• ENGSO Youth

3 Things I Learned at the FIFA Equality and Inclusion Conference

On March 2nd, FIFA hosted their now-annual Conference for Equality and Inclusion, an event that brings FIFA representatives together with a variety of experts, social responsibility practitioners, and former football players for a day of discussion and learning.

As a former professional football player and current student of corporate governance and social responsibility, I have attended past editions of the conference. Yet, this year’s struck a special chord with me because its focus wasn’t limited to discussing responsibility in football or highlighting ways in which organizations and institutions have acted on their responsibilities, but also on calling everyone to take greater responsibility.

This year’s conference theme was “Pass it on – Hope through Football,” which was reflected in FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s vow to ensure that the governing body of football be more inclusive and open for all, as well as the general emphasis throughout the conference on knowing and acting on one’s social responsibility. Speakers emphasized the value of understanding how football can and is being used as a tool to address social inclusion and inequality, sharing stories from their work in the field.

For me, one of the most powerful speakers of the day was Fatuma Abdulkadir Adan, founder of HODI in Northern Kenya. Facing a culture of gender discrimination, Fatuma seemed unfazed by the obstacles in her path. She has gone about her tasks steadily, and over the course of 12 years, the program has been “embedded and accepted in the community.” In achieving this, she highlighted the importance of engaging with all the different stakeholders in her community, not just her target group. By listening to all sides, she was able to facilitate compromises that would make perceptible shifts against gender barriers, using football as one of the main tools to achieve this.

The presentation by Rosa Roncal of the Real Madrid Foundation reminded me not just of the enormous reach of football institutions, but also the need to analyze a football club’s social ‘footprint’ and its CSR strategies as a means of understanding how the particular club conceptualizes its responsibilities. Do clubs act on social responsibility based on demand (i.e. in places locations with strong fan bases), or are there other motivating factors?

Toward the end of the conference, FIFA Head of Sustainability and Diversity Federico Addiechi reminded us that though FIFA has a responsibility to address social issues, there are limitations to this. Even with measures and monitoring systems in place to try, particularly for the World Cup, we cannot always predict or prevent what may happen. And, as much as we may wish it, football is not a panacea.

Yet, from the stories throughout the day, the power of football is clear. Football is more than a simple game with a ball; it is a physical representation of the social constructs, environment and people who are playing it. I asked myself how the conceptualization of the responsibility of the volunteer, program founder or coach ties into how football is used and then, how this ‘field’ level responsibility ties into the responsibilities of those working in the larger institutions and at the political levels of the game.

The field level football is an instrument that provides people with the opportunity to fulfill their responsibilities. For those working in the higher football institutions and political levels, it is easy to lose sight of the field work. For them, and for all of us, these three points may be helpful to remember:

  1. Change takes time and patience. You cannot expect to go into a community waving a banner and kicking a ball and change everyone’s minds. It’s the proverbial story of the tortoise and the hare: slow and steady wins the race.

  2. Listen and cooperate. Invite partners and different stakeholders to the table and allow them the opportunity to speak for themselves.

  3. Safety first. As much as it has become this myth that throwing a ball in the middle of disaster can change a community, it just doesn’t hold up in reality. Programs must provide safe environments, otherwise they struggle in bringing about long-term change.

After a very rich day, it is apparent that football, though perceived a simple activity, always includes the greater context of human interaction and social construction. When being used as a tool to ‘act on’ one’s responsibility, the complexities that come with it must be respected.

I congratulate FIFA for integrating so many voices from people who are working on the ‘social responsibility’ of football, and I hope that future programs under the name of ‘social responsibility’ continue with the motivation of bringing about positive change.