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SPORTS-GERMANY: Taking the World Cup to the Streets

Maricel Drazer

BERLIN, Jun 22 2006 (IPS) - Excellent football does not require fancy stadiums or million-dollar contracts. That is the view shared by the organisers of the Street Football World Festival, to be held alongside the World Cup in Germany.

For the first time in the history of the World Cups, the first of which was hosted by Montevideo, Uruguay in 1930, street football is on the official agenda of cultural and artistic activities of the tournament organised by FIFA (the International Football Federation).

But in the alternative championship, football is used as a tool for communication and social integration for disadvantaged young people from around the world, and social aspects are given priority over competition.

Young people from every continent make up the 24 teams to play in the Festival, which will take place Jul. 2-8 in the West Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg, also known as Little Istanbul because of the district’s large Turkish immigrant community.

On their web site, the organisers, streetfootballworld, say “It’s all about the fun of football – and the good things about it: team spirit, global learning, and living without violence. It’s all about football as a cultural mediator and a medium for social development.”

“The sport is basically an excuse, a reason for us to get together; a fun reason and a popular excuse that is easy to put into practice,” Fernando Leguiza, the coach of Argentina’s street football team, told IPS.

The Festival is an initiative of streetfootballworld, a global network that brings together some 60 social football projects from around the world.

Whether they are located in Nairobi, London, Rio de Janeiro or Berlin, the street football projects all use the sport as a tool for the promotion of social development and peace, and as a means to fight violence, drug abuse, poverty or HIV/AIDS.

In the city of Mamfe in the West African nation of Cameroon, for example, the non-governmental organisation ELENA organises football matches among poor women, and holds talks after every game, on issues like HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, female genital mutilation, abuse of women’s rights, early marriage and teen pregnancy.

“This year’s World Cup is a platform for presenting the work of the local projects and of the network itself,” Jürgen Griesbeck, founder and managing director of streetfootballworld, explained to IPS. “What we are doing is celebrating the social dimension of football.”

The Festival is financed by the German Ministry of Culture, the German Football Federation, and several companies.

The participating teams are made up of young men and women between the ages of 16 and 21. The five-a-side matches will be played in a stadium that was specially built for the occasion.

In keeping with the spirit of the movement, not many other aspects are decided ahead of time, and the matches do not even have referees.

“Because this is street football, it obviously has its own rule, which is that it has no rules,” said Griesbeck.

“The rules that the participants feel like using are designed on the spur of the moment – depending on the place, the time, whether or not it’s raining, and how many people are around – just like they are on any street around the world,” he said.

For his part, Leguiza said “this playing methodology develops in young people the ability to engage in dialogue, and shows them that they can make decisions for themselves, without waiting for someone to tell them what to do. All of which helps boost their self-esteem.”

Jürgen Klinsmann, the coach of Germany’s national team, who is a strong supporter of street football, has stated that “If you’re out there playing football, you can’t be out there getting into trouble.”

One of the main goals of streetfootballworld is to “offer young people a chance to face each other without weapons and learn, through play, peaceful ways of resolving conflicts.”

The idea behind the project first occurred to Griesbeck in 1994, when he was a visiting lecturer on the sociology of sports at the University of Antioquia in the western Colombian city of Medellín.

In July of that year, Colombian footballer Andrés Escobar was gunned down after scoring an own-goal in a match in the World Cup in the United States. Colombia was eliminated from the championship as a result of that game, which the United States won 2-1.

“Street football is an excellent device for preventing violence, both individual and collective,” Juan Carlos Volnovich, a psychoanalyst and medical doctor from Argentina, told IPS.

“Its most outstanding aspect is its democratising effect,” said Volnovich, who has published studies on the relationship between football and society.

Social football projects also encourage participation by young women. In the games, players often decide that goals made by female players are worth double points.

“Football is my favourite sport. Although girls don’t usually play, I love it,” 18-year-old Evelyn García from Peru remarked to IPS during a practice game.

Nearly 200 youngsters from around the world will take part in the Street Football Festival in Berlin. For most, it will be their first trip outside their country.

“I never imagined I would experience anything like this, but everything is possible if you have a dream and work hard to make it come true,” Matías Luna, a 21-year-old member of Defensores del Chaco, which is representing Argentina in the street football tournament, told IPS.

“See, you don’t have to be a professional player to be in the World Cup,” he enthused.

Although the Street Football World Festival forms part of the official World Cup 2006 programme of activities, it has its own unique characteristics.

If professional football reflects a globalised market that has transformed the sport into merchandising, street football could be described as a spontaneous anti-establishment or mass anti-globalisation movement, said Volnovich.

“I have heard Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano say that the day that there are 60,000 people on the field and 22 in the stands, we will have a different society. Well, street football emerged for that purpose,” said Fabián Ferraro, director of Defensores del Chaco.

The second edition of the Street Football World Festival will be held parallel to the next World Cup, in South Africa in 2010.

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