Can football play a part in kicking out poverty?

Updated Wednesday, 15th October 2008
How does sport play a part in the fight against poverty?

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Periodically football joins the fight against poverty, recruiting major stars to endorse its projects as in the fifth annual match against poverty in November 2007 between teams captained by Zidane and Ronaldo.

The aims of this game were to remind us of our collective responsibility in achieving the Millennium Development Goals to reduce world poverty, adopted in 2000 by 191 heads of government. The proceeds of the match went to finance projects in Africa, Latin America, Asia and parts of Eastern Europe.

In spite of its enormous popularity at the local level, can football - with its global image of overpaid superstars - make any contribution, to highlighting the problems of world poverty or even offering any kind of real material compensation? Aren’t any contributions which the sport might make on the global arena distorted by the size of the wages of Premiership players? Is there any scope for more heroic leadership by these players rather than merely celebrity status?

Emmanuel Adebayor

In 2008 the Togo and Arsenal striker Emmanuel Adebayor, BBC African footballer of the year 2007, made what he called his "Tour of Hope" back to Africa for the BBC World Service. Although Adebayor lives most of his life in the star-spangled celebrity field of international sport, he described his reasons for making the programme as follows:

I am a true son of Africa. …I hope to help young people receive the necessary attention, guidance and assistance that will empower and help them to fulfil their potential as productive citizens of Africa

On the World Service programme, Adebayor was at pains to focus on his role in promoting a more socially inclusive cultural citizenship:

I think a lot of people know me just on the pitch. They don't know where I come from and they don't know how I began. I put in a lot of hard work to be where I am today, but I'll never forget what it was like when I was young. Life was very difficult, and I told myself that I only had one chance to survive and that was to be a footballer... When I was growing up I had someone to help me, to give me something, and today I'm in a position to help others, so helping people is always a pleasure for me.

Is this the stuff of sentimentalised aspirations and dreams? The hopes of those selected by authentic talent scouts are also countered by the exploitation of trafficking which has grown in recent years.

However, Adebayor’s actions can be seen as more about his paying tribute to the place and the people who gave him his chances, and the desire to "give something back". His story also puts the poverty of his people onto the agenda and makes it public. He chose the BBC World Service for his tour of hope, rather than the commercial enterprises preferred by many celebrities. The impact may be marginal, but it is part of the process.

The role of celebrities, however honourable, is very much in contrast to the small scale ventures that characterise interventions. One such very different project is that of Shepherd Food, a local project which links farmers in Lincolnshire with those in Nigeria through a church organisation. The aim is to promote sustainable farming to combat poverty - but there's a spin-off, too.

That spin-off is Football - only a small part of what the project does, but one which recognises the powerful appeal that sport has and how it might play a part in engaging with everyday life.

For example, one disabled group begs for alms in the morning and plays soccer on Saturday evening at Lekan Salami Stadium, Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria.

It is very different from the big match in Malaga with nearly 30,000 spectators; or from a major star’s journey of hope back to his roots, but it is part of the process. Maybe we need them all and sport can be part of the fight against poverty - because sport, like poverty, is a big part of life for huge numbers of people.

 This blog is part of Blog Action Day 2008: Poverty




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