RIO DE JANEIRO - As excitement builds toward the final matches of football's (soccer's) World Cup, another competition has kicked-off in Brazil. The Football for Hope Festival brings together underprivileged young people from around the world for an event that is less about winning than about enjoying the game and one another.
Teenagers from around the world are playing the sport they adore on a sunny morning at the local sports center in Caju, a low-income neighborhood near Rio de Janeiro’s old port.
Welcome to the Football for Hope Festival, sponsored by FIFA, football’s world governing body that organized the 2014 World Cup. This is the other World Cup, said FIFA President Sepp Blatter during the opening ceremony.
“What is exceptional here in these games is there are no referees, nobody to blame, nobody to criticize," he said. "And you never criticize the players. And it’s really… the essence of football. It is a great game.”
The festival has brought together 32 teams from 15 countries for 10 days of fellowship. They were chosen from more than 100 football-based programs sponsored by FIFA around the world.
The program aims to encourage youth in marginalized communities to remain in school. In some communities it educates them on topics ranging from HIV/AIDS to conflict resolution and youth leadership. FIFA has spent $36 million on the program since it began nine years ago.
After this week's inaugural game, Juliane Leao, of home team Vila Olimpica, is exuberant.
“It was marvelous to be representing my community, the place where I was born and raised," she said. "And it’s about this, the spirit of solidarity. In this end, this is what we’re here for.”
One of her opponents from the U.S.-based Starfinders team, Sidney Hennick, agrees.
“It’s been really amazing. We get to play some people from all around the world that we haven’t been able to play before," he said. "We do activities of team building and encouragement and respect. The outcome of the game isn’t always the most important thing. We play just to have fun.”
Brazil’s Deputy Sports Minister, Luis Fernandes, says football has done more for building international relations than decades of diplomatic negotiations.
“I think Football for Hope is a projection of this message of hope for the coming generations," he said. "We have teams from all over the world who have established a competition based on dialogue. There are no referees, so any differences of opinion are resolved through dialogue. And this should be an inspiration for the rest of the world.”
The four-day tournament brings teams from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. It will end on July 10 with the crowning of a Football for Hope champion. But for these young athletes, it is the journey that matters, not the winner.