1st – 27th September 2009
University of Bogaziçi
University of Van
University of Aleppo
University of Damascus
This was the inaugural Football Beyond Borders tour and as such its goals were broad.
At the heart of the project was a two-fold desire to challenge and overcome the negative cultural stereotypes that pervade our society. On the one hand, to overcome the mistrust and misunderstanding which had increasingly characterised negative attitudes about the Middle East in the UK. On the other, to show people that students, and especially student football teams, were engaged and motivated citizens and not the apathetic drunks of mainstream portrayal. That was how all this began – it sprang from a desire, almost a necessity, to do something active to make people (ourselves, friends, families, and the wider world) question their lazy assumptions and inhibiting fears. The more tightly crafted ‘goals’ – the development projects, the creation of a solid organisation, the talks, the documentary – would come later but at the start, our aims were simple, broad and powerful. Ultimately, it was nothing more than a strong desire to make people question their assumptions and an even stronger desire to realise our common humanity that provided the push which took us so far.
We made it there and we made it back — that was a great achievement in itself.
When we started with this idea, there was no precedent and little hope that we could successfully navigate over 2000km of tough terrain. The first big challenge to overcome was in convincing our own team of the value of this project. Getting eight 18 and 19 year-olds, many of whom had never been far from home let alone to a region of the world that the British Foreign Office advised against travelling to, was a huge obstacle.
That was the achievement from which everything else followed. Once we had the commitment of all the players there was no reason why this trip would not succeed. From that point on getting there was still a battle – whether it be the challenge of raising almost £20,000, the difficulty of organising things without a shared language, the suspicions of the Turkish authorities or the impossibility of navigating Syrian bureaucracy .
Once we were in the Middle East, we played matches against eight different nationalities including a match for ‘peace’ with Kurdish teenagers who had been imprisoned, one against Iraqi refugees and a awareness raising match against Armenians to acknowledge the Genocide that had taken place amongst a century ago. In addition to this we experienced important regional areas including the Kurdish region of Turkey, a UNHCR refugee camp housing displaced Iraqis in Aleppo, the historical site of Al Quneitra which overlooked the occupied Golan Heights as well as the Southern Lebanese city of Tyre.
The University of Bogazici from Istanbul would come to stay with us in London the following year to continue the process of cross cultural dialogue. Despite the important sporting and cultural exchange, the greatest achievement was the profound and long-lasting effects on everyone involved. It was the most formative experience of many of our lives and compelled us not to give up on our dreams. The strong foundations laid on this tour ensured that an ambitious yardstick existed and that Football Beyond Borders was here to stay.