The joy shining in young eyes thanks to football has been a recurring feature in a memorable first year for the UEFA Foundation for Children, launched last spring with the key aim of using the game's social force to help children and safeguard their rights.
The foundation, which embodies UEFA's wish to play a more active role in society – using football as a vehicle – has hit the ground running in the initial eight months of its existence, already winning widespread plaudits for the quality of its work. A wealth of activities in 2016 are destined to provide further happiness and positive experiences for youngsters in Europe and beyond.
Launched on 24 April 2015, the foundation made its objectives immediately clear, and began forging a positive reputation with its opening projects. At the Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan, in particular, and in conjunction with the Asian Football Development Project (AFDP) and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the foundation consolidated help to children displaced by the conflict in Syria by organising sports activities, training for football coaches and tournaments for girls and boys living in the camp.
In the Pacific region, the foundation took up responsibility for the Just Play project set up by the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) and UEFA, which seeks to encourage physical activity among 6 to 12-year-olds and promote healthy lifestyles to confront the local problem of child obesity. Work is also under way with the International Foundation of Applied Disability Research (FIRAH) to improve the lives of autistic children and their families.
An exciting year beckons for football fans, with UEFA EURO 2016 in France certain to dominate the summer. Appropriately, the foundation has launched three projects linked to the event, and will arrange and support activities that bring children to the fore.
July's international streetfootballworld Festival 16 in Lyon will bring together 500 children and young people in celebration of UEFA EURO 2016, with the highlight being an international solidarity tournament backed by the foundation. In addition, just before the finals, Euro Foot Jeunes will see the cities of Lens and Lille stage boys' and girls' European schools' football tournaments. The goal is to gather all 54 UEFA nations together in France so that they can be part of this fiesta of football – and Euro Foot Jeunes will feature nearly 1,000 players from the 30 European countries that have not qualified for the final round.
Deprived children will also have the chance to savour the unique UEFA EURO 2016 experience, with the foundation inviting 20,000 youngsters to attend a finals match. The children will be selected and looked after by the host cities and associations that play a recognised role at national or local level.
Other major UEFA occasions enabled the foundation to give children unforgettable memories in 2015. Eight children and four accompanying adults from the Air pur & soleil (Fresh Air & Sun) organisation in France attended the UEFA Champions League final in Berlin. In Poland, 143 vulnerable children were thrilled to be present at the UEFA Europa League final in Warsaw. Another 100 young people in precarious situations in the Prague region attended the UEFA European Under-21 Championship final in the Czech capital.
Perhaps the most eye-catching moments happened at the UEFA Super Cup match in Tbilisi, Georgia, last August. Through a shared initiative between the Georgian Football Federation (GFF) and the UEFA foundation, 1,000 disadvantaged children and accompanying adults from Georgia and eight neighbouring countries joined the star players of Barcelona and Sevilla as well as the match officials in forming a human chain, and four young Georgians sang John Lennon's song Imagine to promote a powerful and moving message of peace through unity.
All of this impressive activity was guaranteed to meet with recognition, which duly came in November when the foundation won its first honour, the Foundation of the Year prize at the 2015 Peace and Sport Awards in Monte Carlo, for its impact in improving the living conditions of disadvantaged children.
Reaction to the migration crisis in Europe was also immediate – the UEFA Executive Committee giving its approval in September to a donation of €2m to the foundation for a series of initiatives to help child migrants in Europe and beyond.
By the end of the year, eight new projects had been added to the foundation's portfolio for the forthcoming period. These include a health and social integration scheme in the Republic of Ireland; a programme tackling social exclusion in Burkina Faso; a campaign raising awareness of the dangers of mines, and awareness of football, in Iraq; and a project in Nepal aiming to ensure access to sport for vulnerable children, in particular young girls.
This year promises to be even more fulfilling than the first. "We are very proud of the work we do around the world and look forward to embracing new projects which can improve the lives of children around the world," says the UEFA foundation's chairman José Manuel Durão Barroso. "We are going to work to defend the rights of the poorest children and support them – through education, health initiatives, social inclusion and access to sport – to enable them to envisage a better future." Football's heart for children has never beaten more soundly …