Spearheaded by the likes of Patrick Vieira and Roberto Carlos, The Professional Football Against Hunger campaign reached a head this week with twenty leagues across Europe uniting to raise its profile. Alex Lawson takes a look at how key figures in football are helping avert a humanitarian disaster in the Sahel region of Africa.
“Football is the great global unifier,” says Sir David Richards, chairman of the Association of European Football Leagues. “The leagues and the players know the power and popularity of our sport and we are proud to use that power to tell stories that otherwise would not be told. European professional football is providing the megaphone for this message so that the right help can get to the people in need as soon as possible.”
It is this megaphone that some of football’s biggest names have tuned up, wired to the van that is twenty European leagues and are using to loudly address fans across the continent. Fans from Glasgow to Vienna and from Málaga to Novosibirsk have been watching the likes of former Italy star Francesco Toldo and Jerzy Dude unite to raise the profile of a potential famine in the Sahel region.
The region covers parts of Senegal, Mali, Bukin Faso, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Sudan, Eritrea and Mauritania.
Nearly 16 million people, mainly in farming and herding households, are estimated to be at risk of starvation. For the third time in seven years, the Sahel region of West Africa is facing the consequences of drought, poor harvests and soaring food prices. The campaign, run by the European Commission and the UN’s food agency FAO, are working to raise life-saving cash, food, agricultural inputs and training to those at risk.
The scheme also looks to tackle the causes of recurring food shortages through agricultural analysis and works with local communities to address the underlying causes of vulnerability to increase people’s resilience to future shocks.
Back in Europe, the third and largest Match Day Against Hunger last week saw players push the message through wearing t-shirts, social media and even visiting the region. More than 300 clubs across 150 stadiums in 16 countries participated in a series of matches -including Barcelona’s match against Athletic Bilbao, field visits and trade exhibitions.
Schalke star and FAO ambassador Raul visited the region to observe the problems first hand. He called for widespread public support for the cause, noting that footballers are well placed to understand more than most what it is like to “have the stadium on your side to win the match”.
Former Bulgaria star Hristo Stoitchkov visited Burkina Faso last year to see the joint work of the European Commission and FAO up close while Brazilian star Roberto Carlos, currently the team director of Russian Premier League club Anzhi Makhachkala, said the situation is “even more tragic when we know that these deaths are preventable. United we can save a lot of lives in the Sahel.”
Toldo added that the football world needed to assure people in Sahel that “the world has not forgotten them”.
A spokeswoman for the FAO told Footy Matters that the universal nature of football has been key. She says: “Football is one of the few sports enjoyed by all – regardless of age, gender, wealth or access to soccer fields. Using its universal popularity and power to unite people, Football Against Hunger campaign has been actively promoting its mission to create a world without hunger.
“The strength of the campaign is the vast network of Member Leagues and football clubs across the European continent as well as world-class players EPFL can mobilise for these activities thus communicate its message: Together we can save lives.”
“We must act now to help people feed themselves. Early warning must lead to early action,” says José Graziano da Silva, director-general of FAO. “At the same time, we need to build resilience in local communities to stop jumping from crisis to crisis, and to prevent droughts from leading inevitably to famine.”
If real change is to happen it is clear that Western help will be key to creating genuine cash-flow to aid supplies to the region. The issue goes beyond a mere cause to a task that needs to be dealt with. Former France star Patrick Vieira, who was born in Senegal, crystallises the situation. He adds: “We have a responsibility to those who are in distress through no fault of their own. The right to food is a basic human right, and no one in today’s world should go hungry.”
Read more: Match Day Against Hunger for Sahel Crisis
Tags: Community, Community Matters, Francesco Toldo, Match Day Against Hunger, Patrick Viera, Raul, UN FAO