Match for Solidarity
Photo credit: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré
Football Greats Star in Match for Solidarity
On a sweltering April afternoon (21/04) in Geneva, Switzerland, two teams of football all-stars took to the field to play in the Match for Solidarity — a charity game co-organised by the United Nations Office in Geneva and UEFA, European football’s governing body. Dressed in their best national and club jerseys, fans descended upon the Stade de Genève to enjoy 90 minutes of sport for a good cause.
Proceeds from the match went towards the UEFA Foundation for Children, and will finance humanitarian projects that support children with disabilities.
The starting line-up for each team featured footballing greats from yesteryear; one was captained by former Barcelona and Real Madrid star midfielder Luis Figo, while the other was helmed by former Barcelona superstar Ronaldinho.
Both players, now retired from professional football, had once captained their national teams — Portugal and Brazil respectively. They were joined on the field by Robert Pirès, Andrea Pirlo, Kelly Smith, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Essien and more.
Speaking in February, UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin said: "Players can have a big impact in improving people's lives, therefore it is great to see so many football stars unite around such a great cause. I strongly believe that our sport can play a key role in social change and this charity match is a great example of football being a force for good.”
Although all of the players on the turf have hung up their boots, they easily settled back into old rhythms after kick-off, executing natural passes and coordinated attacks on goal. Pierluigi Collina, the formidable Italian referee, managed the flow of the game on the field, while managers Carlo Ancelotti and Didier Deschamps called plays from the side-lines.
Team Figo took the lead early on, through a goal from former Spanish and Real Madrid legend Raùl, and dominated the first half — though there were beautiful shots and impressive saves on both sides. Despite a few risky tackles and a hint of frustration over a denied penalty, a spirit of respect (even between rivals on the pitch) was evident throughout the match. Every game is about competition, but the Match for Solidarity had bigger aims.
It was organized to promote the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Of the 17 SDGs — aimed at alleviating poverty, hunger, and environmental damage amongst other objectives — the Match for Solidarity focused in particular on Goal 10: Reducing Inequalities.
One of the main targets of Goal 10 is “to empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all,” and it is also explicitly concerned with the topic of migration, namely the facilitation of “safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people.”
It’s fitting that the match would focus on this goal in particular, given that migration and professional football are inextricably linked. Of the players on the field for the Match for Solidarity, most made their name outside of their country of origin.
“In a truly global economy, sports create a migrant meritocracy few other industries can match,” wrote Ambassador William Swing, Director General for the UN Migration Agency, in a recent op-ed.
“Winning, after all, is not everything to a sports fan. It’s the only thing. So where you come from, what language you speak or what religion you were raised in have little impact on where you’re allowed to kit out. If you’re good enough, you’re welcomed to the team,” he continued.
Rolling substitutions indeed saw more players welcomed to the pitch for the second half, including two women: Kelly Smith for Team Figo, and Celia Sasic who brought Team Ronaldinho back into contention with her goal.
There was a flurry of activity after halftime, with six more goals scored before the final whistle blew — and just as many ambitious fans who hopped the field’s barriers, running onto the field to try and steal moments with their favourite players. Ronaldinho, a clear fan darling who drew cheers and applause throughout, took the pitch invasions in his stride, at one point stretching out his arms while a young fan ran towards him for a hug.
Rather than cause commotion, the pitch invasions were extra moments of levity for the crowd and the players. In what would have been the ultimate metaphor for equality, the Match for Solidarity almost finished in a 3-3 draw, until Spanish player Michel Salgado’s shot hit the back of the net to give Team Figo the victory.
After the final whistle, the pitch was flooded by hundreds of fans who wanted to make sure they got as close to the action as possible. Winning is still everything, but it can be still be fun when everyone gets to share the glory.
Proceeds from the match, will go to the UEFA Foundation for Children and used to finance humanitarian and development projects to help children with disabilities at local and global levels. The Swiss beneficiary of the Match for Solidarity is Autisme Genève. Internationally, the funds raised will help support projects in Africa, Asia and South America.