Updated: Jul 6, 2022
✦ It’s been said many, many times before - sport has an uncanny ability to transcend boundaries, language, race and religion to unite people and cultures all across the world.
Once you step onto that tennis court or football pitch, take to the track or pool or lace up the boxing gloves, you are united by one common denominator and all else is put to one side, even if only momentarily.
Sport and friendship go hand-in-hand in many ways and the examples of deep-rooted, genuine friendships being forged between opponents over the years are seemingly endless.
Here we focus on just two examples of how sport and friendship have offered hope to unite people and create meaningful relationships, no matter the odds.
Football (yes football, not soccer!) is widely-regarded as the global game, played in the streets, alleyways, fields and beaches of the world by a multitude of nationalities and religions. Relatively safe and cheap to play, it is an accessible sport that can be played anywhere as long as you have a flat-ish open space and a couple of jumpers to set down as goalposts.
Friendship is always the winner
It is also a sport that is built around freindships, be it with your teammates or opponents.
Many a life-lasting friendship has been forged on the football pitch contesting hard fought matches. Once the game is over it’s back to the bar for a couple of cold beers and a recounting of the day’s events - win, lose or draw, friendship is always the winner!
Aussies are world-renowned as a friendly bunch and no more has that been evident than in the recent case of Afghanistan’s national women’s football team who fled their homeland and the Taliban to seek refuge down under.
The women had become a target back in their homeland and their safety was jepordised after the Taliban seized control of the country in August 2021 and were quick to implement their strict interpretation of Sharia law.
Female oppression under Taliban rule is notorious and the idea of women playing sport was incomprehensible to the new regime. The team therefore fled Kabul via Hamid Karzai airport shortly afterwards, many without their families, to seek asylum in Australia.
“If they were still there today they’d be at extreme risk,” commented former Socceroos captain Craig Foster, now an acclaimed Human Rights Advocate. “They certainly wouldn’t be able to play [football], nor to attend university, or for some of the young ones even to attend school.”
Foster helped the women with their relocation and managed to secure the team a place to play in Victoria’s State League Division 4 West under the banner of the Melbourne Victory Afghan Women’s Team. Along with big-hearted community members, supporters and volunteers within the greater Melbourne area, Foster has helped the Afghan women assimilate into the Aussie lifestyle and provide them the opportunity to play the game they so love without fear or recrimination.
The welcome they have received from their new neighbours has been critical in helping the women adjust and come to terms with the fact that many of them are alone, thousands of miles away from their loved ones and facing an uncertain future.
“These women and girls, along with all of the vast majority of other Afghans who came, came without families, they fled under circumstances where there simply wasn’t enough visas to go around,” said Foster.
“And so those most at risk were helped. I had to explain to this team that they couldn’t bring all of their families, and that's an awful place to be both for them and for those that are trying to help them,” he added. While being fully appreciative of the welcome and support they have received, the team has naturally turned to one another and formed an almost impenetrable bond of unity.
“The soccer pitch is the only place where we can forget everything such as those bad experiences we had in airports or in Afghanistan,” defender Mursal told the ABC. “We can forget we don’t have our families as well. When you don’t have them it’s so hard. Instead of them we have our second family, that’s our team. We’re like a family together, unbreakable.”
The future is uncertain for the women and it is not yet known whether world football governing body FIFA will permit a team in exile to compete in international competition. But for now that isn’t the most important thing. The safety of the women is paramount, afforded by an incredible display of friendship by a foreign country and its people.
“The entire football community should be proud that we’re capable of delivering these sorts of opportunities for the most vulnerable members of the community,” Melbourne Victory director of football John Didulica told the ABC.
“It’s the bedrock of why we are such an incredibly successful multicultural nation. Football’s ability to create a safe space for these communities, but then get them working with other communities cohesively... is the hallmark of what football’s brought to this country.”
Peace and friendship for a day
For the second example of how sport has served to transcend and create friendships, we go back over 100 years to the battlefields of Europe in World War I, where, on Christmas Day in 1914 in Frelinghien, France, one of the most remarkable events in living memory occurred.
As British soldiers lay shivering cold and pertified with fear in the trenches, looking out at the numerous corpses littering the ‘No Man’s Land’ separating them and their enemy, they noticed that German soldiers were starting to come out from their parapets and advance towards them. As they came closer to the British trenches, it was clear the Germans came in peace, offering gifts such as cigars and chocolate, wanting to shake the hands of their usually bitter enemy and take photographs together.
Shortly after, a game of football was arranged on the war-ravaged ground that only hours previous had witnessed young soldiers falling to their death. Space was cleared and goalposts were erected from salavaged timber before the two teams representing each nation took to play.
“No referee; we didn’t need a referee for that kind of game... There was no score, no tally at all - it was simply a melee,” Ernie Williams, a 19-year-old private with the 6th Battalion Cheshire Regiment at the time, told the Imperial War Museum in an interview several years later.
Indeed the score was irrelevant. It was the occasion, the opportunity to forget the horrors of the battlefield and forge friendships with those, who the very next day you would be fighting to the death, that was so extraordinary in this instance.
With so much turmoil still engulfing our world over 100 years later, it might pay to recall how differences can be set aside, even in the most testing of circumstances, and friendships can be forged, however fleeting, through something as simple as a game of football.
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