The Open Fun Football Schools programme, backed by UEFA, continues to use football as a vital component in bringing together people in divided communities.
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The UEFA-backed Open Fun Football Schools (OFFS) programme was introduced to war-ravaged Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1998, serving as a tool to bring together children and adults from conflicting parties to meet, play and have fun together.
In this way, children's football has been used as one tool among others to help normalise relations in divided communities. Supported by UEFA and the Nordic governments of Denmark, Sweden and Norway, OFFS have been brought to 22 countries in the Balkans, Transcaucasus, Central and Eastern Europe and beyond – including Iraq and Afghanistan.
"If we count the number of boys and girls who have participated in the Open Fun Football Schools programme and its Fun Football Festivals since 1998, we will most probably reach an impressive figure of 1,000,000 boys and girls next season," said OFFS founder Anders Levinsen.
This summer, a total of 148 OFFS sessions took place, involving approximately 30,000 boys and girls. Levinsen estimates that a minimum 75,000 boys and girls will participate in the Fun Football Festivals by the end of the 2013/14 season.
"The numbers are impressive, and 1,000,000 is a milestone that Open Fun Football Schools have never dared to dream of," he said. "But what really matters in this context is not so much the number of children, football schools or festivals, but the structure and the social change the programme is leaving behind.
"In the very beginning, our entire focus was on bringing grassroots football to children in conflict-ridden communities, and to use our programme to foster new grassroots football clubs and teams that were open for all. Beyond the Open Fun Football Schools for thousands of children, the education of 32,000 coaches at seminars of 60-80 hours' duration and the distribution of approximately 250,000 footballs, we estimate that our programme has stimulated the formation of a minimum 2,000 new grassroots football clubs and teams around Europe.
"Following the introduction of the UEFA Grassroots Charter in 2004, We have further developed new approaches within our inter-ethnic strategy - for example, the promotion of girls' football and crime prevention… 'Sport + School + Police'. As a result, community police officers have taken part in the Open Fun Football Schools, to build confidence and trust with the children and their families.
"We are due to follow-up in Georgia by forming so-called cross-sector networks in local communities that exist to create an inclusive social environment where everybody feels accepted, confident and belonging to the community and its neighbours," Levinsen concluded. "And in Moldova, we are very close to entering into another three-year agreement with the Swedish Development Agency, with the purpose being to use our Open Fun Football Schools as a tool to foster friendship and cooperation across the River Nistra, and to promote girls football. Both programmes will, of course, be implemented in partnership with the national football associations."