Football may never have been more popular or widely enjoyed than
it is today, but it could also be argued that the standing of the
game's elite players has simultaneously plummeted to an
all-time low. In many countries, certainly, footballer-bashing has
become almost as popular as the beautiful game itself, with cynics
quick to dismiss the stars earning five and six-figure weekly
salaries as extravagant egotists intent on milking the ordinary fan
for their own gain.
Yet despite the negative headlines, few players fail to take seriously the responsibility of utilising their wealth and status for a greater good. Most , in truth, prefer to keep secret that aspect of their private lives, whether their good deeds extend to ploughing vast amounts of their own time and money into charitable projects or simply visiting wide-eyed fans in local children's wards.
There are, however, certain cases so spectacular that they simply cannot escape the headlines, and others where the publicity generated by the player himself is essential to maximising the effectiveness of the work being carried out. A fresh example emerged only last week, when Ghana and Fenerbahce midfielder Stephen Appiah unveiled his own self-designed clothing range, all proceeds from which are to go to the long-established StepApp foundation, a charity that works towards providing health insurance and medical facilities in some of Africa's most deprived areas.
Fortunately, Appiah merely typifies a breed of African players who, despite finding fame and fortune in Europe, have never lost sight of those they left behind in hardship. In Nigeria, for example, the Joseph Yobo Charity Foundation has seen the Everton centre-half hand out over 300 educational scholarships not to mention establishing a football academy in the country's Ogoni region.
Kanu, meanwhile, is arguably almost as famous for his philanthropic work these days as he is for his football, having spent over seven years cultivating the hugely successful Kanu Heart Foundation. Inspired by his own brush with death due to a hearth defect, the Portsmouth striker - who is also a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF - has arranged for over 1,000 children (250 last year alone) to travel abroad for live-saving surgery. "I will always be involved in the foundation," he has vowed. "Even if you save one life, that is a lot, so to do 250 in a year... that means more than winning trophies."
Social responsibility in South America
African footballers may provide an ideal starting point when looking at charitable footballers, but if there is another continent that stands out just as proudly in this respect, it is South America. There are, in fact, simply too many outstanding examples to list in this region, and they range across all nations from some of the continent's lesser-known players to giants of the modern game such as Ronaldo and Ronaldinho.
The former's work with Zinedine Zidane to promote the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is now legendary, of course, while the latter returned to his roots in Rio Grande do Sul last year to set up the Ronaldinho Institute, aimed at educating underprivileged children through sport. "I know what it's like when life is not easy; to suffer, and that's why I'd never turn down an opportunity to help," said the Barcelona icon, who was raised in the Vila Nova barrio of the Porto Alegre. "I am conscious of where I came from and will always think of these people."
Ronaldinho's coach, Dunga, and a great number of his international team-mates are also heavily involved in similar activities, with Gilberto Silva championing the charity Street League, which uses football to help the homeless in work the Arsenal midfielder describes as "priceless". FIFA.com has also previously featured the Leonardo and Rai-inspired Gol de Letra Foundation, which employs 70 people to help improve the lives of 1,400 disadvantaged children in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro through education.
Highly-developed social consciences are not restricted to Brazil, however, with Colombia's Cologne-based goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon overseeing the establishment of a football academy in his hometown of Cali that provides sporting facilities and social education for over 100 youngsters. In Argentina, meanwhile, Javier Zanetti has set the highest of charitable standards, first setting up the PUPI foundation to provide impoverished children with education and nutrition, then linking up with Inter Milan team-mate Esteban Cambiasso to establish another charity, Leoni di Potrero, aimed at helping youngsters with social difficulties. Zanetti, who is also a FIFA ambassador for the SOS Children's Villages project in Argentina, has said this of his work: "There must always be values at the heart of sport. I've always believed that our public actions need to take account of our social responsibility."
It is also impossible to detail footballers' good deeds in South America without acknowledging Ecuador, where Ivan Hurtado has set up a foundation in Esmeraldas that shelters over 150 homeless children, and Ulises de la Cruz has funded projects ranging from a water treatment plant to a health centre in his own village of Piquiucho. Clarence Seedorf too deserves a mention for funding schools and sports centres in Brazil and the country of his birth, Suriname, through his foundation 'Champions for Children', with the Dutch international insisting that he wants to "make a difference in the world for the better".
Seedorf's decision to look Suriname rather than the comparatively wealthy Netherlands, where he first made his name, is entirely understandable, and the privileged position many European nations enjoy tends to mean that charitable work of the old continent's footballers tends to be less headline-grabbing. There are exceptions, however, such as Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given, who has raised over £2 million for Cancer Research, and fellow Irishman Niall Quinn, who donated every penny of his £1 million testimonial proceeds to charity.
Tottenham Hotspur, meanwhile, lead the way in terms of club contributions, having ploughed over £4.5 million into the charitable Tottenham Hotspur Foundation, and the London club have also entered into a partnership with SOS Children's Villages in a scheme that sees player fines go directly towards an SOS project in Rustenburg, South Africa. FIFA's own relationship with this particular charity stretches back almost 13 years, and the high point of the alliance came with last year's 'Six Villages for 2006' campaign - supported by the likes of Andriy Shevchenko, Fabio Cannavaro, Wayne Rooney and Ruud van Nistelrooy - which raised a remarkable 25 million euros.
The immediate and overwhelming response to the 2004 tsunami was another shining example of the football family's tendency not to be found wanting when the need arises. Indeed, while the beautiful game's players are unlikely to shed their pampered image, it is clear that few within their number can be accused of turning a blind eye to those less fortunate than themselves.