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Teamwork and harmony triumph as stars support Hope United initiative

The UEFA Foundation for Children joined forces with BT Sport and the Rio Ferdinand Foundation in Belfast this week to support the Hope United initiative, which aims to raise awareness of discrimination and promote inclusion through football.

 Players lift the trophy after the Hope Cup with BT Sport and UEFA Foundation
Players lift the trophy after the Hope Cup with BT Sport and UEFA Foundation UEFA via Sportsfile

The activity centred around a friendly match featuring two mixed teams of 14–17-year-old players from across Northern Ireland, who hail from different racial, cultural and religious backgrounds, going head-to-head in a game broadcast on BT Sport ahead of the UEFA Super Cup match in the country's capital.

Two mixed teams faced each other in a thrilling friendly in Belfast
Two mixed teams faced each other in a thrilling friendly in BelfastUEFA via Sportsfile

English footballing legends and BT Sport pundits Glenn Hoddle and Joe Cole provided coaching from the sidelines, with Ferdinand offering expert analysis alongside fellow former-England international Eniola Aluko and two-time UEFA Champions League winner Steve McManaman in the commentary box.

Additionally, some of the children involved in the game took part in Wednesday's UEFA Super Cup opening ceremony on the pitch at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park, which also featured a Hope United video.

Rio Ferdinand, England legend and BT Sport analyst

"Football is one language, it brings people together, it makes people smile, and if you can get a worthwhile and meaningful message alongside football, then you're winning."

An entertaining friendly

The two sides, Hope and United, played out a fantastic 3-3 draw in front of an enthusiastic crowd at Crusaders FC's Seaview Stadium that left everybody happy.

Regardless of the result, the event showed the power of football in bringing different people together in support of a common cause – highlighting the issue of online abuse.

"It's vitally important, especially for this next generation of kids who are dealing with things that our generation never had to," Ferdinand told UEFA.com.

"Education is key - it's important young people understand how you can combat abuse. It can be a lonely place online. With a phone, things never go away, it's always there at your fingertips. It's a lot harder for players and in young people in general, so these initiatives are hugely important."

United against hate

Rio Ferdinand and Eni Aluko face the cameras
Rio Ferdinand and Eni Aluko face the camerasUEFA via Sportsfile

Aluko, who recently scaled back her social media usage, believes football has a unique power in bringing people together, a power which must be used to spread a positive and inclusive message.

"Football is one of the few avenues and sports that genuinely bring people together and bring attention to some of the ills of the world," she said. "Football has allowed me to meet people and make friends with people I would never have met, to see the world and I think that’s really powerful.

"We have an opportunity to speak about things like discrimination and online abuse. We see on a weekly basis racism and discrimination in sport, particularly online, and we need to find a way of changing that and driving that out."

There are, she added, things we can all do to help each other stay safe online.

"It feels horrible to receive online abuse," said the former Chelsea and Juventus forward. "I would really encourage the platforms, like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, to create a space where people are accountable for what they say. If you're accountable for what you say you will think twice about saying it.

BT Sport's Hope United campaign aims to tackle online abuse

"If you do see online abuse or discrimination, call it out, report it and trust that process, even though they could get better as well. Be kind and create a different type of energy and experience online."

Hope for the future

Events like this one show that we have more in common than we do differences.

Legends Cole, Hoddle and McManaman echoed that sentiment, pointing to the positive atmosphere on display.

Supporting Hope United

Joe Cole: "Football has always been about meeting people from different walks of life. When I was young, we would go up north and meet people with different accents and it seemed exotic. Now, the football world has become smaller and we meet people from Europe and South America or Africa, and you can talk about different cultures. We've come so far but there is a still way to go. If you get to a certain age and you can't embrace having different cultures around you then something has gone wrong. I think the next generation will make the world a better place and the prejudices of before are slowly dissipating but we have to keep going."

Glenn Hoddle: "Hope will always overcome hate. It takes time but events like this are needed and we have to continue them. One day we will all be on the same page, but this is just one example of how we can be positive. Football and other sports have to keep this going because these kids need help – it's important that they know the support is there and that takes away the fear."

Steve McManaman: "This is a great occasion to be at. With football, once you get into an environment when you're surrounded by other players, you rely on them, you trust them and befriend a lot of them. You can always ask people for help. Sport plays such a huge part in the world we live in."