"Its just some people chasing after a ball, I don't get it."
"Its just a game who cares"
Football whatever your opinion is probably the most influential leisure activity in the world. Apparently there are 265 million players, 5 million officials, around 3.5 BILLION fans with 1.2 billion people watching the world cup final. These numbers don't tell the full story, the importance of a simple game to billions of people around the world. The impact of a sport born in the public schools of England to the lives of people from every corner of the globe is a complex and multifaceted construct. To help explain I'm going to break it down into different components:
1. Physical - The importance of staying active and healthy cannot be overstated. In today's world there is so much that is automated or can be done remotely that the need to leave your house or even move has been reduced significantly. A trend that will only get worse as time goes on and technology makes everything easier and more accessible. We need to look after our bodies with lack of exercise being one of the biggest factors causing the onset of chronic disease. Leading to poor health implications which can majorly lower life expectancy and the quality of life you are able to lead. These health habits are generally developed from a young age as children who don't exercise enough are more prone to serious health conditions like heart disease and diabetes when they get older. You can link this with the main reason people don't exercise, which is that they don't enjoy it. Which is definitely a problem many identify with, and if you want children to develop behaviours they will maintain for the rest of their life you have to make it fun. This is where sports come in and no sport is more popular than football. When you play it you don't feel like its exercise. It is at its core pure, undiluted fun. It’s a hard sport where even adult amateurs cover about 7km a game. A game where you don't have be pushed or prodded to run, where you don't have to force yourself to exercise. A game which you willingly choose to take part and push yourself until you are dripping with sweat. In an age where parents are constantly battling against the latest console or social media outlet to keep their children from being sucked in to a downward spiral of inactivity and laziness, this kind of motivation to get outside and exercise willingly is priceless.
2. Economic - The money around football is huge and the numbers are scarcely believable. The English Premier league generates £6 billion a year, the world cup making around the same amount. The money in the game offers opportunities to so many people to work within the game. Fulfilling the dreams of thousands to become professional and offering jobs from coaches, groundsman, ticket inspectors and marketing managers. Football is a massive employer with most premier league clubs having around 1,000 employees. It contributes about 3 and a half billion a year to the UK economy and has given people like myself an opportunity to make businesses doing what we love.
3. Social - This is possibly where I think football makes the biggest impact. The social impact of football is vast and almost impossible to measure with statistics. For children it provides them with a fantastic opportunity to make friends, meet new people and build confidence in a way that without many would find impossible. A personal example from when I set up a community coaching scheme in which children from underprivileged areas were given opportunities to play for free. Children who never would have been able to access coaching or organised football were able opportunities in their local area. In this I saw first hand the power of football from a social perspective and the impact it could have on children. We played football with no competition, selection or bias everyone could come down and train for fun and to improve. In many ways it is the purest football I have ever been involved in. We brought together children that would never meet otherwise, children from different backgrounds were able to mix, make friends and grow as people. I remember one child (an 8 year old) who never used to talk but used to walk himself down every week. Gradually week by week he became more confident until he could talk and laugh with the others. One day by coincidence one of his teachers brought their child down to play saw him and spoke about how amazed they were to see what he was like here as he is so withdrawn at school he never speaks. They were taken aback by the change in him they saw on the football pitch. These are the things that fill you with pride but show you the power of football to empower children with that confidence that will only help them grow and prosper. I have many stories of children who used to hit and push each other but gradually learnt through football the ideals of respect and care for each other. Things that transcend the game but give them a little helping hand on their journey through life. At this academy I used to run we had children from all cultures and backgrounds mixing together. We had children of all abilities able to participate and enjoy the game without having their ability belittled. For the children to be exposed to this mix of children along lines that many look to divide and be taught by the game to see no difference is a wonderful vehicle for teaching lessons of inclusion and acceptance that will help make our society a much greater place.
4. Education - Education comes in many forms and although football can definitely be used to help with their academic education the main educational influence really is on a personal level. There are things that children learn on a football pitch that are difficult to replicate in different settings. Skills of communication, team work, hard work, listening, respect, empathy, resilience and perseverance among the many skills if done properly that football will have a huge impact on. Gaining the confidence to speak to your team mates, to put your ideas forward, to stand up to challenges in a game. Working with other people towards a shared goal, delegating responsibility, taking responsibility to help the team. Listening to other players, your manager, your coach, analysing and picking through their ideas to come up with the best solution. Learning to deal with decisions that go against what you believe or want with dignity and showing others the respect to trust in them to make those big decisions. Caring for your team mates, helping others who are finding things hard, working harder to help other achieve, sharing your success equally with others even if it isn't equally earned to give others that joy you feel. Pushing forward constantly towards your goals whatever stands in your way as in sport the impossible is always possible. Not letting anything knock you down, picking yourself up after every mistake and going again. These ideals and values are not universally adopted in fact if football isn't taught properly that can learn the opposite. However the opportunity is there for every to become this person and imagine if those 265 million people took these values how much greater would the world be.
5. Psychological - Inactivity and lack of exercise is a massive factor in increased anxiety and depression. Football is an escape for so many with the stresses of everyday life. You slip into something that is detached from your normal life and doesn't carry any of the baggage with it. Raising depression rates makes these methods of escape even more important. The joy of success, the happiness attached to football and the sense of achievement you get from the game is something we all need in our life. We need to enjoy life and it’s these activities detached from all the serious responsibilities of our life that really offer these opportunities to do that. To give you more self worth, and inner resilience to be able to deal with the lows everyone faces. Football is something that we see throughout the world making this difference everyday.
Now I'm not saying that these things are all guaranteed to happen in fact most of the time participants won’t adopt all these habits. What I can guarantee is that football is a weapon that can be used to combat many of the issues that plague us, football is a crutch that can be used to prop you up when you are in need and football is the security blanket you need to defend you against the challenges that bombard us. These are conditional on how you use it. Do you use the weapon to fight discrimination and hatred or do you turn it on yourself and use it deepen divides with talk of hating your rivals, or as a platform to spread racist ideal?
Do you use the crutch to support others who have nothing else in their life that make them feel appreciated, welcome and free or pull the crutch away by rejecting those of lower ability and closing doors to those from a lower income family? Do you throw them that security blanket and help them build the internal support systems of resilience and strength or help break them down by making them quit through lack of respect and knock down those walls of strength while they are still building the foundations?
Football is an amazing thing and it can change people’s lives. Yes it isn't the most important thing in your lives, it doesn't feed you (most of the time). It doesn't cure illness or infirmity. It doesn't pay the bills for the vast majority of 3.5 billion people it touches. Life isn't only this though. It isn't only surviving day by day, working for your next meal, waiting for your next pay cheque. Work, eat, sleep, repeat? If it was just this nothing would separate us as the most advanced lifeforms on this planet. It gives us more, it gives us many of the things that really define our life. Because life is more than just being alive, life is about living. Feeling the joy surge through your body as you see you players rush around you when you net the winner, feeling the adrenaline as you fly down the line leaving players in your wake, feeling the power of hope as you recreate your every goal in your dreams in front of an expectant Wembley crowd, bursting with pride as you watch your child stop and pick up a player from the opposition when he falls down injured, seeing the smiles of children lost in the moment, the children who never realised they could stand up and take responsibility, that they could be the man when they thought they were worthless or unworthy, seeing all of these and knowing that all you have to thanks is a game where you run around chasing a ball. I have seen all this and more and for a game that isn't really important it is probably the one thing that has always kept me going, the one constant in my life.
Football represents life and what we strive to achieve. You either embrace it or you don't but if you don't you will be poorer for it. However if you do but you twist and cheat the game then you become the problem. Football isn't important, but because it isn't it is. Embrace the game and embrace those things which bring life to our lives.