The Irish FA Foundation is to play a major role in a new cross-European project aimed at strengthening social inclusion in divided communities.
The Sport Together project will have a focus on young people and girls and to increase participation of disadvantaged groups - in particular refugees and newly-arrived migrants and minorities - in grassroots sport.
Co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union, with seven partner countries, it is aiming to tackle threats to social cohesion through training, education, awareness-raising, capacity-building of sport stakeholders and cross-community youth sport.
'This project is a truly exciting one and to be able to act as host of the launch was a privilege for the Irish FA Foundation'
Apart from the Irish FA Foundation, the project is being supported by the Football Association of Ireland, Vienna Institute for International Dialogue and Cooperation (VIDC) - fairplay initiative (Austria) and Serbia-based NGO Atina, a citizens’ association for combating human trafficking and all forms of gender-based violence.
The other partners are Youth Initiative for Human Rights, based in Bosnia and Herzegovina, University of Thessaly in Greece, Donegal Sports Partnership in the Republic of Ireland and Nogometni klub Zagreb 041 (Croatia).
The 30-month project was launched via a two-day partner conference. It was originally scheduled to be hosted by the Irish FA and staged in Belfast, however it was instead held via Zoom due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Irish FA Chief Executive Patrick Nelson opened the event in which participants were able to engage, discuss and develop the project at its inception.
Irish FA Foundation Community Relations Officer Chris Wright, who is the Irish FA’s lead representative for the project, said: “This project is a truly exciting one and to be able to act as host of the launch was a privilege for the Irish FA Foundation.
“As disappointed as were to be unable to showcase our stadium, capital city and country to our partners in person, I feel we gave everyone a positive experience of Northern Ireland and the Irish FA through our online delivery.
“All partners were keen to see our country post pandemic and a study trip for all is very much still in the plans going forward. This is a positive programme with a long term vision and one I am looking forward to leading on for the foundation.”
Other events being planned include a training session in Belgrade this autumn followed by workshops in all seven partner countries (November 2021 until June 2022). And next year there will also be a girls’ football festival in Vienna and an inclusive grassroots event during the European Week of Sport, with further events planned for 2023.
David Hudelist, Sport Together project co-ordinator with VIDC-fairplay in Austria, said: "It was brilliant to see the motivation and spirit of all the partners during the kick-off meeting.
“We would have liked to have been in Belfast to see the great work the IFA is doing in the areas of social inclusion and diversity but even in that online meeting you could feel the strength of this unique collaboration. To link the Western Balkan region with Northern Ireland and Ireland through football and sport will be an exciting task over the next two and a half years. We are very much looking forward to it.“
Initially the project will look at ongoing ethno-political divisions in the western Balkan states and on the island of Ireland and then the focus will switch to the continued challenges following the so-called EU refugee crisis.
Michael Boyd, Irish FA Foundation’s Director of Football Development, added: “It was exciting to sit in on the launch of such an innovative project. To see so many partners from post conflict countries come together to explore and develop the power of sport was so positive and I know this project will bring so many positives to all partners and communities.
“This is a truly innovative project and a journey the Irish FA Foundation is proud to be part of.”