In Germany, many people remember very clearly how football can bring us together. The World Championship in 2006 was commonly regarded as a good balance between rediscovering a dynamic, easygoing and cheerful German national identity and at the same time opening the country to the rest of the world to be guests and friends there. With the "Sommermärchen" ("summer fairytale") of 2006 in mind, can our readers imagine what the Street Football Festival in Belgrade felt like? Christian Diemer talked to George Springborg, one of the organisers of the 3rd European Street Football Festival which took place in May 2011 in Belgrade, Serbia.

Image: Dana Roesiger
Raring to go: young footballers at the European Street Football Festival 2011

Belgrade is a city which has seen the very opposite of integration - and only a short while ago. Supported by the European Commission and the UEFA, 80 young football players from 15 to 18, young leaders, mediators and coaches from 20 different organisations and 14 different European countries met there to compete – and to win. All of them, it seems.

E&M: George, when Germany waved the national flag in 2006, it was partly controversial, and partly a relief. What's that like in the Balkan region, where national pride and identification play a far more decisive and powerful role?

The delegations at the European Street Football Festival are not representing countries but organisations working for football. That takes a bit of the tension out of it and helps us moving away from nationality that always brings with it the baggage of history. It remains of course part of the background. But the twenty teams have been selected for their good work for football as a means of integration.

E&M: I vividly remember a school exchange I took once took part in in Ireland, including a friendly football match between the German guests and the Irish hosts. There had been no contact between the members of the different teams before, and there was very little during or after the match, partly due to language barrier. But in the changing rooms we found some of us at once roaring racist and anti-Irish songs. And I guess the Irish were hardly more open-minded... As the Street Football Festival is not there to have national teams competing but wants to help individuals make friends beyond national boundaries, why don't you play in nationally mixed teams?

The idea of playing together in mixed teams has been considered. It's just that in the short few days of the festival, it's not ideal from a technical point of view. What is feasible is a combination of the two: partly games in the pre-established, familiar teams, partly games in newly mixed ones. But it is not a must. We can achieve fair play and integration even when playing in our own teams. The first two and a half days are fully dedicated to exchange and making friends, football is taken out of the program. There is a series of different excursions in and around beautiful Belgrade. The delegations have the opportunity to perform presentations to one another: poems, films, something representative of their country, or rather something from their country that they want to share with people from other countries. We play games, we do some team-building with mixed groups. So when the teams compete on the pitch, they are already friends.

Image: Dana Roesiger
"When the teams compete on the pitch, they are already friends": for the first two and a half days of the festival, the participants get to know each other.

Furthermore, the games are played according to the Football3 method, first applied in Colombia and adopted and developed through the work of many organisations. This means that there is no referee. The players have to negotiate and agree on every dispute on their own. This means putting the responsibility of fair play, team spirit and negotiations on the players.

E&M: In 2009 French football fan Brice Taton was killed by hooligans of the Serbian soccer club "Partizani". House walls in Belgrade are covered with graffiti claiming solidarity with the murderers. This reveals the opposite potential football carries with it. How did the Street Football Festival ensure that everything went peacefully and that the effect was integration and not confrontation between the teams? Or were there problems?

These tendencies undoubtedly and unfortunately exist in Serbia. The local hardcore football supporters pursue aims that are clearly different from those of the Street Football Festival. We take security measures to avoid any contact with local football teams, fans or hooligans. We try not to create any moments where conflicts could occur. After all we are also responsible for the kids. On the other hand, we are not afraid to present our message. National TV is there at the event, there is constant media coverage, 50,000 copies of our booklets...

E&M: There are many ambitious initiatives to heal the wounds of the Yugoslavian War, but on the other hand the impression is undiminished that for the majority of the ex-Yugoslavian population the wounds are still too fresh to be healed and reconciled. At the European Street Football Festival Croation teams played along with Serbian ones, and so on. Please, explain this miracle!

Some things indeed come close to a miracle. In this year's final we had two teams from Bosnia, one from Goražde, one from Foča. Those two towns had gone through extremely violent quarrels during the Bosnian war and had not maintained any contact since apart from the work of Football Friends. And then at the festival the two teams were congratulating each other, they went together in one bus...

This is possible through the personal contact the organisations in place built up over years, organisations like Football Friends. They find the people in those communities who believe in the same thing, then gradually build up a relationship until they are willing to come together.

E&M: How is that perceived in the towns?

Very positively. We are overwhelmingly well received by the community. In Foča, for example, they loved the idea that people from all over Bosnia were coming to their small town. Many people understand that the division that still exists is blocking progress and they want to get over it. Young people in Bosnia have a very bleak future. What they want to see is further integration, further progress, further chances opening up.

E&M: You say the local organisations try and find the people who believe in integration, in order to ensure that everything takes place peacefully. Are you preaching to the converted?

The organisations work with disadvantaged youth primarily, with some of the people who are most difficult to reach in the region, in communities that have not had the opportunity to take part in exchanges before. This is a long process, as those arriving at the festival as "converts" were not necessarily converted before. By the time they reach the festival we hope that they have already grasped the idea that we have much more in common than not. But that is not a given. That is something the organisations work hard on. This encompasses a long preparation process, the selection of the delegations.

E&M: What happens after the festival, after everyone has travelled home? Are there inter-national or inter-ethnical friendships which last?

Yes, the kids are still in contact with one another, mainly through Facebook. A lot of contacts built during the festival do remain. Especially those participants from the Balkans, who don't live too far away from each other, do meet regularly.

E&M: Serbian society is one with relatively clear gender roles. There are even theories to explain the atrocities and relentlessness of the Yugoslavian wars by the macho culture of the Balkans. Any effect on the way street football is played at the festival?

Generally it is very unusual to have a tournament where boys and girls are equally represented, as in ours. 99% of our organisations work together with both genders, some in countries where it is not the norm to see women playing. But again it is due to the organisations' preparatory work that the participants are used to this from the very beginning.

E&M: When is the next Street Football Festival?

The next European Street Football Festival will hopefully take place in France, we have a funding application pending. The next global festival will be in Brazil in 2014, but we really hope that there will be a couple of European festivals before that!

George, thanks a lot for the interview!

Teaser photo: Dana Roesiger

IN -1170 DAYS