Travelling the world with a Japanese charity, using football to bring goodwill
In my last Blizzard article I wrote about fists, not feet. I wrote about football in the 1980s in Leicester, a working-class city. My experience of growing up with the beautiful game focused on fouls, fights and thugs. Stadiums trashed and running battles in terraced streets. My stepfather, a lifelong Foxes fan and ageing hooligan, loved to recount the tale, fact or fable I never really knew, about the match when a policeman on the touchline wouldn’t move out of his way. He asked the copper to shift along and he refused. I don’t want to glorify the moment, but in his words: “Bang. I smacked him and he just melted.”
Football was violence. On and off the pitch. In the streets and inside my living room.
Until I went to Japan.
Like many graduates with no money and nothing better to do, in 1999 I flew to the Japan and got a job as an English teacher. My love of a Size 5 had already lapsed at this point, but a favourite question of any good Japanese footy fan was what team I supported. The “Leicester City” answer often got a, “Oh, Gary Lineker, great player,” response – feel free to add your own comedy Japanese accent to that sentence – and I soon found out that half the population of the country wanted to be Hidetoshi Nakata. One of only two Asian players to make Pelé’s list of the ‘Fifa 125’ greatest living footballers, Nakata was not only a creative and quick central midfielder, he was also handsome, intelligent and humble – imagine an articulate David Beckham. This ‘Nakata style’ – his football abilities, fashion sense and even his capacity to learn languages – was adored. And I too became a Nakata acolyte. Football, I realised, didn’t have to be this macho totem of how hard you were.
With this personal conversion of what the game could be, I was nervous for the 2002 World Cup hosts. I was living in Tokyo and worried about the kind of ambassador English football would send. Here I was, in a seemingly crime-free country, surrounded by calm and serene Japanese, many of whom still believed in the English gentleman stereotype. I had visions of a drunken red-and-white horde rampaging through the neon-lit capital smashing up sushi bars. Anxious Japanese media ran scare stories of what water cannons and tear-gas guns the army had in their arsenal and visiting fans concocted wild exaggerations of the martial arts ability of the police.
We needn’t have fretted. After I watched a drab England hold Sweden to a 1-1 draw and shuffled out of the stadium with the rest of the mildly pissed-off, chanting supporters, it was no more than a leisurely stroll to the station. Fans drank, sang and mostly smiled. Subdued by polite respect from the Japanese police – or the fear that inside every white-gloved copper was a Bruce Lee waiting to break out the nunchucks – any notion of that 1980s violence I’d grown up with quickly vanished. The non-confrontational style of Japanese authorities, along with the warm and beaming welcome of the home nation, made any thought of fighting seem ridiculous.
Here I witnessed football culture as a peacemaker. A carnival for the game, rather than a battleground.
Football, peace, and the Japanese would surprisingly combine in my next career move. A few months after the tournament I landed a job as a press officer on board a Japanese NGO called Peace Boat, a cruise ship that sails around the world promoting conflict resolution – imagine a very mild version of Greenpeace crossed with a floating university – and I discovered that one of their core programs was Peace Ball. Launched in 1999, Peace Ball has since delivered more than 12,000 footballs to around 40 countries in the world. Volunteers hold events in Japan to collect the balls and appeal for donations, and charity football tournaments are organised to raise money and awareness. In 2014 the project raised $15,000 to build a pitch for street children in Rio de Janeiro.
Three times a year the ship sets sail from Tokyo. At ports of call along the global voyage an on-board team, made up of passengers and dedicated Peace Ball staff, deliver the football donations and play against local sides. Wearing the Peace Ball strip I walked into communities that would’ve been utterly off limits had I been alone, without that white dove of a football.
In May 2004 the side were due to play a team of Palestinians at a refugee camp in Jordan. Only a few days earlier, photos of Iraqi detainee abuse by US guards at the Abu Ghraib prison haunted every front page in the world. Our squad was made up of two Englishmen, two Americans, and 10 Japanese players. Before we left our hotel the Peace Boat director held an emergency meeting, confirming that we were still welcome, but some less than others. He took the English and the Americans aside, players whose nations’ soldiers had invaded, killed, beaten, electrocuted, raped and then photographed the torture. He told us the decision to enter the camp was ours and that if we did go in we’d have to leave our passports behind and say that we were either Canadians or Kiwis. My girlfriend at the time was from New Zealand and I decided I’d mimic her accent and relay her background as mine, details that would later prove vital.
On the bus through Amman my bravado diminished. We juddered along potholed streets between stalled construction projects, plush hotels protected by security armed with sub-machine guns and basic concrete adobes poured out by the Jordanian authorities and the United Nations in an effort to house the hundreds of thousands of refugees that had flooded the country. News stands all over the capital showed that hooded man balanced on a box with electrical wires attached to his hands. Some of the photos showed the grinning US soldiers beside the naked prisoners.
The bus parked on the edge of the Marka Camp, a ramshackle township of over 60,000 refugees. Originally established in 1968 to shelter 15,000 Palestinians fleeing the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the camp had now swollen into a crowded slum. Iraqi families escaping the second Gulf War added to the already cramped living space.
After a short walk along a dirt road lined with concrete housing blocks, teachers from a UN-funded school invited us inside to meet the pupils and see how the 1200 children squeeze into classes of 50. Any fears about security were briefly put aside when we met rows of beaming students giggling at our sudden and unlikely presence in their classroom. We smiled and waved, told them our names, and remembered to say we were Kiwis and Canadians rather than Brits and Americans. We felt like dignitaries. Important people, welcomed.
Then the bell rang for break time. Hundreds of students flooded the corridors, and our team was washed outside into the playground where waves of more pupils swept us out of the school and into the narrow streets and alleys. This was like a terrace from the 1980s, when your only movement was that of the crowd – except this screaming current was made up of yelling refugee kids rather than beered-up lads.
What was supposed to be a meet and greet had turned into a frightening crush and lack of control. A misplaced hysteria at our presence. Angry drivers nudged car bumpers at the crowd and revved their engines. Teachers yelled at the children and so too did the gangs of men hanging around the neighbourhood. I don’t speak Arabic, but I guessed that this unearned adulation of foreigners equated to applauding the Crusaders marching into the Holy Lands.
It was on one of the quieter side streets, when a group of half a dozen locals, men with skin lined with cuts and scars, men who were probably younger than I was yet already looked beaten by life, pulled me aside. I smiled. I said, “As-salamu alaykum.” Peace be upon you.
Then a man with a deep gash in his forehead spoke English. He prodded my chest with his finger. “Why are you here?”
I told him about the ship, the football team.
“Are you British?”
“No”. I shook my head as if I were disgusted with the assumption. “I’m from New Zealand.”
My Kiwi accent, that probably sounded Australian, switched on. It seemed a very long pause before the next words. The phalanx of kids that had followed us into the alley had gone, and I noticed that another member of my team, a tall Californian, had also been backed into a doorway and surrounded by a similar group of angry young men.
“If you were British,” continued my friendly interrogator. “I’d cut your throat right now.”
I heard another man say, “Tony Blair,” and spit.
“Well, I’m not,” I explained. “I’m from New Zealand.” I told them about my girlfriend’s home town, emphasising the phrasing of its Maori name.
“New Zealand,” he repeated. I could smell his sweat. He was close enough to kiss me, let alone slit my throat. I kept eye contact as best as I could, tricky with the promise of seeing my own Adam’s apple, and then I talked about New Zealand as if I were working for the tourist board, waxing lyrical about its beaches and snowcapped mountains, before I finally mumbled something about Kiwis also hating the British.
“You hate the British?”
“Of course,” I nodded. And then again I said, “We’re here to play football.”
The men muttered. Someone said, “Manchester United.” I thought better of saying I was a Leicester City fan, as the Foxes don’t quite have the mega-brand reach as United and it might look a bit suspicious to be a dedicated supporter of an East Midlands club when you’re from New Zealand.
So I smiled, and slowly started to shift away, careful not to bump into any of the questioners who’d ushered me into the doorway. My American friend had also slipped his interview, and whispered a few expletives about a similar close call as we repeated “Peace be upon you” to the men before making a getaway to the main street. Our group leader, as flustered as we were at the chaos, rapidly led us to the refuge of the sports pitch.
Enclosed by razor wire, the patch of tarmac was at least sealed off from the wider community, should my friends from the side street decide to wander over for a closer inspection of my nationality. Inside the clubhouse, a respectable two-storey building with a small trophy cabinet and a changing room, we pulled on our kit and inspected the photographs that hung on the wall. The series of images, photos of TV footage that had been developed and framed, showed the death of father and son, Muhamad and Jamal al-Durrah, as recorded by a France 2 cameraman on the Gaza Strip in September 2000. The harrowing film of a father trying and failing to shield his son from cross fire between Israeli and Palestinian forces, had impacted across the Arab world, taking on the power of a call to arms. One of our squad, an experienced Japanese foreign correspondent, usually full of jokes and banter, lit a cigarette, looked at the pictures and forlornly wished us all good luck. On the way out of the changing room, painted on the steps down to the pitch, was a Star of David.
The opposition, immaculate in a shiny green kit, stood waiting in formation. Angry, serious and focused. Their Abu Ghraib brethren may have been stripped, tortured and paraded on newspapers and TV screens around the world, but they weren’t going to be humiliated by a bunch of foreigners today.
We kicked off and, despite the stares and the razor wire and the on-field silence and intimidation, the opposition weren’t quite sure how to resolve that anger into action. I was playing up front and darted from the centre-circle, stepped over a couple of axe-swinging tackles before slotting a pass to our unmarked star Japanese striker. He drove the ball into the bottom-right corner and after muted celebrations we found ourselves one-nil up in the opening minute. Not that our resistance lasted. The refugees passed, shot and tackled with the fiery passion you’d hope your own team would muster in a relegation dogfight.
I recall a score of 5-1 and that we were glad to hear the whistle. I thought it might be a match of fouls and fights, but all they wanted to do was win. And then shake our hands, and smile. And chat about football. In a short speech the Refugee XI captain humbled us by thanking us for the game, for visiting the camp, and then offered us hot tea and sweet baklava.
I’m not saying that sport can change the world, but on a day when a Caucasian face in the Middle East represented sadistic prison guards from the Crusading West, kicking a ball around was a simple common experience. We weren’t aliens speaking different languages or worshipping – or not even believing – in different gods. We were just a few blokes running around a football pitch rather than shooting each other.
There would be other ports where I joined the Peace Ball side and other communities I’d struggle to be welcomed in without the white flag of a Size 5. On the outskirts of Lisbon, in the town of Alto da Cova da Moura, a neighbourhood put together by Creole-speaking African immigrants who felt unwanted in other parts of Portugal, the Peace Ball team again won hearts with their visit. After a frenetic five-a-side game on slippery mesh-enclosed pitch we met local community leaders who thanked the players for the gifts of kit and balls and for the ensuing press coverage that would boost their plight for more support from the government.
Joining the Peace Ball team on mini-tours into troubled communities was both thrilling and rewarding. I also played for the side in Guatemalan slums and Kenyan orphanages and each match removed language barriers and cultural differences. We could all admire the footwork of a dribble down the touchline, that perfectly timed header into the top corner, wherever we were from.
Small gestures, perhaps. And I know it’s fanciful, even comical, of me to mention Escape to Victory, but I think of that moment after Pelé’s bicycle kick, when the German officer stands up and applauds. Sport, at its best, transcends nationality and politics and religion. Yes, the beautiful game can highlight conflict and become a rallying point for xenophobia and racism. But football, that sport played with a sphere shaped like the Earth, sometimes brings us a little closer.