Have you heard the one about the two English coaches heading to Brazil to spread the football gospel in World Cup year? Don’t laugh. I give you Craig Robson and Michael Gardiner, Geordie boys following in the footsteps of the British railwaymen who introduced jogo bonito to Sao Paulo 120 years ago.
If you are wondering what two lads from Newcastle might teach the masters of the universe about kicking a ball, the answer lies not in technique but inclusion. Robson, a sports science graduate from Northumbria University, and Gardiner, a graduate of low-paid toil in the Toon, are youth coaches attached to StreetGames and Lionsraw, organisations which, through football, seek to engage the socially disadvantaged in Britain’s urban wastelands and beyond.
This is the other side of football, far removed from the excess and one-eyed fanaticism of the professional product. The programmes that have worked so well in the North-east, and have been exported to South Africa and Poland during major championship years with significant results, are to be rolled out in the favelas. The ghetto communities of Curitiba, a World Cup host, are not so very different from inner-city Britain; the same sense of hopelessness and alienation pervades.
Michael speaks from experience. His life was going nowhere slowly, an aimless plod devoid of meaning and purpose. “I left school after A-levels and was bouncing around from job to job, existing not living. I was working in a glass factory in Newcastle. I was there for eight months and dreaded going in every day. I thought, ‘there has to be more to life than this’. Through coaching I found out there was.
“I went into my local club, Westgate Juniors, working with kids just starting out in grass-roots football. Their first impression of kicking a ball is the most important step a kid takes. If that experience is bad it can put them off sport for life. The club started off with one team; it now has 16 or 17.”
The progression through the volunteer sector was the same for both, coming via the Co-operative StreetGames Young Volunteer Programme in Newcastle, a project that aims to give young adults from deprived communities the opportunity to gain confidence, life skills and ultimately qualifications linked to teaching sport to their peers. The charity has close links to the fan-based movement Lionsraw, which was launched in the North-east by football philanthropist Jon Burns.
“I worked over in Poland with Craig and spent two months in London on a work placement with Coca-Cola. That meant being around the Olympic Park in the middle of the most amazing atmosphere that sport has brought to this country. That inspired me to go on to the next thing, which is taking me to Brazil,” Michael said.
He and Craig are both FA level 2 qualified, and through the StreetGames charity are certificated to teach multi-sports programmes. Craig was recruited from North Tyneside Council on sabbatical. “The aim in Brazil is to inspire young people to learn English and get involved in something positive. Brazil is already a massive talking point. The protests about education and health at the Confederations Cup, about how money is being spent, have made football topical. The reaction from Brazil to what we are doing has been amazing. They can’t believe we are going over there to help with education, sport and targeting disadvantaged kids, people affected by crime and drugs.”
Videos made by the pair have been picked up off YouTube by national broadcaster Globo and played to the Brazilian audience with subtitles. They are showered with images that boil life down to the essentials, including kids of all colours and creeds revelling in the free association and expression that sport permits. The scenes were shot in Newcastle, but the message is universal.
As part of the Newcastle-goes-to-Brazil theme, the boys have taken their story to primary schools across the city on specially designated Brazil days. The kids learn about Brazilian culture, eat Brazilian food, play a bit of footy and dance to the samba beat played by Brazilian musicians. Engagement and learning through entertainment: you cannae beat it.
“We could go to Brazil and do the very minimum and get involved in the tourist thing, but that is not us. We are going there to work, to hopefully develop some really cool programmes that will lead to something really special,” Michael said. “Lionsraw is about people who love football going out there and doing good work, to go into communities and coach thousands of kids, build community centres and medical centres.
“In Poland we rebuilt a shower block in a youth detention centre that had fallen into disrepair; worked with more than 1,000 children in primary schools, drug rehab centres and detention centres. In South Africa they built an orphanage and a school in the Valley of a Thousand Hills.”
Howay the lads!