In the hills of eastern Bosnia lies the small town of Foča. During the mid-nineties the town was the site of some of the worst atrocities in the Balkan wars. Almost 3,000 of its inhabitants went missing or were killed, the town's mosques were destroyed and Muslim women were raped by Serbian paramilitaries at a nearby camp. But thirteen years on, residents in Foča are trying to move beyond those gruesome events as Bosnia forges ahead with reconstruction and reconciliation efforts.
One such attempt was the decision to host the Street Football World European Championship in Foča last weekend. George Springborg, Street Football World's Project Manager, explained how the German non-governmental organization has set up a network of social football organizations around the world to use the so-called beautiful game at the local level around the globe as a tool for social development of young people.
“We felt there was a need, together with organizations within the network, to know each other better and work towards a more active networking process within Europe,” he said.
Twenty-four teams of young people from Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Hungary, Serbia and elsewhere descended on Foča to play an international contest where communication rather than winning was the ultimate goal. And given the tournament's special objectives, the approach to game play was tailored to suit.
“We call it Fair Play Football and the idea is that the two teams are responsible for the type of match that they're playing,” explained Springborg. “The teams meet together before each match, discuss the type of rules they would like to use and agree they will play in a fair way. There are no referees. It's a fantastic investment in the game but also in the ability of these young people to communicate and take responsibility.”
Steffi Biester represents Kickfair, a social development agency based in Ostfildern near Stuttgart. She described the kind of German youths the group had brought to Bosnia: “These kids have a very high drop-off rate at school and don't attend regularly,” she said, adding most have difficulties with their families and the police.
“For most of them it's the first time that they are out of their city so they meet many people from different countries and for them they are part of something bigger. They feel worthy to be part of it and that has a lot of positive influence on their self-esteem.”
Former German national team player Carsten Ramelow also was in Foča because he believes it's important to bring together young people from different nationalities to help intercultural understanding. “It is great to see the kids have fun. I think that is very important. I think it's fantastic when you see these boys from Brazil or from England coming together,” he said.
Street World Football is all about that saying, “It matters not who won or lost but how you played the game,” according to Springborg. “That statement couldn't really sum it up better,” he said. “I have absolutely no idea who's leading the groups and to be honest we don't really care. We've seen some fantastic matches but we've also seen some fantastic situations of understanding and real friendships.”
But while fun was definitely on the agenda, the tournament also had extra significance for the Bosnian hosts. The strife caused by the country's turbulent past is something the local officials are keen to help heal while it strives towards eventual EU membership.
Ferdinand Kopp, head of operations for the EU delegation to Bosnia and Herzegovina, said though there is still much work to be done before the country can join the European Union, he believes the message the street football tournament was the right one.
“This event is in my view very important. The Street Football festival can reach the youth. They are especially important because they are the future for the country and they don't have such a burden from the war,” he said.
The sport park where the tournament was held stood in stark urban contrast to the acres of virgin forest surrounding the town. But listening to the constant cheers and whistles from the crowd watching the football in that gritty setting seemed proof enough that Foča – and perhaps Bosnia – have turned the corner to a brighter future.