While the FA are busy salvaging what remains of the national game’s reputation, London-based educational charity Football Beyond Borders (FBB) put on an event to remind people of the positive impact the sport also has.
Through a series of programmes such as FBB: TV Youth Voices and FBB: Schools, the organisation provides weekly media studies and practical sport sessions for 400+ children to foster personal development – both social and academic.
A night of positivity and humour, with a serious message of compassion and inclusion, was what was in store for attendees of FBB ‘s annual showcase event, Football For All 2017, an opportunity for teenage presenters to use skills they have learnt on the media workshops that form part of the charities programme.
One eloquent FBB participant leading the event was 18-year-old Lorenzo. “It was great to see so many people here supporting FBB”, the youngster enthused. “Without FBB I wouldn’t be in a position in my life where I can say I can go on and do whatever I set my mind to.”
English club journeyman Adebayo Akinfenwa, renowned from his time at AFC Wimbledon but now scoring goals for Wycombe Wanderers, lead the star-studded line-up of guests.
He was visibly moved by what he described as “an inspiring night with inspiring people”.
“I didn’t know too much about (the event) before but I’m so glad I came down,” the Wycombe striker explained. “Just hearing the stories, the drive from the young individuals. I’ll be getting involved in this charity. I think people need to know about FBB.”
It wasn’t just the youngsters offering heartfelt anecdotes. Keynote speaker Akinfenwa, who has played senior football for 13 different clubs in three countries, told of his dilemma when, aged 19, he was subjected to monkey chants by his own fans after transferring to Lithuanian outfit AK Atlantas.
“I called my brother back in London to say I was coming home,” the goalscorer recalled for the assembled crowd listening intently. “He told me, ‘Bruv, I’m never going to tell you to stay somewhere if you think you’re in danger, but if you come home, they win.’
“I didn’t change my mind instantly, but I soon realised he was right.”
This powerful story may not have resonated too much with the youngsters in the room, many of whom will have never been out of London, let alone the country and therefore unlikely to have been subjected to such abuse.
His message though, of being resolute in spite of any challenge like mental health, gender stereotypes or prejudice was clear.
“One thing I used to say when training FBB participants as part of the Youth Voices crew to be in front of a camera was ‘Don’t worry about what people think about you. Just be yourself’,” Perez said.
“I’ve realised the same thing applies when dealing with mental health issues. You don’t have to be ashamed or embarrassed of what your going through. Hiding from your struggles only makes things worse.”
Joining Akinfenwa at Amnesty International HQ, were presenters David Vujanic (Vuj) and Reshmin Chowdhury, all three passionate and creative icons who inspire young people.
Vuj, who was born in the former Yugoslavia and is most well-known from his role as presenter for YouTube channel Copa90, gave his take on the evening.
“There is so much that divides us in the world”, he said. “Football is a power than really can unite us regardless of race, gender or colour.”
Also on the panel was Sky Sports Spanish football expert and FBB patron Guillem Balague, who has supported FBB’s programme for four years.
“The evening went marvellously and I can see how my job is disappearing every year, because it’s being taken over by those guys that four years ago were just here to learn,” Balague chuckled.
As well as encouraging the young people in attendance to challenge prejudices and face up to mental health issues, the night was also about raising much-needed funds for the good cause.
“Four years ago, it was about showing what we are about,” explained the Spanish pundit and author.
“I think people now know what we are about and it’s just a matter of saying ‘Okay, we need help, we need people to give us a hand,’ because without that it’s not going to be able to continue.”
For more information about Football Beyond Borders work, click here.