Football Cares: How Roma are uniting the sport in a bid to help refugees

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  • With the global refugee crisis worsening, football fans and clubs have stood out as beacons of humanity by pledging support to aid those fleeing warzones in the Middle East and North Africa.

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    Bundesliga supporters were trailblazers, displaying banners saying ‘Refugees Welcome’ in games around the country. Their gesture was soon replicated by clubs, with Bayern Munich taking the lead and pledging €1 million (Dh4.15m) towards projects aimed at reinstating refugees – including camps, language lessons, trainings and refugee mascots walking out with the team on match days.

    They were soon followed by the European giants Real Madrid and Paris Saint Germain, both also pledging  €1 million each, while Celtic and Borussia Dortmund organised a friendly to raise money and granted 220 refugees free entrance to a Europa League match respectively. The football community in general has risen up to confront the escalating crisis.

    'Refugees Welcome' banners at Leipzig, St Pauli and Werder Bremen.

    James Pallotta, president of Serie A club AS Roma, has approached the crisis slightly differently. Rather than making a one-time donation or organising a friendly, he sought to unite the footballing community in the hope of achieving more collectively. Pallotta launched the ‘Football Cares’ program, set up specifically to allow clubs and fans to come together and raise money for charities working on the ground to ease the humanitarian crisis.

    “You see a 3-year-old lying on a beach and you think, ‘Enough is enough’,” Pallotta explained as he revealed the initiative. “If that doesn’t affect you, then I’m not sure you have any emotion. And football fans are already more emotional than anybody anywhere.

    “We tried to put the Football Cares infrastructure together to make it really easy for football clubs around the world to do something. Since football is the largest sport in the world and you have the largest audience in one fell swoop, we wanted to try to make it easy for other clubs to be part of this because it’s not about Roma, it’s about refugees.”

    Former USA international Mia Hamm, one of the most recognisable faces of women’s football and  one of only two women to be included in FIFA’s 125 greatest ever living players (as selected by Pele), was appointed as the spokesperson for the cause.

    Hamm, who is also a current AS Roma board member, told Sport360: “When I saw the picture of the young boy, I wept. I wept for him, his family, for all the refugees and for humanity as a whole. It was absolutely gut wrenching. We have a son who is the same age as Aylan and I know how his death has impacted me. I think it has woken people up to the seriousness and horror that these refugees are facing.

    “I am extremely proud to see the football community taking a leadership role in assisting the refugees. Sport has shown in the past that it has an incredible ability to unite us all for good and with football being the world’s game, the impact of Football Cares can be even greater.

    To the credit of Pallotta, Hamm and Roma, they have already kick-started the initiative. The club donated €575,000 (Dh2.38m), with the president personally donating €247,000 (Dh1.02m) of the total sum. Additionally, the club has auctioned off memorabilia including a shirt of club captain Francesco Totti, with all proceeds going to charity. Roma also took the field last weekend against Frosinone wearing shirts displaying the ‘Football Cares’ logo to promote the initiative .

    The efforts have gained traction and Italian clubs such as Inter Milan, Fiorentina, Sampdoria, Bologna, Hellas Verona, Empoli, Torino and Cagliari, plus MLS sides Orlando City, LA Galaxy and Columbus Crew have come together to support the cause.

    While the reaction of all football fans and clubs has being positive, the European governments have had a mixed approach towards the refugee crisis but Pallotta believes in keeping politics out of the initiative.

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    “I think for us, we’re not looking at it as a political issue right now. We’re looking at it as a humanitarian crisis. In the short run, the needs are housing, food, clothing – items like that. The political side of it, the governments are going to do what they’ve got to do and hopefully figure it out.”

    The goal of the initiative is to raise €1 Million. More than half of that amount has already been achieved and with Roma issuing an open invitation to football clubs and fans all over the world to support and participate in ‘Football Cares’, the target should be met with ease.

    Visit: www.footballcares.it to donate – proceeds go to the United Nations Refugee Agency, International Rescue Committee, Save the Children and the Red Cross.

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