On Sunday, many of us will be tuning in to watch the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers compete in Super Bowl XLV. The Super Bowl is always one of the most-watched events of the year, and I’m looking forward to gathering with friends to watch the game — and the commercials.
But when I watch the big game this weekend, my mind will be on the other form of football. Specifically, I’ll be thinking about a football (ahem…soccer) match I stumbled upon while traveling in Senegal a couple years back. The local World Vision staff were excited to tell me that this wasn’t just a pick-up game, but it was part of a program called “Red Card for AIDS.”
World Vision organizes soccer clinics and tournaments to bring kids together, have fun, and teach them about the dangers of HIV and AIDS. The soccer events bring children and community members together, and at halftime, staff use the language of soccer — a red card is given to a player who commits an egregious foul, resulting in automatic ejection from the game — to teach children how to avoid contracting HIV.
I was impressed at how the staff used a topic that the community was already passionate about to teach invaluable health lessons. Once I returned home, I realized this was a modern-day parable — using language and references everyone understands to teach an important truth.
Since that trip, I’ve discovered that many World Vision programs use soccer as a way to talk about many serious issues with children.
Recently, in Albania, World Vision took part in an event called “Go for the Goal: End Child Labor.” The gathering brought together key national and local leaders, media, and most importantly, 500 children. Altin Lala, a well-known Albanian soccer player, stood with the children as they held up red cards, asking their political leaders to stop child labor.
In Kosovo, an area that has suffered from ethnic clashes for many years, World Vision supports Kids for Peace clubs, which bring together children from Armenian, Serbian, and other minority backgrounds. For the International Day of Peace, the clubs organized One Goal for Peace, a soccer tournament. Nearly 200 children competed for 16 teams, each with a mix of ethnic backgrounds.
“This activity was a great opportunity for me to meet new Albanian friends that I didn’t have the possibility to meet before,” said 12-year-old Anastasia Gruzdanovic, a Serbian girl. “I really hope to be an example of peace and friendship between Serbians and Albanians, not only for our peers who are not here, but even for our parents and others in my village.”
I, of course, enjoy sports — from pick-up games to grand productions — on their own merit, but it is nice to know that games are also providing a service more valuable than my own entertainment.
Ryan Smith, an associate editor for World Vision Magazine, will be cheering for the Packers this Sunday, because he’s still bitter about the Seattle Seahawks’ loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XL.