Elhadj As Sy Secretary General, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
Date: الجمعة, 2 مارس, 2018
Event: FIFA Conference for Equality & Inclusion 2018
Location: Zürich, Switzerland

The bonds brought about by The Beautiful Game

Mr President, Madame Secretary-General, chère Fatma, dear friends, thank you for this invitation to join you today at your fourth FIFA Conference for Equality & Inclusion.

On behalf of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, I am truly delighted to be here.

Preparing for this address, part of me said: ‘just talk about football – The Beautiful Game, the global game, the ‘shared language’.  Talk about the magic, the fun, and the incredible things that can happen… the bonding …. when you simply throw a ball into a crowd’.

Another part of me advised that I must go far beyond that, to look at gender, race, human rights, children’s rights and safety, health and safety, the poor, the vulnerable, the excluded, and so much more.

I think both were right, but I will certainly start with that shared magic which is the foundation of all the big ideas we will share today….

… and because I know that if I suddenly launched a ball among us right now, in this audience … there would heading and passing … and laughter, fun.

Football, we know, is as much of a bond between men and women, boys and girls, rich people and poor, people of every colour and creed, people in cold countries and warm, as almost anything on earth.

Go anywhere in the world and you will see someone wearing a Premier League or a Bundesliga or a Senegalese National team shirt, and you can strike up a conversation with that person.  There is a reason that so many people turn first to the back pages of newspapers, where the sport often is, and not the front.  And there is a reason, too, why football is so often on the front.

We have seen this graphically illustrated recently at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, with sport providing the platform for the cautious embrace between the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  The cheerleaders, the shared ice hockey teams: all have made global headlines on the first and last pages of our newspapers.  Sport breaks barriers; sport brings people together.

I’m told that during the height of the conflict in Sri Lanka, there would be times of an ‘unofficial truce’ between the Tamil Tigers and government forces as they watched Sri Lanka play cricket.  This is the power of sport.

Everyone has a story or an opinion about the power of football to bring people together.

Some will always recall the ‘pipes of peace’, and British and German troops playing football in No Man’s Land in Saint-Yvon, near Ypres, on Christmas Day in 1914.

Others tell more recent stories, and FIFA Communications Manager Honey Thaljieh could no doubt speak for hours on the work that organisations like Football4Peace do to build bridges between footballers in Israel and in the Palestinian Territories.

At the core, we are simply bonding over our shared humanity.  Football – sport – unlocks that.

And what – beyond a ball, and two goals, and a group of people having fun – is this bond of football about?  Of course, it is about your two key words in this conference: equality and inclusion.

Equality and inclusion – in the Red Cross and Red Crescent too

Those two words are also at the core of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.  They are inextricably linked with two of the principles which have defined the world’s largest humanitarian network since its founder, Henri Dunant, organised thousands of local women as volunteers to tend to the dead and the dying at the Battle of Solferino in Lombardy in 1859.

The two key Red Cross Red Crescent words are ‘Humanity’ and ‘Unity’.  Both – in their own ways – say ‘equality’ and ‘inclusion’.

We are one Humanity. We are a diverse humanity, a rainbow community as Nelson Mandela put it, and our world calls us to be inclusive.  And central to the idea of humanity is the goal of unity.  Just as all come together for the same team and the same flag on the football pitch, so do we all have to come together in the pursuit of a better world.

It is the world of our commonly shared Sustainable Development Goals: a world free of poverty; a world of opportunity; and a world which preserves what matters most to people: their dignity.

We in the Red Cross Red Crescent put these principles into practice each and every day, largely though the work of our 191 National Societies and their 14 million mostly young volunteers.  These people willingly giving of their own time to serve their own communities in whatever way they can.

They may be helping the elderly and homeless during the severe cold period we are facing now in Europe … or they may be risking their very lives bringing much needed supplies and aid to those affected by conflict in Goutha, Syria.

Today and every day, and all over the world, they are helping people in need.  The Red Cross Red Crescent is there before, during and after disasters, shocks and hazards, and always there on the side of people in need.

We leave no one behind; we reach the hardest to reach and the most vulnerable; we walk the last mile.  You are certainly very familiar with these concepts, chère Fatma, as you championed them in many parts of the world as a Senior UN Civil Servant.

So friends, let me now explore where our worlds overlap: your world of football and sport, and mine of humanitarianism and its twin development.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent and football – the story so far

So what do we in the Red Cross and Red Crescent do in the realms of what the international organisations call ‘SDP’, or ‘Sport for Development and Peace’?

You are no doubt well aware of the great work of some of our partners – UNDP, UNHCR, UNICEF, and more.  But what about the Red Cross Red Crescent?

Our work in SDP sits under the banner of ‘promoting social inclusion, and a culture of non-violence and peace’.  It also sits under another banner: Education.  Education both in humanitarian settings, and – a personal passion of mine – education about humanitarian values.

All this ties in with our collective belief that sport, and especially football, can teach values such as fairness, teambuilding, equality, discipline, inclusion, perseverance and respect.  Sport teaches universal values, and responsible citizenship – inside and outside the ground, and as much to players and supporters.

Some of the qualities that we learn on the field of play are transferrable to a bigger and often even more hostile playing field: the playing field of life.

Almost all of our Red Cross Red Crescent work on these two playing fields – those of football, and of life – is carried out through our National Societies.

So, for instance ….

I call to mind the work of the Spanish Red Cross and FC Barcelona in launching a campaign to help refugees integrate into Spanish society.

And the Jamaican Red Cross, supporting football as way of ending violence.

Or the Latin American National Societies – in Ecuador, Costa Rica and Panama – which have run an advocacy campaign called ‘Friendly stadiums’, which aims to prevent violence in and around football grounds.

Or the Danish Red Cross, which runs its sport for integration programmes in family refugee camps in South Sudan, and in asylum centres in Denmark.

Some of my favourite examples are ….

… the way the Hellenic Red Cross uses football to bring together local residents and migrants at the Moria migrant camp on the Greek island of Lesvos ….

… and how the Serbian Red Cross sets up football training and a makeshift gym at the Pirot migrant centre at the Bulgarian border.

A story that really speaks to me is how the British Red Cross has supported a team called Plymouth Hope FC – a team of refugees, asylum seekers and others who are vulnerable and marginalised in that city in the south-west of England.

It’s the brainchild of a young Guinean and an asylum seeker, David Feindouno, and here I quote him:

“We started by thinking, ‘What’s our purpose, our vision? People come to play football – but they also come to make friends and integrate into society. They hope to be accepted.  We all have hope. …..

….. I didn’t know I’d stay in the UK. A lot of people in the team don’t know if they’ll be deported. Everyone has the hope that the government will listen to their plea. ‘Hope’ means a lot to me, as a word. That’s why we’re called Plymouth Hope FC.”

The Red Cross and Red Crescent and football – where next? 

Our task in the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is to take our SDP work up a gear, and make it systematic.

Two examples of our work can hint at how the future might be.

The first is a programme called ‘Moving Together’, set up by our Red Cross Red Crescent Reference Centre for psychosocial support, in Copenhagen. It’s a handbook for experts in sociology, psychology, social work, sport and physical education, to help them deliver psychosocial support programmes in crisis situations.

The second is a programme in what you might think an unlikely place. The Myanmar Red Cross works with Football United and the Asian Football Development Program to get its local branches and their youth volunteers to use sport for development, sport for health, and sport for education.

So we want to go up several gears in the Federation and across all our 191 National Societies, and make this common practice.  We want to do so in three main ways.

The first is by making SPD part and parcel of every National Society’s work.  Here’s one example of what that might mean in practice.

IFRC could develop the concept of a ‘sports delegate’.  Just like we send a ‘health delegate’ into any crisis or humanitarian situation, we want to send a sports delegate.  That means a trained individual with professional experience of using sports for development – or for peace, or for community work – who could be deployed within a humanitarian setting.

Imagine a sports delegate in a place like Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where nearly 380,000 kids have fled Rakhine State in Myanmar, and are living miserably in camps. Just how much could that person achieve in young refugees’ hearts and minds, by encouraging them to do things with their feet?  I have been there myself and seen it – these children are having their childhoods stolen. We can help restore their childhood, and sow the seeds of a happy and responsible adulthood.

The second way is through being advocates for the role of sport and football, not least in using the auxiliary Governmental status of National Societies to work on national Sport for Development and Peace policies and strategies.

The third is through capacity building to equip our National Societies and volunteers with the right tools and skills to work on Sport for Development and Peace.

So where do we go from here?  Can FIFA support the Red World Cup in Qatar 2022?

I know that you too, in FIFA, are also stepping up your activities in the area of sports for development and peace.

I know that you in FIFA are already doing brilliant things, and you will no doubt explore them further over these next few days.  I am also well aware of how you are going well beyond ‘just’ Sport for Development and Peace, and looking at all the implications of the game of football.

I hear about the work of your Human Rights Advisory Board. I know how you have embraced the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and asked its author John Ruggie, along with Rachel Davis, to examine in detail and in practical terms how they applied specifically to you.

It’s clear that you are looking very closely at every aspect of the game of football and, very importantly, the way in which it interacts with the world around it.  You are now starting systematically to look at the social impact of every facet of the game, on and off the pitch, working with your 200+ member Football Associations.

I learned you are also involved with the newly launched Centre for Human Rights and Sports, in Geneva.

And there may be other areas where FIFA and the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement can partner, including in the Qatar 2022 World Cup where we already have a concrete proposal.

In the ruins of Qoms and Aleppo, in the rubbles of Kathmandu and Haiti after the earthquakes, in the mud of Cox’s Bazar after the floods, in the favellas of Rio, in Zatori refugee camp under the Sahelian sun, we work and we see smiles on the faces of many children running after a football, as if running for hope, as if they are running for dignity. They run to score a goal on the pitch, as they run to achieve a goal in life. So let’s accompany them.

So my message today is that we collectively need to build on the magic, and to plan and partner and monitor and ensure what happens.

Because football is a great global good.  It is one of the very special things – in a very fractured world – that can bring people together, take some of the most vulnerable and excluded people out of the margins and bring them into our societies.   Let’s take our collective commitment and experience, and – in your own words in the title of this conference – ‘pass it on’

Speech data

National Societies


Community engagement, Psychosocial support


Elhadj As Sy, FIFA