Football is the world’s most beloved sport. The “Beautiful Game” (a.k.a. soccer) has brought competition and fun to rural and underprivileged communities worldwide. It has also been a source of pride for many nations. According to the latest statistics, approximately 265 million persons (both male and female) play soccer. Believe it or not, 4 percent of the world’s population is actively involved in the game, and there are 2,028 professional soccer teams in the world. Leagues are extremely popular in Spain, Germany, Italy, and Brazil. Worldwide, there are over 150,000 soccer teams. Soccer attracts more commercial and corporate cash than any other sport. Unfortunately, it has also too often been victimized by corruption and scandals. Many of the shortcomings have already been elaborated on in recent blogs (see here and here).
However, football also retains a “brighter and more humane” side. Not only has it helped to develop and revitalize local economies, it has assisted in the rehabilitation of war victims, brought joy in the midst of suffering to refugee camps, helped with reconciliation processes, redirected delinquent youth, and been part of awareness campaigns to help alleviate malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, and AIDS.
The newest social campaign of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) creates yet another ray of hope that is sure to be a trailblazer in future development as well as social and humanitarian contributions by sports associations for generations to come.
Football possesses enormous social capital, which can help fuel the effort to tackle one of the most devastating diseases in recent times—Ebola. Last fall, FIFA joined forces with the United Nations to stop the spread of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Presently, more than 22,000 people have been infected with the Ebola virus and over 8,800 have died, making it the worst Ebola epidemic since the virus was identified in 1976.
FIFA’s tangible involvement with combatting the disease has led to the World Health Organization (WHO) using the Antoinette Tubman Stadium in Monrovia, Liberia. Donated by FIFA to the Liberian Football Association, the stadium has been transformed into two urgently needed large-scale Ebola treatment centers. The WHO has also identified the stadium as the most suitable location in terms of effectiveness and safety to combat the effects of this devastating disease.
FIFA is taking its self-declared mission “to build a better future” seriously by supporting the conversion of the Monrovia stadium into Ebola treatment units. “Thanks to the continuous, fruitful, and fundamental collaboration between FIFA and the United Nations, today we can use the power of football to combat the Ebola epidemic,” says FIFA President Joseph Blatter. Blatter also promises to allay concerns regarding the impact of the treatment units on the recently installed pitch. “FIFA has also proposed to cover the costs of any damage,” says Blatter.
Wilfried Lemke, special adviser to the secretary-general of the United Nations on Sport for Development and Peace, recognizes that the Ebola outbreak has affected the sport community in ways “ranging from health threats to the athletes themselves and restrictions on travel affecting competitions and the development of sport.” He, too, emphasized the need for national authorities, the U.N., and the world of sport to work closely together in order to halt the spread of the disease.
On November 17, 2014, FIFA along with the Confederation of African Football (CAF) dispatched a dream team, “11 against Ebola,” featuring Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Barcelona’s Neymar Jr., Chelsea’s Didier Drogba, and Bayern Munich’s Philipp Lahm among others, to promote 11 health messages recommended by medical specialists from Africa, the World Bank, and the WHO.
Though generally exemplars of good health, football players are hardly immune from Ebola. The sport is also very popular in West Africa. FIFA has agreed with the CAF “to organize international matches of countries currently experiencing [Ebola] intense transmission (Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea) on neutral ground.” FIFA also recommends that soccer clubs “carry out a medical check-up” on players returning from “an international fixture involving a high-risk country.”
Who would have thought that football, a sport that is nearly 3,000 years old, would become so much more than kicking a ball to score a goal? By looking closely, we can see in football, and in every sport, the human will strive to overcome challenges that are sometimes more than physical. Football, and global sports in general, is no longer an activity solely associated with exercising the human body. It has transformed into a global industry that captivates the attention of billions of people, employs millions, and is by some estimates worth $700 billion.
This power and influence comes with social responsibilities, and the recent effort to impede Ebola might be one of the best examples of the shared obligation in contemporary sports. Through its global solidarity program, FIFA may assist the world in scoring the winning goal against Ebola.