Arsenal: More that just a football club
There is a side to Premier League football clubs that few are aware of. Players are often seen as overpaid prima donnas, and clubs as exploiting the fans with excessive ticket prices, but that is far from the whole or the true story.
Since the 1980s, Arsenal FC has had a dedicated community team, set up in response to social unrest in London at the time. Today, Arsenal in the Community works with over 5,000 individuals each week across a range of education, social inclusion and sport programmes – 360 programmes a week in 150 locations. Arsenal’s tradition of giving has also expanded over the years, from making contributions to good causes local to the club to supporting major charitable projects in the UK and overseas.
In 2004, Arsenal launched a Charity of the Season initiative which saw ChildLine, the David Rocastle Trust, Willow Foundation, Treehouse, Teenage Cancer Trust, Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity and Centrepoint all benefit. Then in 2012 Arsenal Foundation was launched as a grant-giving organisation with the mission of helping young people fulfil their potential. Save the Children, the Willow Foundation and Islington Giving are all official partners of the Foundation, with a great number of other projects also benefiting from grants and support.
The cooperation with Save the Children is about building football projects for children around the world who need a safe place to play and to be children again. Two pitches have already been opened in Iraq, in camps for displaced children fleeing war. More work is underway in Indonesia, Somalia and Jordan. The aim is to use the Arsenal name and the power of football to offer inspiration and support to young people who need it most.
Manager Arsène Wenger, is fully behind these initiatives, saying: “Community has always been at the heart of Arsenal Football Club and I have been incredibly proud to have seen the Club’s initiatives grow and deliver consistent results in a number of important areas.
“What makes a Club survive in the long-term is not always the top of the tree but its roots – it is these roots that we need to extend and make sure that they grow and penetrate into the community, both here in the UK and increasingly, internationally. It may not be the most glamorous part but, in my opinion, it is the most important part. We know that the power of the Arsenal name can open doors to young people who may otherwise be lost to society.”
I first became aware of this aspect of the club when I heard Arsenal CEO, Ivan Gazidis, speak at the conference ‘Sport at the Service of Humanity’ at the Vatican, when he shared the Arsenal story in terms of “how we go from a group of elite athletes, kicking a piece of leather into a basket on a football field, to someone saying that our football club changed his life”.
The individual he referred to in the quote was a Gambian refugee called Borry Jarju, who came to London having been a victim of torture, arriving with no community, no friends, no family, no job and no money. He was put in touch with the Arsenal Freedom From Torture project. He came in and played football twice a week with people from different backgrounds who had been through similar hard times, which gave him a community and rebuilt his self-worth. Because he came to England loving football and knowing Arsenal, people at the club were able to gain his trust and refer him to their community department, where there are people who work on improving a person’s employability. Borry was given help to apply for jobs and prepare for interviews. That support helped him secure a job in Debenhams.
Borry now sees Arsenal in a different light. “I was born and raised in the Gambia, and I came to the UK four years ago. It was tough, of course, and it’s very difficult to adapt to living in a new country if you don’t have any help from either organisations or people in your new home. But I did.
“I was very lucky to find Arsenal in the Community through Freedom From Torture, and they have helped me with lots of things in my life. I started going – and still go – to football sessions in which we play matches against local teams and sides from other areas.
“The Arsenal Employability Programme has also been a massive help. The people there helped me learn about my responsibilities as an employee, and also the responsibilities that employers have to their staff – every aspect of being part of the workforce in this country.
“They helped me write my CV, apply for jobs and learn to cope with interviews. To tell you the truth – and you might think I am overemphasising but I’m not – the most important thing in life is to feel appreciated, and Arsenal in the Community have given me that. And so I cannot tell you how much I appreciate everyone who’s helped me. The wonderful people there have all been exceptional to me and given me so much support.
“I thought Arsenal was just a football club, but it goes beyond that. It’s not just about the team or even about the club helping kids to play football. It helps build people’s lives. Before, I was one out of ten. Now I am ten out of ten.”
Gazidis says that Borry is just one example, one of many. “These stories are important because they provide a foundation for our values and we bring people like Borry to speak to our players so that our players can understand that what they do contributes to a greater good. We are finding that broadening our players’ horizons and giving them a sense of social responsibility can take pressure off them. Their whole world is football day after day – things are written about them in the press and the fans are up and down according to their results. But when they realise they are in a wider context, it helps their performance. And that is another benefit not just for the players but across the whole staff – to be involved in this process.”
For the past 30 years Arsenal has been taking a leadership role in women’s football in England. Their women’s team is among the most successful and best known women’s teams in English football. But it is about more than just success on the pitch. Gazidis continues, “We continue to invest in making sure that we progress the elite level and all the youth levels underneath. We do that because we think for young girls to have an inspirational point where they can get self-esteem, self-worth, team values by taking part in the team sport with their peers and with role models that they can aspire to be like – and not from all the rubbish that is pushed down them every day – is an incredibly powerful force for good. But we still have a long way to go in that area but that is another inspirational piece of work that I’m proud we’re involved in.”
Because, Gazidis says, Arsenal is not only a local north London club, but a global brand, they see the potential to contribute internationally: “Now we are trying to take what we have learned about football as a gateway for great social outcomes and to use the Arsenal name around the world to do that. We don’t have the capacity to deliver projects around the world on our own but over the last five years we have developed The Arsenal Foundation and put in place a partnership with Save the Children in particular but other international partnerships as well. We have been involved not just in emergency relief projects around the world but with long-term projects in places as far away as Beijing and Indonesia and elsewhere.
“In the last five years our focus has really changed and we have made refugees central to what we’ve been looking at because of the issues there. It is not just building football pitches but supplying coaches and helping develop cultures in those places using the methodology that we have, which is to bring people in, coach them in something they love and then give them support in other areas to develop good social outcomes. And we have done that in Syria, Somalia, Jordan and Iraq where there are over three million displaced people, half of them children.”
Arsenal ladies’ captain Alex Scott has visited a refugee project in Iraq. She said of the experience: “The impact that football is having on these children’s lives is incredible. Having escaped violence and war with only the clothes on their back, football is giving them back a childhood and some normality after everything they’ve been through.
“The bravery and resilience the kids in the camps show is awe-inspiring and has really put things into perspective for me. But beneath the surface, these children have witnessed and experienced terrible atrocities and many have lost loved ones and friends.
“By encouraging teamwork, instilling a sense of achievement and just by having some fun, football is helping them to recover and giving them a chance of a better future. I’m so proud that Arsenal and Save the Children are making such a difference to so many children’s lives. It has been truly inspiring to see the power that football can have.”
It is great to see power for change that football has and how Arsenal is using it to make a difference.