As the World Cup prepares to crown its champion, millions of viewers will gather in front of television screens, cheering on their favorite players. Frenzied and flashy, the Cup is a giant party, with elaborately face-painted spectators and supersized stadiums.
But behind the glamor lies a simple game that youth advocates believe can motivate young people around the globe to change their lives for the better.
Soccer can help youth deal with everything from trauma and isolation to a lack of job skills. It can provide an emotional outlet for youth in war-torn or disaster-struck regions. It can build bridges of peace and respect between ethnic groups. Best of all, it can help young people develop the leadership and teamwork skills they need to become community leaders.
With 341 million youth in the developing world not in school, employment or training, the sport offers an accessible, fun way to build important skills, like cooperation and determination, while connecting youth to positive mentors and supportive communities. When young people do not get this support at the right time, they are more likely to stop pursuing education, marry at an early age and join extremist groups.
Mercy Corps has used sports to support youth in more than 25 countries. Tailored to match each community’s needs, the “Sport for Change” program has reached over 50,000 youth, providing emotional healing for Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, natural disaster recovery in Haiti and Japan, and social bridge-building in Kenya, Somalia, Sri Lanka and the West Bank.
Let’s dive into four examples of soccer in action:
First and foremost, soccer connects youth with adult mentors. For Haitian children living in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that killed 316,000 people, these relationships offer a safe and supportive space to work through painful emotions and memories.
Fifteen-year-old Renaldo lost his home and saw his friends die in the earthquake. Two years later, he was still living in a one-room tent with four other family members. Before joining the Mercy Corps soccer program, Renaldo was angry and aggressive, and often ran away.
“I wasn’t comfortable because I wasn’t at home,” Renaldo explained. “I was scared. I disrespected everyone around me.”
Mentor Franz Francois -- “Coach Franz” -- couldn’t change what Renaldo had been through, but he used soccer to help the teen begin to experience his life differently.
“Coach Franz showed me not to be angry,” Renaldo said. “He encouraged me to be a better person, to listen to those around me, to be patient. He made me realize why I need to do well in school.”
Soccer’s structured environment helps youth build their teamwork skills, but the learning doesn’t need to stop there. The game can also be a way to share health information and combat discrimination.
In Haiti and Liberia, Mercy Corps has paired soccer with HIV education. In Liberia, HIV/AIDS prevalence is estimated to be 1.5 percent among 15-to-49-year-olds, relatively low compared with other sub-Saharan countries. But poor access to treatment and extremely high levels of stigma create a climate of fear and confusion about the disease.
Armed with additional training, coaches in Liberia dispelled rumors and helped young soccer players learn how HIV is transmitted and treated. At soccer tournaments, participants shared what they learn by putting on theatrical dramas about HIV/AIDS for their community.
The program emphasized the importance of using condoms to prevent the spread of HIV. Inspired by the program, Victoria, a participant from Tojilallah village, crossed the border into Cote d’Ivoire and brought back hundreds of condoms to distribute in her community.
Soccer also offers youth who have perpetrated violence an opportunity to relearn how to handle conflict. For Colombia’s former child soldiers, regaining a positive place in society depends on their ability to move away from violence and create new communities of support and affirmation.
In the last 50 years of civil war, armed groups have recruited thousands of children. Malleable and inconspicuous, children are often used as spies and bomb planters. Soccer can help these young soldiers relax, play and grow their self-esteem. By providing a positive and stable community, soccer may also reduce the chance that youth will join armed groups in the first place.
“Soccer has an incredible unifying force that creates a healthy and fun outlet for youth to connect, build their confidence and lead positive change within their communities,” said Maria Fernanda Cruz, a Mercy Corps program manager in Colombia.
When civil conflict falls along ethnic lines, the healing potential of soccer is even greater. The disputed 2007 elections in Kenya sparked multi-ethnic clashes that left 1,500 people dead and thousands more displaced. Young people made up 70 percent of the participants in the violence and tensions still run high.
To encourage tolerance and dialogue, Mercy Corps created soccer teams in Kenya that mixed youth of different tribes together. Coaches and trained facilitators helped the young people bond over a common purpose and address the distrust and hurt they felt towards one another.
Soccer made a difference. After one year, 89 percent of participants agreed that the program improved their ability to resolve conflicts. The participants also said they felt more willing to cooperate with members of other tribes.
This strategy of pairing soccer with multi-ethnic bridge building has also been used by Mercy Corps in Sri Lanka and Kyrgyzstan.
Every four years, the World Cup reminds us just how many people get a kick out of soccer. For youth hurt by violence, disaster and poverty, the fun of playing the game also helps them heal and create a better future for themselves and their countries.
In a world where more than 73 million youth are unemployed and armed groups rely on youth participation, soccer can heal, teach and keep kids safe. It is a fun game with enormous potential.