The World Cup for Social Progress

Ed note. Be sure to tune into the World Cup + Social Good, co-hosted by our friends at the United Nations Foundation this week. 

For those of us anxiously counting down until the start of the World Cup, the coming month promises a flurry of excitement showcasing some of the world’s most talented athletes. Despite political divisions, countries as disparate as Brazil, Croatia, Germany, Korea, Nigeria, Iran, and Russia will all take to the same fields in displays of skill, teamwork, and passion. Football, which has universal appeal, will bring all eyes and ears to one place, and this limited attention span bears some legitimate social messaging potential.

Even to the FIFA, who is responsible for the quadrennial event, the World Cup is not simply a football championship. Because of the game’s unifying nature, FIFA has seized the opportunity to use the World Cup as a platform to address global issues that tear us apart, from racism and poverty to gender inequality and disease.

Using the World Cup as a platform for social progress is not new. FIFA originally took a bold stance against racism in 1961 by expelling apartheid South Africa from the games, only readmitting the nation in 1991 after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. When the games were held there in 2010, Mandela noted that “[Football] is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.”

The seeds of racism have long been embedded in the football world, as well. Consequentially, the Buenos Aires Resolution to combat racism in football, passed by FIFA’s Congress in 2001, invited a decade-long campaign using international football superstars as advocates against racism. In the 2002 World Cup held in Japan and South Korea, FIFA introduced “Say No to Racism” banners that covered the fields during pre-game formalities, while anti-discrimination advertisements filled TV spots. These efforts were repeated in 2006 and 2010. And you can be sure to see these banners in Brazil this month.

The anti-discrimination campaign flourished alongside other movements. In 1999, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and FIFA President Sepp Blatter promoted a closer partnership between their two organizations. In 2005, FIFA created the Football for Hope initiative to further the UN Millennium Development Goals by fostering relationships between football organizations and existing development stakeholders to build community centers across the globe.

By building centers with shared spaces and a football field, young people have been encouraged to collaborate with each other and engage with existing NGOs to promote locally relevant social development on the frontiers of HIV/AIDS education, conflict resolution, gender equity, capacity-building and work training, youth leadership, and life skills training. The 2010 World Cup made the creation of 20 of these centers in Africa its priority.

While the use of football as a platform for social progress has evolved over time, the world of football has met its match: global social problems are not going away and might prove to be much tougher opponents than anticipated. But FIFA has yet another opportunity to make a case and promote its social responsibility initiatives in Brazil’s 2014 games.  After all, it’s the same qualities that make watching the World Cup so enthralling – teamwork, leadership, integrity, innovation, heart, blood, sweat, and tears – which will bring us closer to achieving these universal goals.