Fair Game: Good Sporting Ideas for Integration

March 28th, 2014


Italian club AC Milan was playing a “friendly” exhibition match with lower league Pro Patria in early January of 2013 when their star player Kevin-Prince Boateng became the target of a crude display of racism from the stands that included monkey noises, taunts and finally a banana thrown across his path.

As in the past,  Boateng ignored it at first. But then something inside him snapped. He kicked the ball in the direction of his tormentors before storming off the field — followed by his teammates. Boateng later stated: “I decided to walk off the pitch because I said to myself, in this kind of environment, in this situation, I don’t want to play football anymore.”

The game may have been over, but Boateng’s protest was a tipping point that led to a raft of reforms to combat racism in football.

Beautiful game or racist quagmire?

At the upcoming International Cities of Migration conference in Berlin, two prolific thinkers will weigh in on this game-changing event and the larger question of racism in professional sport: is professional football powerless to end racism.

To help you address this unsettled question and prepare for a thunderous debate between Sunder Katwala,  Director, British Future in London, and David Goldblatt, author of The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football, we’ve selected some Good Ideas from around the world that use the power of sport to ease the process of migration and integration.

In Auckland, New Zealand, soccer is used to help young refugees connect with each other and to the wider community. The Refugees in Sport initiative was started in 2006 by Refugees As Survivors (RAS), a non-profit refugee mental health agency.

Believing that sport has universal appeal, RAS made soccer its tool of choice. Through soccer RAS helps refugees overcome some of the barriers that can prevent them from participating in community life, such as language and cultural differences.

“Soccer… has its own culture. It has its own culture and it doesn’t need [a specific] language. You can play on a team,” says Dr. Arif Saeid, Community Services Manager for RAS. “It’s a point of integration. It helps refugees get more involved in the community. And it helps them with better settlement.”

‘Universal language”

The same sentiment holds true in Munich, Germany. “Precisely because where silence reigns, football [soccer] is a medium where understanding is possible,” says Rudiger Heid, Buntkicktgut co-initiator and project manager. “Buntkicktgut,” which translates loosely as “colourful kicks well” or “fancy footwork,” is the name of the intercultural street football league in Munich. Founded in 1996 by two social workers at a refugee home as a means to promote integration, today the program includes over 150 teams with approximately 1,500 players.

Buntkicktgut has achieved national and international reputation as a model for successful and purposeful integration work. It has also become a “social tourism” landmark of Munich and its network has spread in Germany. International collaborations are in place in Switzerland, Austria, UK, Poland, Serbia, Cameroon, Togo, China, Lebanon and Iraq.

Language can also be actively used to overcome cultural barriers and need not hinder participation of immigrants in the activities of host societies. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is using Punjabi, the fourth most spoken language in Canada, to expand the fan base for ice hockey. By expanding the franchise of its iconic Hockey Night in Canada program for obvious business benefits, Punjabi Night in Canada also helps new immigrants to culturally connect with the mainstream. People like Raj Singh, who emigrated from India and now works at a small IT manufacturing plant in Mississauga in the Greater Toronto Area. For Singh, “watching and understanding the Saturday night hockey game gives me something in common to talk to my colleagues about on Monday mornings – it makes me feel more at home and a part of the group.”

The success of the Punjabi broadcast has led to CBC to televise Hockey Night In Canada in Mandarin, too. Jason Wang, who provides the Mandarin commentary, remembers how, newly arrived from Taipei at the age of 9, he used to watch the program to improve his English. Now he will be the one helping new Chinese-Canadians improve their knowledge of hockey and become better acquainted with Canada’s national pastime. “It has all come full circle,” says the young Vancouver journalist.

Leap of faith

Acknowledging the changing demographics brought about by immigration has also helped an Australian-rules football team, nicknamed Kangaroos, rebuild itself after suffering financial difficulties mainly caused by its inability to grow the audience.

When a 2006 fire destroyed part of the historic playing field belonging to the North Melbourne Football Club, the Kangaroos began a new effort at rebuilding its identity.

The challenge of how to recruit local support to redevelop its facilities into a new training centre quickly morphed into a more strategic conversation about how to make the project relevant to the local community.

Soon, with support from foundations and the provincial government, the Club was able to build a Learning and Life Centre as part of the redevelopment. Now known as The Huddle, it includes a classroom, a multi-purpose court, meeting rooms and a lecture theatre. The programming is not just about football, but has a much broader focus to engage the community.

Hope you are inspired by the ideas we shared above. You can join our debate in Berlin by sharing your thoughts on sports, in particular football, being an instrument of good or a quagmire of racist politics.

Score with your points of view!

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