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People profile: Dr Vladimir Borkovic, sportfootballworld

Co-founder and network director, streetfootballworld

Published in Sports Management 2018 issue 1
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Dr Vladamir Borkovic challenges everyone to do what they can to create positive change in the world
Dr Vladamir Borkovic challenges everyone to do what they can to create positive change in the world

“Life doesn’t end here. We have to go on. No matter how difficult, we must stand back up. We only have two options: either allow anger to paralyse us and the violence continues, or we overcome and try our best to help others.”

These words were written by footballer Andrés Escobar after his own goal brought about Colombia’s first round exit from the 1994 World Cup. A few days later he was shot dead in a car park, in his home city of Medellin, with his murderers reportedly mocking the mistake as they pulled the trigger.

Jürgen Griesbeck, a German PhD student and friend of Escobar, felt that if football could lead to such a negative action, then it must be able to bring about a positive change too.

Football for Peace
Griesbeck started Fútbol por la Paz (Football for Peace), a youth project using football matches to combat violence in Medellin. There were a few requirements: the games had to be mixed, the players had to agree the rules themselves and not rely on a referee, they had to be clean from drugs and leave their guns at the door.

It worked. People started talking and conflicts were sorted on the pitch. Wearing football shirts allowed people to walk into different neighbourhoods where previously they risked being shot by rival gangs. Griesbeck realised that similar projects were happening around the world, but there was no collaboration or knowledge sharing. With this in mind, he joined forces with Dr Vladimir Borkovic to form streetfootballworld in 2002.

Now with 127 network members in 80 countries, streetfootballworld supports these independent organisations with resources and knowledge exchange, as well as financially. “We are the brokers for social change and football is the catalyst,” explains Borkovic.

Charities and organisations that are involved in football-related projects are matched with companies in the commercial sector and footballing world that want to invest in corporate social responsibility projects.

Empowering communities
So far, streetfootballworld’s work has helped 2.6 million people living in areas of need. “Football is not the only way to change the world, but it’s our way,” says Borkovic. “It has a special appeal. It’s universally popular and you can play it in its many guises – futsal, five-a-side, on the beach or up a mountain.”

The organisation works with established charities on the ground, who then empower the local community to deliver the programme themselves. “We don’t tell them how to do it, we empower them to do it as they want to,” says Borkovic.

One example of this is a project in Cañada Real, Spain – an area of extreme deprivation just outside Madrid. In 2016, streetfootballworld worked with FedEx and the UEFA Foundation for Children, along with local charity Deporte y Cooperación, to introduce an artificial football pitch, along with an education programme.

“This place is a dumping ground for garbage, even the hills are made out of garbage,” says Borkovic. “It’s home to a Roma and Moroccan population living in shacks, they are the poorest of the poor. Ten thousand people live in this illegal settlement, where drugs and prostitution are rife and there’s no schooling. There are no streets, no law, no running water or electricity and taxis won’t take you there. Police only come to pull the shacks down.”

Basis for learning
“We needed a carrot that could be used to introduce education to these children, who are completely out of the system, and football was perfect,” Borkovic continues. “We incentivise them with football and then add some learning.”

Getting community buy-in was crucial from the get-go if the pitch was to survive. “You have to make the community value it and own it, otherwise they will just rip it up to have artificial grass outside their home,” says Borkovic. “You can’t place a guard there, otherwise it becomes a nice little challenge for the children to get by them. So they have to feel they are in charge of the pitch and programme, it takes a lot of understanding of the local community to make them feel empowered to do this.”

However, putting the pitch in was just the start: it’s the daily programmes that cost the most time and money and also bring about the most profound changes.

“The idea is to create awareness of fair play and ethos,” says Borkovic.

Make a change
A year later, there are 200 regular participants using the pitch. The age range is from six to over 18, both boys and girls.

As part of its US$200m FedEx Cares CSR programme, which wants to create 200 community projects by 2020, another pitch has since been installed in northern Poland and three more are slated for 2018, in South Africa, Brazil and Indonesia. Borkovic hopes they will do 10 to 20 more.

He says he challenges everyone, from his project managers, to his students and his own children to do what they can to bring about positive change in the world.

“If you’re in a position to make a change, then why don’t you do it? If not you, then who? And if not now, then when? Start now and make a change!”

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