“The curtain has now fallen on the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Over a four-week period, the tournament celebrated football: Its magic, its universality and its power to captivate the public. But once again it also illustrated its ability to unite people over and above geopolitical tensions and discrepancies. In Russia, sport triumphed over stereotypes and pre-conceived ideas. It simply made barriers dissolve.
Before the beginning of the World Cup, many media had presented Russia as an unwelcoming country for visitors, where fans were expected to face hostility and antagonism. In the four weeks of competition however, the World Cup shattered this prefabricated image. The 2018 tournament moved from city to city without a single false step, bringing a festive and joyous mood. The competition was free of hooligans, and viewers will have fond memories of an event where football overcame political wrangling.
The British example says a lot. At a time when diplomatic relations between London and Moscow are very tense, English fans supported their team into the semi-finals of the tournament under the watchful eye of the Russian public. Newspapers in their country had strongly dissuaded them from making the trip, but the absentees were wrong. In the stadiums, the world forgot about frosty politics for a while. It has not solved the problems of the world, but it has helped to put human beings back at the centre of debate.
Now, as we review the highlights of the Russian World Cup, I’d like to quote the words of Paul Pogba, the French team’s midfielder. On the evening that the Blues defeated Belgium in the semi-finals, he made a point of dedicating the victory to the real “heroes of the day”: 12 children in a football team and their coach trapped for 17 days in a cave in the North of Thailand. “Bravo, boys, you’re strong”, said Paul Pogba. In the height of his own success, he preferred to praise the heroism of a bunch of kids, most of whom live as refugees. Evidence that football players don’t reduce their world to the dimensions of a pitch. They sometimes find words to inspire youth.
The next few weeks will bring more opportunities to demonstrate the power of football -and indeed all sports – to build a better world. Here at Peace and Sport, from 17 – 19 August we’re organizing the 9th edition of the Friendship Games in Uvira, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sport and its values will bring together more than 300 children from Burundi, Rwanda and the DRC to play in competitions. These young people will enjoy the unique experience of three days of sharing and dialogue. This year one of our Champions for Peace – Belgian cyclist Philippe Gilbert – has used his sport -cycling- to support the peace-through-sport initiative: on Thursday, 5 July, two days before the start of the Tour de France, he organized a fundraiser on his birthday. A gesture for youth. A strong message for other athletes. An inspiration to the world.