While working in Colombia in 1994, I was shocked and saddened by the killing of Andrés Escobar over an own goal scored at the World Cup. This senseless act of violence led me to reflect upon football's capacity to unite rather than divide, and ultimately motivated me to develop Fútbol por la Paz - a youth project which used football to combat gang violence. The emergence of such initiatives across Latin America - and indeed the world - has given rise to the idea that football can be a driving force behind processes of social change.
Almost 20 years later, the streetfootballworld network in the region comprises 16 organizations across seven countries: Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Costa Rica and Ecuador. These organizations all differ in their methods and resources, but they are united by a common goal: using football to provide young people with opportunities. From peace building to gender equality, from employability to environmental protection, the Latin American streetfootballworld network members are committed to creating sustainable change in their communities.
While we believe that change happens locally, the benefits of collaborating in a network are manifold. Together, the organizations can combine their resources and talents efficiently, share expertise and best practice, and reach smart decisions as a network. I believe that acting as a network also allows organizations to make their voices heard and take collective action - with streetfootballworld providing a strong platform from which to do so.
As well as facilitating valuable exchange between organizations and amplifying their voices, taking part in network activities such as festivals and tournaments also acts as an incentive for participants and young leaders - thus strengthening initiatives on the ground. The next major landmark is the 2014 Football for Hope Festival which will take place in Rio at the same time as the FIFA World Cup.
The unique collaborative spirit of the Latin American streetfootballworld network was in evidence once again at a recent meeting in Cartagena, Colombia, which was attended by all 16 organizations. The event resulted in the creation of a new strategic plan for the region, focusing on four key areas: financial sustainability, increased visibility, exchanges and events, and capacity development.
In Latin America, football has always been more than a game. And through the work of the streetfootballworld network members, the beautiful game is aiming towards new goals - both on and off the pitch. Football can change the world, but it requires a team to win this game.