First published in Brussels Express on 14 November. Written by Niki Papadogiannakis.
“This was the best football match in my life ever,” an ecstatic rain-drenched goalkeeper exclaimed to the group gathered on a pitch.
It was a brisk Brussels Sunday afternoon in Ixelles, where the refugee youth from the Red Cross Centre in Uccle (whom SB Espoir works with every weekend) were playing their first full-pitch match against graduate students from the Brussels School of International Studies (BSIS), the university that I attend for my master’s studies.
The friendly game had just ended, after a round of penalties by a group of boys who played all together for the first time — and not even heavy downpour of rain could break their enthusiasm as the game finished and victory needed to be celebrated.
But it was not only a victory on the scoreboard. The match itself was a victory: playing with their peers from the center, whom they know very well, against a group who all share the same passion – football.
This sentiment was evident as soon as the game ended, when players from both teams were hugging, chanting, celebrating the moment. Of course, it helped that the youth won, in a very fair and challenging match up —the game ended on a tie and was settled after penalty shots declared the SB Espoir youth the victors.
For many of the youth, football is a major passion in their life. It’s something at they know very well and culturally it’s pervasive around the world. Whether you’re from Belgium, Eritrea, Italy, Afghanistan, Norway or Syria, cultures that are seemingly so different, football is the common thread.
That’s why at SB Espoir, we organized this football match knowing that many of the youth at the center have this passion and wanted to give them an opportunity to play against a group that not only are football fanatics, but also come from many places around the world who are in Brussels for their studies.
One of the university students from India found a common language with one of the youth, the student speaking Hindi and the youth Urdu – this surprised the youth when he learned that India has over 20 languages and he could speak and understand one although he himself was not from India.
As UN Secretary-General António Guterres said while he was the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, “sport is an amazing way to break down barriers and build bridges between communities. It gives young people a sense of self worth and focus and lets them set aside cultural differences in a constructive non-violent way.”
Although I was rooting for the SB Espoir youth against my own university peers, I personally could not be more proud of how the students from BSIS created a welcoming and fun atmosphere for the youth.
We hadn’t even gotten off the pitch, when one of the youth asked me, “When can we do this again?”