Today is World Alzheimer's Day
George Cumming, once FIFA’s Head of Refereeing, now volunteers for Sporting Memories
The charity uses reminiscence to combat dementia, depression and loneliness
Football, George Cumming says, has enriched his life beyond measure. It has taken him from playing through officiating to administrating, and from Scotland to Malaysia via Switzerland.
Now, having gained so much from the sport, FIFA’s former Head of Refereeing is using the beautiful game to give something back. He does so as a volunteer for Sporting Memories, a charity tackling dementia, depression and loneliness through sports reminiscence and physical activity.
“I’d been looking to do a bit of volunteering, and when I saw a report on television about Sporting Memories a few years ago, it just seemed ideal,” he told FIFA.com. “I’ve been going to the same group in Motherwell ever since, and I enjoy it as much as the participants do.
“There are two sides to Sporting Memories for me. There’s the dementia aspect, which is very important, but many people who attend our sessions don’t suffer from dementia at all.
"Dealing with loneliness and isolation, providing a bit of company and camaraderie for an hour-and-a-half, is definitely just as important in my view. I know that, for some of those who come along, it’s the highlight of their week.
"That’s why the recent period has been so tough because the COVID restrictions have stopped us putting on any sessions. It’s been a big loss to everyone involved.”
Sporting Memories’ rapid growth over recent years, fuelled by the compelling evidence of its successes, means that Cumming is one of no fewer than 265 trained volunteers in the UK. And while few of those, if any, will be able to match his history in football, the Scot is anxious to avoid taking centre stage.
“I just look to try different things the participants will enjoy,” he explained. “We do things like going through the alphabet, naming a sporting personality for each letter, and I have a projector too, so I’ll show them old matches on the big screen.
“We also look to get them out when we can. I took my group up to Hampden, for example, and that was a great day. We had a tour of the stadium, which was smashing, and then got taken round the museum. They loved it.
“The participants all know about my background but I don’t talk about it much. It’s their meeting, not mine, and I’d rather hear stories from them than tell them about me.”
Not that Cumming is short of a tale or two. A former centre-half with Partick Thistle, St Mirren and Hamilton – three historic Scottish clubs – he was, by his own admission, “drifting out of the game” when fate intervened.
“I saw there was a referee class taking place and I wanted something to keep myself fit, so I went along, passed the exam and started refereeing in my local amateur league. From there I progressed up the ranks to refereeing in the Scottish Premier League.
“But I was combining that with working as a deputy head teacher, and when I was offered the job as the SFA’s new referee training officer, it posed a big dilemma for me. I’d been teaching for 20 years and giving it up was a huge decision. But I’ve certainly never regretted doing it.”
Taking the plunge was also rewarded a decade or so later, when Cumming was approached to become FIFA’s first Head of Refereeing. “It meant being in charge of the referees at the 2002 World Cup and that was a great experience, although very tough - largely due to being spread across two separate countries and having a referees headquarters in each," explained. "The technology in 2002 also wasn’t anywhere near as good as it is now!”
Cumming also spent a spell as acting director of FIFA’s Development Division - overseeing the likes of women’s football, futsal and sports medicine - and later headed up the Asian Football Confederation’s ‘Project Future’ referee development programme. “I lived in Kuala Lumpur at that time and the whole thing was a fabulous experience,” he reflected.
Now back home in Scotland, retirement has allowed the 73-old to indulge another sporting passion: golf. But it is football to which he always gravitates and, in his role as a volunteer, he sees its power for good illuminated.
“We cover all sports but it is mostly football in my group, simply because that’s what the participants’ main interest is. Football means so much to so many different people, and it’s a huge part of life – certainly in this country,” he said.
“You see it recently with the void football leaves when it isn’t here. For all the bad press it gets, it’s sometimes the glue that knits things together. The sooner everyone can get back to watching, playing and talking about it, the happier we’ll all be.”
Interested in learning more? You can visit the Let’s Talk Sport section of Sporting Memories' website and bring the joy of sporting memories to friends and family. The resources include quizzes, puzzles and a video about using one-to-one reminiscence over the telephone – for some older people their only means of connection to family and friends. You can also register to receive their free weekly digital Sporting Pink publication.