I have never been a big participant in or follower of sports. However, I think sports can play a huge role in conflict resolution and transformation.
The Homeless World Cup which is an international soccer/football match played by teams composed entirely of people who were homeless. The lucky people who get to participate usually find it a life-changing experience. They learn what it is to be human again, to be proud of themselves, to have something to live for, and the experience is usually transformative. The experience is a trigger that inspires them. Plus they get an opportunity to travel to foreign countries and meet people from all over the world who had similar experiences to their own. According to homelessworldcup.org 77% of the players go on to find a home, overcome a dependency on drugs and alcohol, and get into education, jobs, training, and repaired relationships with friends and family. The sport is used as a way to empower people to change their own lives. Twelve players have gone on to become professional players or coaches, and 94% of participants said the Homeless Wolrd Cup had a positive impact on their lives. Apparently there is a documentary about it, Kicking It, which will have its world premier at the Sundance Film Festival next month. The director of the movie, Susan Koch, said, “Soccer is the world's most popular sport and played in virtually every country around the globe, while homelessness is one of the world's most pervasive problems. When you bring the two together, lives can be transformed. We found extraordinary people who for the first time were given the chance to stand tall and not be invisible."
Last summer when Iraq beat Saudia Arabia in its first Asian Cup championship, the Iraqis found a rare reason to celebrate. This victory was credited with helping to unite Iraqis for a period of time. In the middle of a war, amid huge sectarian tensions, this allowed Iraqi nationals a rare opportunity to come together in celebration and pride in Iraqi nationalism. An Iraqi policeman in Hilla said at the time, "Now we are facing all this terror and violence — Iraq is bleeding. The win is a bandage healing those wounds. It's a lesson to politicians that Iraqis can be one. We were all supporting our team; none of us was saying this player is a Sunni, a Shiite or Kurd." (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2003812430_soccer...)
A few weeks ago, a soccer/football match between Sunnis and Shiites was held in a Baghdad neighborhood. The US officers thought it sounded like a huge risk and would prove to further perpetuate the ethnic cleavage. But the Iraqis were undeterred by the US military officials who tried to dissuade them and said they were going to do it whether the Americans helped them or not. “The match was played Nov. 23 on a field straddling the divide between the Sunni and Shiite sides of Ghazaliyah, a 400,000-resident section of Baghdad where firefights between Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents have left much of the area in rubble. One team was from the area's Sunni southern portion; the other from the Shiite north. The Shiites won, 2-0. A crowd of 1,500 dispersed without a fight. Referees weren't attacked. There were no recriminations.” (http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/iraq/2007-12-05-Surge_N.htm)
This match is just one example of reconciliation attempts instigated and carried out by Iraqis, even despite American resistance to their ideas, as well as an example of how sports can bring people together. It reminds me of what I hear over and over again – that for conflict transformation to be successful, it must be grounded in the culture, traditions, and will of the divided people. Those who are experiencing the conflict personally and who are most affected by it must be the ones to come up with appropriate and relevant reconciliation attempts. The Americans thought it was a bad idea, but what do they know. They are foreign to Iraqi culture, and foreign to soccer/football culture. Outside intervenors can’t come in to a conflict and expect that they know best. Reconciliation in Iraq must be driven by Iraqis, and it looks like it is. This soccer game served to convince at least one American officer who watched it that reconciliation is inevitable. But local efforts MUST be supported and encouraged.
Unfortunately soccer/football has also been the source for a lot of violence, too, but that’s another subject, and one which I’m still trying to understand.