on others. In soccer, players use teamwork and learn to value each other. This teaches them to exercise humility and to appreciate all human beings with whom they interact. From practicing teamwork, they learn how to commit themselves to a cause and to be reliable and loyal members of a group.

Maximizing joy in life. When team members play well together, there is harmony and great excitement. Players should challenge the world to share that joy, to join with them and make peace.

Training in the PSMP principles typically is carried out in a one-day session, either with coaches and managers alone (who then convey the principles to the players) or with coaches, managers, and players together.

"The Sun Moon Soccer Foundation," says Graham, "has initiated Play Soccer Make Peace to support the vision of its founder that the world of the future will be a culture of heart, in which all races, religions, and nationalities will live together in peace and harmony. By promoting soccer and teaching youth the principles of teamwork, self-control, and respect for their opponents, Play Soccer Make Peace seeks to create a foundation for true world peace."

Excitement engulfs Gaza

One example of PSMP's success is the tournament held in Palestinian Gaza. From the start, the idea of the competition galvanized not only coaches and soccer club managers but also the youths themselves. Their response quickly garnered the cooperation of the Palestinian Football Association and the Ministry of Sports and Culture. After fierce jockeying for tournament slots, sixteen teams, with over three hundred "under nineteen" players, were chosen to participate.

The timing was very significant for the people of Palestine, as well as for the additional theme of the tournament, namely, honoring and inheriting the late President Yasser Arafat's legacy. The tournament began during the forty-day mourning period for Arafat, who died November 11, and the final game was played after the mourning period but the day before the presidential elections.

"The tournament involved representatives from all the main groups in Gaza," says Stephen Gabb, PSMP director for the area. "It demonstrated perhaps for the first time that these diverse groups could cooperate for a peace-promoting event."

Gabb believes this series of sporting events may have helped set the tone for the forward-looking, peace-oriented foreign policy that newly elected Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pursued in the months following his election. For one thing, Gabb says, a big impact was made by Moon's "founder's address" at the tournament's opening ceremony, which declared the inauguration of a new culture of peace. The speech was movingly delivered in both English and Arabic in the Palestinian Stadium in the middle of Gaza.

The very important next step was to explain the principles and guidelines for the games to the team coaches, managers, and players. The referees also made it their job to ensure that the players followed these rules. In fact, teams received financial penalties for violating the norms of fair play - and were rewarded for excellence in adhering to them.

Hurdles and thrills

"Even though the Palestinian Football Association has been in existence for more than ten years, this tournament was the first time that such a diverse array of teams was brought together and that such a large tournament was organized," says Gabb. Now, however, Palestinian government recognizes the importance of such events, and it will actively seek to organize future soccer competitions for their peace-promoting potential.

Every country that has put on a PSMP tournament thus far has had to surmount various hurdles, some small and some huge. One of the greatest challenges in producing the Gaza events was the "closures" between the different areas within the territory. Israeli military checkpoints split the Gaza Strip into three sections. If the authorities decided to close them, then the teams could not have reached the stadium to play the games. Therefore, the PSMP organizers had to bring in the team from Khan Younis, for example, the night before and put the players up in a hotel to ensure that they would be there to compete in the final.

The play in all of the PSMP tournaments around the world was invariably marked by edge-of-the-seat drama. In Gaza, for instance, the teams that reached the final were Khan Younis and El Helal. (El Helal won in a nail-biter.) The teams were 1-1 all the way until the final two minutes. Then, in a corner kick, a defender touched the ball with his hands. The resulting direct penalty kick hit the side-post of the goal, causing the score to remain tied at 1-1.

Each team had five direct kicks at the other's goal, which ended in two additional goals apiece. Finally, there was a one-on-one. The first player missed, and the second made the score. The two teams were so evenly matched, everyone felt, that in a way it was sad for one to have to lose at all.

"As far as the future is concerned," Gabb says, "there is tremendous interest in soccer here. I'm sure this tournament would be welcomed as a regular event. We need to hold one in the West Bank also, as there are many teams there, but the teams cannot travel easily between the two places at the moment."

PSMP elsewhere

The Play Soccer Make Peace program is making a splash in many countries around the world. In India, for example, eighty teams participated in the tournament. Because of the country's huge size and the just-launched nature of the PSMP effort, the teams were drawn from just one locality, Goa. Nonetheless, the program had a significant impact in terms of promoting religious harmony. Even though Hinduism is India's largest faith by far, there is enormous religious diversity in the country.

"The Play Soccer Make Peace program has helped bring many people together," says Sadguru Parwadeshwar Maharaj, India's PSMP coordinator. "People of all religions were united for this program. They forgot all their differences as they celebrated this sports festival. The important thing was that the youth were involved. This sends a message to the world to be united and bring peace." Additionally, Parwadeshwar says, the program promoted harmony and a spirit of unity by serving several meals to as many as twenty-five thousand people during the tournament.

Not every country, however, has been conquered by soccer. In the tiny South Pacific island nation of Palau, for example, it is not at all well known. But the worldwide PSMP organizers wanted to see if their approach would work even in such soccer-less surroundings. Right from the start, the program received a warm welcome from the authorities, because it was directly in line with Palauan efforts to keep the nation's youth healthy, peaceful, and free of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.

Even though, as of this writing, the tournament hasn't taken place, the preparations for it have knit together members of Palau's diverse population. Under the forces of globalization, the native populace has become mixed with Mexicans, Canadians, Bangladeshis, Filipinos, Indians, Koreans, and Chinese. PSMP is teaching all of these groups how the moral principles inherent in the game can be applied in daily life.

As one small example of soccer's power to create social harmony, Palau PSMP director Daryl Lund tells the story of a Chinese teenager who showed up at one of the practice sessions. "He stood on the sidelines, alone," says Lund. "He wasn't fluent in Palauan or English and could not communicate well with any of the kids. One of the coaches, a Nigerian, tossed him a ball and asked if he wanted to play. Without hesitation, he was dribbling the ball up the field, displaying skills that were no less than remarkable. All the kids wanted him on their team. Now this individual is no longer alone; he is learning Palauan and English, thanks to his friends and coaches of the Play Soccer Make Peace program."

The tournament in Mongolia was distinguished by the awarding of "green cards" - perhaps for the first time in soccer's history. Standard practice is for referees to hand out yellow cards and red cards to players who break rules, incurring penalties. Yet in an effort to inculcate the PSMP principles into the entire soccer culture, including players, coaches, managers, and fans, the Mongolians introduced the green cards as rewards for exemplary sportsmanlike behavior.

"For the first time in Mongolia," says Sharkhuu, "we noticed that when players committed a foul, they apologized to each other and the referees. They helped and supported their opponents and each other. And after every game, they said ‘thank you' to the opponent team and the referees' table."

N. Battulga, one of the coaches, chimes in, saying, "The PSMP program contributes a lot to children's moral education, which is vital in today's society. They respect and love each other more, even their opponents. They become considerate in their style of playing without sacrificing aggressiveness. This is a great contribution for the nation's peace."

The PSMP tournaments have also brought a greater sense of unity between people of different social and economic classes. In Kenya, for example, "a new chapter in soccer was unveiled through Play Soccer, Make Peace," according to Frederick Wakhisi, PSMP coordinator for his nation.

Twelve teams of "under eighteen" players participated in the Kenya tournament, including one called the Drug Fighters (Kibera) Football Club. Kibera is a slum area in Nairobi, the nation's capital. The soccer club is involved in promoting awareness of drugs and their dangers.

Another participant was Prisons Football Club, made up of youths from prison staff families. Yet another was the middle-class, suburban South C Football Club, distinguished by its interracial membership that includes both African and Asian players. The other teams were all-African and middle class.

"Were it not for this tournament, they might never have met," says Wakhisi. "Play Soccer Make Peace acted as a bridge, thus promoting peace. Through the tournament, racial barriers were broken, as were social-economic barriers, making the players one family."

At the end of the tournament, Mada Youth Football Club emerged as the winner (receiving a team prize of $2,500), with Highrise Football Club the runners-up ($2,000 prize). Third place went to Prisons Football Club ($1,500), while AMREF Youth Football Club was number four ($1,000). The teams that came in fifth through eighth were awarded $750, and the remaining four won $500 each.

The coaches and coordinators say that the real prizes might very well have been the education the players received in the PSMP principles and the experiences they had of vibrant, barrier-breaking human interaction. Such prizes, they say, are deposited into a generous bank account that can be drawn on again and again, making life rich for family, society, and nation.

Robert R. Selle is a writer and editor based in Bowie, Maryland.

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