The positive force of football

Usually, 18-year-old twins Mladen and Milan Mandic play basketball on the courts down by the Cehotina River in the town of Foca, Bosnia and Herzegovina. For an entire week in May, however, football took centre stage, with the first European Street Football Festival bringing together 24 youth delegations from across Europe. The Belgrade-based foundation Football Friends and FIFA’s strategic ally streetfootballworld organised the festival in Foca with the support of the European Commission and the Football for Hope Movement.

Up until less than two decades ago, Foca was the traditional host of a famous youth tournament for Yugoslavia’s most promising football players. A number of players from the 'golden generation' that triumphed at the FIFA World Youth Championship 1987 in Chile had displayed their skills at the town’s football ground. Sadly, the conflict that engulfed the region from 1992 to 1995 interrupted this tradition.

In 2005, ten years after the end of the conflict, the Football Friends foundation revived the youth tournament, bringing together teams from throughout the region and from various ethnic backgrounds. Since then, the tournament has attracted attention from as far away as the UK, resulting in the participation this year of a selection of U-17 players from different Premier League academies – a fantastic achievement acclaimed by the entire population. This year, the tournament was won by the Montenegrin club Buducnost after overcoming opposition from Red Star Belgrade, Groclin from Poland, Maribor from Slovenia, Zeljeznicar from Sarajevo, Rabotnicki from Skopje and the hosts FC Sutjeska.

A new artificial pitch
In 2007, a street football tournament was added to the U-17 tournament to further harness the power of football to bring together young people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. “We want to change the negative image of Foca and show that it’s possible for Muslims and Serbs to be friends, between themselves and with their European peers,” said Foca-born Zoran Avramovic, president of Football Friends and director of Red Star Belgrade’s sports marketing agency. “With Foca 08 we are showcasing that also in this part of the world football can make a difference – functioning as a common denominator for all the young people taking part.”

In 2008, with the support of the European Commission and the Football for Hope Movement, a new artificial pitch was laid adjacent to the existing football field to host the tournament. From 22 to 25 May, 12 delegations of eight street football players from across the Balkans and a further 12 delegations from all over Europe travelled to Foca to participate in this first-ever European Street Football Festival. The majority of the delegations represented development organisations that use football as a tool to achieve social objectives.

The twins Mladen and Milan participated in the festival not as players but as 'teamers', the guardians of fair play. Fair play is an integral part of street football as it is envisaged by the Football for Hope Movement and was integrated into each game and the entire festival. Prior to each game, the fair play rules are discussed, negotiated and decided on by opposing teams. In Foca, these negotiations were mediated by four pairs of “teamers” made up of one German and one local young person. During the game, their task is to oversee compliance with the agreed rules and intervene if necessary, but only as a last resort. In the absence of a referee, players themselves are responsible for calling infringements and resolving any disagreements through dialogue. After the game, both teams are brought together again to discuss how well the agreed fair play rules were followed.

“This is an exceptional event for Foca and it is important to create an environment of friendship and tolerance for each other,” says Milan. The twins visibly enjoy the festival and the attention they receive from the camera teams that follow them at every turn, filming documentaries about the festival.

A sad goodbye
The impact of Foca 08 is already being felt in other parts of Europe. Inspired by Rob Broomfield, the founder of the Hull-based organisation and Foca 08 participant Dads Against Drugs, the mayors of Hull and Foca have agreed to form a partnership between the two cities. Building on the tremendous support of Foca 08 by the local mayor Zdravko Krsmanovic and the excitement surrounding Hull City’s recent promotion to the English Premier League, the partnership plans to harness the power of football to bring the two communities together, strengthening links and creating friendships. Rob Broomfield is delighted with the initiative, stating “this is massive for Hull, particularly as it is a community often cut off from the outside world. We are looking forward to filling this partnership with life!”

Back in Foca, on the final day of the festival, some of the teams engage in the final knockout round with live commentary, music and coverage on the giant screen, while other young people organise friendly games, show off their juggling skills or play on the nearby basketball courts. Georgy Sole, the delegation leader for Sports dans la Ville from Lyons, France, explains: “At the beginning, we had to push and encourage the youths to exchange with the other delegations and overcome the language barrier. However, now, after almost one week in Foca, all of them will be very sad to say goodbye.” While it will be sad to leave, this exceptional journey will remain in the memories of these young boys and girls and will be the subject of many stories told to friends and families back home. Meanwhile, the work of the organisations represented in Foca continues, helping to ensure that Foca 08 marks the start of a wider European tradition for the development through football community.

The 24 teams
The participating teams at Foca 08 were Football Friends (Foca), Banja Luka, Gorazde, Mostar, Sarajevo, Trebinje, Ustikolina, Zenica (all Bosnia and Herzegovina), Fotbal pro Rozvoj (Prague, Czech Republic), Sports dans la Ville (Lyons, France), KICKFAIR (Stuttgart, Germany), Strassenfussball fur Toleranz (Potsdam and Poznan, Germany and Poland), Oltalom Sports Association (Budapest, Hungary), Sport Against Racism (Dublin, Ireland), Latvian Street Soccer Association (Riga, Latvia), Niksic (Montenegro), CAIS Association (Lisbon, Portugal), Football Friends (Kragujevac, Serbia), Balkan Friends (Skopje, FYR Macedonia), Sokak Ligi (Istanbul, Turkey), Street League (London and Glasgow, England and Scotland), Dads Against Drugs (Hull, England) and Nacro (Liverpool, England).