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Football as a Tool for Reconciliation in Kosovo


As part of our continuing effort to service and educate our membership, each Thursday U.S. Soccer will provide an informative article from one of its departments. Once a week, we will bring you an article/paper/essay that will hopefully enhance your enjoyment and knowledge of the game of soccer - on and off the field.

This week we examine the journey of one of our members to Kosovo, where he started soccer clinics for children with disabilities.  What follows is Jon McCullough's account of his time in Kosovo and what it meant to him.  His story also reminds us that soccer can be much more than a game.

Football as a Tool for Reconciliation in Kosovo
by Jon McCullough (Chair, USSF Disability Soccer Committee)

I first heard about the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation’s (VVAF) Sports for Life program from their project manager in Kosovo, Amy Farkas. While I was in Chicago, a friend set up a meeting with Amy for her to ask questions about the politics involved with disabled sports. As a Paralympic soccer athlete, I have been working in the U.S. to get kids with disabilities more involved with sports. My hope is that the children will use sports to gain their confidence and strength and grow to be positive examples in society.  The next thing I knew, I had volunteered to go over to Kosovo for two-and-a-half weeks. The plan was to help set up the Sports for Life program while doing soccer clinics for these kids with disabilities.

I was hoping to use ‘sport’ as a tool to promote the possibilities of success in the lives of these disabled children. An ambitious idea, yet one I do believe in as part of the Paralympic movement.  The use of sport as a tool for international reconciliation is extremely underutilized. The World Cup, as a single event, had more viewers around the world than any other event. Nothing outside of sport has even come close. When I travel and want to start up a conversation with someone, the topic of soccer is one that everyone has an opinion they want to share. Soccer truly is an international language.

I remember watching a game in Kosovo; it was a pick-up game between adults at a local park. Out in this random setting, they just kicked off their shoes, threw down two sets of large rocks for goals and played on a field that I would have difficulty walking across. These guys had visible skills and played with an intense flair. Yet their style was quite choppy, rarely looking to pass off when they were anywhere close to the goal. With the shots on goal, there was no hesitation to hit it as hard as they could, regardless of the notion that the ball would end up in the woods, causing them to repeatedly chase it down with bare feet.

With all this new knowledge, I developed the outline for my clinic. It would have to be something quite different than what I had done before. I would have to take into account that I would need an interpreter for the whole thing.  Everything would have to be easy to follow with easy transitions once I started. I knew that I would first have to explain a good deal of who I am and what gives me the right to be here as a disabled American. Then I would start the active part of the clinic. My objective was to build a relationship of trust, one that could be in reference to the game, yet, transcend the sport into other aspects of there lives. I also wanted to look into a way to eliminate this feeling of self agony over a mistake, create an atmosphere of support.

The clinics, which I did in a variety of regions here, would start off with this relationship building. They would first start to develop this with the ball. Next I would expand this relationship to the field. Finally, I would bring in the element of each other. This would all be done with a variety of activities that could expand into my vision of building trust and new relationships. Being a source of positive reinforcement was important by letting them know when they were doing something well.  Did this approach work? Not only did it work, it surpassed my wildest expectations.

I hope that to these children with disabilities I represented a possibility that they had not seen before. Why? Because I was a person who had succeeded to be an elite athlete who also happened to have a disability. They knew how difficult it would be to do these things as an individual with a disability, they could relate to who I was. In this culture, even before the war, the chance of a person with a disability to succeeding in any aspect of life was bleak.

Now, all of a sudden, these kids are introduced to an individual that has played soccer all over the world. In front of them was someone who has met a legend like Pele. They were overwhelmed with this new possibility for themselves. This could be that first action that would allow them to gain confidence and to be proud of who they were. These kids with disabilities were introduced to someone who had experienced physical trauma and survived to excel in sport, they saw someone who was a model of what could represent their future.

Just as I think the children got more out of this program than they imagined, I got more out of this than I ever imagined.

If you would like to learn more or are interested in being a part of the Paralympic movement or the Sports for Life program, please contact John at: parsoccer@hotmail.com

Questions can be directed to Julie Ilacqua, U.S. Soccer's Managing Director of Federation Services.  Julie can be reached at jilacqua@ussoccer.org or at (312) 528-1252.

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