FIFA's Com-Unity project has been in existence since 2004, giving voice to the progressive point of view that football is much more than just a game and that teamwork off the pitch is just as important as on.
Ecuador is arguably the nation benefiting most from the initiative. In December 2005 the South American country opened its doors to Com-Unity not really knowing what to expect. But, as always, the football federation (FEF) was anxious to improve and develop the potential that football has to offer in society at large.
Ecuador offered the ideal stage to bring together high-ranking members of government, media, football administrators and personalities and sponsors. 2006 FIFA World Cup national team manager, Luis Suarez and standout midfielder Edwin Tenorio also played a big part.
Big names on board
One of FIFA's flagship benefactors is the SOS Children's village project, where so many young people are provided shelter, support and the tools to become contributors to society. English Premier League fullback with Reading and Ecuadorian national team star Ulises de la Cruz, through Com-Unity, signed on as an SOS ambassador and promised to contribute however and whenever possible to give a leg up to young orphans in his native land.
Up next stepped national coach Luis Suarez to sign on the dotted line as ambassador for UNICEF in Ecuador. And it didn't stop there as yet Edwin Tenorio, also as a UNICEF ambassador, offered up his services.
What was amazing was the fact that before Com-Unity, UNICEF had never ventured into Ecuadorian football, but now the new-found relationship has blossomed beyond everyone's wildest dreams.
National boss Suarez commented, "sometimes people involved in football only worry about what happens on the pitch and don't think about the social side of things. Many footballers come from humble beginnings and do not realise they have a chance to give something back to society. Com-unity opened my eyes and I was able to see that it was time to give something back"
Tenorio joined twelve other FIFA World Cup stars, including Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham and Ronaldinho, to record the MTV/UNICEF's FIFA World Cup message played at every finals match in Germany.
Other Germany 2006 players who lined up for Ecuador recorded local TV spots against child and sexual abuse, in favour of education and HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention.
Another of UNICEF's ongoing projects with the Ecuadorian FA is an 'all-star' game scheduled to be played at the start of the 2007 domestic campaign and serve as the first division's opening match. All proceeds will go towards helping young AIDS victims and promoting child education in Ecuador.
Through Com-Unity a local charity, JUCONI, involved in rescuing street children, were able to give a group of their kids the experience of a lifetime, when six of them carried the FIFA fair-play flag onto the pitch before a recent Ecuador friendly against Honduras. Also, fifty of the JUCONI kids were treated to a football clinic with former Peru legend Teofilo Cubillas - an experience they will not soon forget.
In many countries, money comes from the FAP (financial aid project) provided by FIFA as well as via government assistance. So, outside sponsorship is always welcome and the Ecuadorian Football Federation (FEF) were more than happy when Com-Unity brought them together with Coca-Cola. Through the Com-Unity project, Coca-Cola and the FEF signed a six-year agreement worth around 1.7 million USD. FEF General Secretary, Francisco Acosta, remarked, "we wanted to improve our relationship with Coca-Cola and through Com-Unity we were able to invite them to sit down to talk and participate. COM-Unity served as a bridge to solve a problem between both parties".
The Coca Cola/UNICEF/FEF relationship produced a bonanza when the 2006 FIFA World Cup match ball from the Ecuador v. Poland game was put up for auction via a TV phone-in competition. Suarez and Tenorio both made an appearance on the programme, where the ball was shown to viewers who could then call and enter the draw.
The cost of each call was donated to UNICEF's drive to help victims of the volcanic activity in the mountain regions, where thousands of people who had lost their homes, their possessions and livelihood. At the end of the day callers swamped the switchboard and the grand total reached 150,000 USD, money that will go a long way to helping the victims.
Efforts have continued and the next phone-in will be for an Adidas Teamgeist ball, signed by members of the 1958 FIFA World Cup champion Brazil side, including 'O Rei' Pele himself. The ball was donated to UNICEF by FIFA for the same cause, to help homeless victims in the volcanic Tungurahua region.
Where will this all end? There is a feeling that the momentum will continue and the FIFA Com-Unity heritage will leave an indelible footprint on Ecuadorian society.