Five children walk proudly onto the pitch hand-in-hand with the referees, while the UEFA music plays through the sound system. Another 22 children enter together with the players.
The five children standing in front of the referees, between the two teams, have incredible stories. Their stories are linked to football. In front of them, on the pitch, there is a huge sign: RESPECT.
All of the children on the pitch are dressed in RESPECT gear. An official announcement requests fans to be respectful and reminds them that racism has no place in football.
Before the game started, another child – with another amazing story – presented the coin of the game to the referee in a symbolic gesture. The photo shows the two of us together. We are both wearing t-shirts with the RESPECT logo and the DOSTA campaign, a Council of Europe Campaign tackling anti-Gypsyism.
We are all Roma.
Football changed the lives of these children. I know this may sound exaggerated, or like a poorly disguised PR piece. It is not.
B. lives in one of the worst ghettoes in Romania. Life is tough in the ghetto, full of drugs and violence. His mother was only 13 when he was born. His father is addicted to drugs. Six years ago he wasn’t going to school. Most of the children in the ghetto weren’t.
I decided to try to change life in the ghetto for these kids. I am still working on this.
Seven years ago, at a UEFA meeting, two of the kindest people I know asked what I needed. I told them that needed t-shirts and footballs and anything else they could send me with UEFA logo. I did not expect to get these items, but I did. Every time I asked.
We started weekly football practices, splitting the children into small teams. We called them “UEFA” teams. B. was one of the children who came to play with us. The footballs and the t-shirts worked like magic. Hundreds of children came to the training sessions.
Because we had the support of UEFA, the local administration felt obliged to help. We needed access to the school gym. They gave it to us. We told the children that in order to be in the team, they had to go to school. It worked. Not all of them are enrolled in school, and it has taken time, but the number of children from the ghetto that now go to school has increased amazingly. Some of the best-known football players in Romania came and helped. The UEFA brand has power.
B.’s mother is currently in prison for selling drugs. His father abandoned him and his four siblings. The children are now cared for by their grandmother. On Saturday and Sunday, he and his sisters come to the gym and to the school to play football and do their homework. We now have a group of more than 50 volunteers that come and help, about 30 joining us each weekend. The children receive attention, help with homework, food, clothes, school supplies. We have also managed to help several families with washing machines, refrigerators, computers, bicycles, stoves, and electricity bills.
B. is doing well in school and is at the top of his class in math.
D. is another one of the children on the pitch – I wrote about him earlier this year. Three of the other children are brothers. They grew up in a wilderness area in Bucharest which has recently been made a natural reservation. Their living conditions are too tough to write about, without transforming this into a depressing story. They have never been to school. Their mother scavenges through garbage, collecting and selling plastic bottles. She earns only enough to feed the seven children.
In the summer, these children started to come to the football trainings and the homework sessions. It takes them more than an hour to get to the school. They have learned numbers and letters. G. is nine years old and truly gifted. He has made huge progress in the last two months. His math skills are almost at the level of a second grader now, and he is making very good progress with reading. All are enrolled in school this year.
This was their first football game. Everything was amazing for them: the stadium, the huge screen, the players, the teams, the colors, the fans. Every few minutes they had new questions.
This experience alone will not change their lives. But it can help keep them motivated for quite a few months, and maybe more. It gives us time to find other ways to motivate these children to stay in school and away from the much worse alternatives facing them.
We were also invited to be part of the UEFA Championship League Trophy Tour, two days after the match. This time, we were helped by friends at UNICREDIT, one of UEFA’s sponsors. Three Romanian government ministers and a good number of high-ranking officials came to endorse RESPECT and our campaign against anti-Gypsyism.
The EU Ambassador to Romania and the Mayor of Sector 5 (where the largest number of Roma in Bucharest live) were also there. The European Commission Representation to Romania promoted the campaign on their website.
The 32 children who we brought to the event were extremely happy. They met two-time UEFA Champions league winner Miodrag Belodedici and former Chelsea and Real Madrid great Claude Makelele (on right of photo with Ambassador Angela Cristea).
The next day – Sunday September 18 – we filled three classrooms with children who came to get help with their homework.
Without motivation like these events, most of them would not be in school now. L. is just one of the children enrolled in school for the first time this year.
Since 1 September 2016, I am the Special Representative of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe on Roma issues. I know that football changed my life. I know it can change many lives of many children. It can also stop racism. We are making huge progress, but there is much more left to do.