The best summers have football at the heart of them

Watching the FIFA World Cup is inspiring for all sorts of reasons, says Fatima Al Shamsi.

Ever since I attended my first World Cup in 1998 – my face painted orange as I cheered the Dutch team during their semi-final defeat and felt my first devastating heartbreak as Brazil lost to France, the hosts, in the final – it has been clear to me that the best summers are World Cup summers. I can’t help but feel that during those precious weeks when the tournament is in full swing that the sky is brighter, the sun radiates a little more and the stars sparkle with a certain joie de vivre.

Some might argue that I am biased, seeing as I am an obsessive football fan at the best of times, but football lover or not, nearly everyone gets involved when the World Cup comes around. This proves that not only is it the most wonderful sport, but it gives me hope that humanity can actually set aside its differences and come together to bond over temporary allegiances to teams.

Although groups of friends and households are sometimes divided in loyalties, this is just a healthy exercise in coexistence as people learn that friendly rivalry and conflict can easily be navigated over large quantities of food and hours in front of the television screaming.

Fifa’s mission is to “develop the game, touch the world, build a better future”. The idea is that football does not have to be just a sport but can be used as a vehicle to promote virtues such as peacebuilding, health, social integration and education. I am a huge proponent of sport being integrated into development programmes, especially those catering to the youth. Whether it is included in programmes aimed specifically at children in low-income communities or for those who are more privileged, I believe the real magic of sport is the way it can transcend socioeconomic circumstances to convey life skills that we all, no matter where we come from, could benefit from.

First and foremost, it is accessible to anyone. All you need is a ball and some friends. In reality you do not even need some friends, football is a great way to meet people. During my first week of university, I developed a great friendship with a group of PhD students who invited me to join their game when they caught me glancing over longingly. After that, it became part of my Wednesday evening post-class routine. You don’t even have to speak the same language to watch or play with a group of people. In my experience, you can always find a friend or friendly foe to share the 90 minutes with. During the 2006 World Cup when I was in Havana, I was rescued on a solitary afternoon from a group of elderly locals who asked me to join them for the infamous Netherlands versus Portugal game.

It is true that the game has resulted in instances of nationalism, racism and even once “started” a war when a riot after a game between Honduras and El Salvador resulted in the 100-day Soccer War. But more often than not I believe that sport can be a means to bring people together and act as a diplomatic tool. In 2005, footballer Didier Drogba, surrounded by his teammates, fell to his knees in the dressing room on live national television after the Ivory Coast qualified for the 2006 World Cup and asked the warring factions in his country to lay down their weapons. Within a week a ceasefire was issued.

We have seen this happen on several occasions. In 1914, during the First World War Christmas truce, English and German soldiers left their trenches and played a match. In 1967, troops in the Biafran war arranged a three-day truce so they could watch Pele play an exhibition game. Today, it has become increasingly popular to use football in war zones to strengthen community ties and boost security.

In the UAE, we already have a great love for football and we can use that love to incorporate the sport into youth education initiatives in order to combat idleness, increase awareness of healthy lifestyles, instil sportsmanship values and develop team-working skills.

We can capitalise on the existing interest and the increased sports facilities that have been built around the country in the recent years to use the sport to its full potential.

To some, the World Cup might just be another sporting event, but to me it’s the best time ever and comes and goes far too quickly.

Fatima Al Shamsi is an Emirati who recently returned from New York City after pursuing a master’s degree in Global Affairs at NYU

Published: May 29, 2014 04:00 AM

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