The winning match plan



Albrecht Sonntag, Professor of European Studies, ESSCA School of Management


In football, the successful engagement for the inclusion of refugees is not so different from the experience of preparing, playing, and winning a tense match. In both cases, you need highly motivated players, a well-prepared tactical match plan, and a range of indispensable skills.



In many European member states, the massive arrival of refugees since the summer of 2015 has sparked off an amazing amount of good will within the “football community” in the largest sense. A remarkable number and variety of initiatives have been set in motion by grassroots football volunteers and other civil society actors. And several federations have supported these actions with logistical and sometimes financial help.

Four years later, some patterns begin to emerge under the scrutiny of the social sciences. Researchers from various national backgrounds and academic disciplines have accompanied and observed activities in the field, conceptualised the factors for their success (or failure), and engaged themselves in projects with the objective to provide evidence-based assistance to those who launch and pursue initiatives for the inclusion of refugees on the pitch.

 ”A only one contributing element in a complex process of inclusion”

Football’s potential and limits

Football seems particularly well-placed to serve the purpose of giving vulnerable minorities like refugees or other migrant groups an opportunity to get in touch with their host society and experience a feeling of inclusion in ordinary social life. It is a simple game that is accessible to almost everybody and that provides joy and pleasure to participants of all levels. It does not require significant linguistic competences and has a long history of inclusion across all socio-economic layers of society.

It is therefore not surprising that football is unvaryingly described, both by activists and public authorities, as a wonderful “tool” or “vehicle”, which may be put to good use in the process of social integration for newly arrived individuals. Regular football interactions are considered favourable for the acquisition of communication and intercultural skills, a healthy physical exercise and welcome distraction from daily worries, an anchor of stability and purveyor or self-confidence.

Research, both from Europe and other destinations of mass migration like Australia, actually confirms this beneficial potential, describing it with relevant psycho-social concepts like “empowerment”, “sense of belonging”, “connectedness”, and “social capital”.

Social scientist do, however, also cast a sceptical eye on football’s limits: social integration is always strongly context-dependent, and “any attempt to use sport to promote social inclusion must be informed by a critical awareness of its strengths and limitations as a social practice” (Ramon Spaaij). There is no guarantee of success: football is never sufficient on its own, but only one contributing element in a complex process that also relies on many others.

 ” Training volunteers on issues of inclusion”

Needs assessment

Over recent years, a flurry of reports on good practices relating to the social inclusion of migrants through sport have been published by the European Commission, UEFA, and various NGOs engaged in transnational projects. All of them aim at encouraging grassroots actors to launch or engage in initiatives by providing positive examples through local success stories. “Classical” football offers” (training sessions, tournaments and club life) are complemented by a large number of additional activities, such as language or other educational training, awareness-raising among the local public, administrative support and advice for refugees, or even professional qualifications.

Despite all these good examples, grassroots volunteers still find themselves confronted with some major recurrent obstacles. A needs assessment carried out by the ongoing Football Including REfugees project (FIRE), coordinated by Sport and Citizenship, has established a list of ten needs that civil society actors report about. Typical difficulties include the reaching out to target groups in the first place, the search for partners of different kinds outside the club, the lack of project management skills and perennial funding, a certain helplessness with regard to linguistic and intercultural barriers, as well as follow-up issues like the integration of refugees into regular football, their possible engagement in volunteering activities within the club, and the larger fight against prejudice and rejection in society.

In order to address the most fundamental of these needs effectively, volunteers deserve adequate help. Taking up on the “match” metaphor of the title, there is certainly no lack of highly motivated players when it comes to addressing the inclusion of refugees through grassroots football, but their tactical skills, match plan and technical competences can be developed.

This is exactly what the FIRE Project aims at achieving. The project, scheduled over two years (2019-2020) and including partners from Belgium, Poland, Romania, Scotland, and Spain, has started to work on an innovative training tool, a so-called “MOOC” (Massive Open Online Course) that will focus on overcoming the most pressing needs of volunteers. In a sequence of training units, the course will mobilise both experts from the social sciences and management studies and grassroots testimonies about what works and what doesn’t. Publicly available, and easy to follow for individuals who already have a tight timetable between their professional duties, family obligations, and already existing volunteer work.

The MOOC is due to be released around this time next year, so watch this space. It will be a modest contribution to large societal issue, but as every football fan knows, it’s the small details that carry the match.



Sport et citoyenneté