The Irish Football Association (IFA) continues to win plaudits for its outstanding work within the Northern Irish community as part of its comprehensive Football For All project.
The IFA was one of the associations invited by UEFA to present its activities as a shining example of community relations at the European governing body's recent inaugural corporate social responsibility workshop in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The IFA Football for All (FFA) project is managed by the association's community relations department, and its mission is to create "a fun, safe and inclusive culture throughout all levels of football". It adds: "Football for All is committed to tackling sectarianism and racism. The guiding principles of Football for All are education, support and communication."
Education centres on work which encourages good practice, using football to tackle sectarianism and racism. Coaches and volunteers undertake awareness training, and workshops are staged to put over the Football for All message.
Support includes work with Irish League clubs to develop community relations plans; partnership work with community groups, fans and volunteers to put together community-driven Football for All initiatives, and supporting key projects such as the World United intercultural football project, which promotes respect for diversity.
Communication work includes annual Football for All awards, DVDs and workshops which, among other things, bring clubs together with community groups.
The Football for All project began in 2000, when the IFA launched an FFA strategy to tackle sectarianism, and set up an FFA advisory panel. In 2004, the FFA became a major feature of the new community relations department at the heart of the IFA, and in 2010, the association incorporated Football for All into its official strapline.
"We're here to develop and move football forward in Northern Ireland," Jenny Penrose, IFA fundraising manager and community relations staff member, told an attentive audience in Sarajevo. "This has been the message since the Irish Football Association's inception back in 1880, and we have remained true to our original vision.
"In the early days [of Football for All], we tried to build up a network of groups and organisations to help us in the work that we wanted to achieve. Through that process, we developed an FFA advisory panel who help guide and support the work of Football for All. They have been a very valuable asset to us over the past 12 years."
A wealth of grassroots initiatives have been launched. For example, the Belfast United Forum promotes community engagement, sport and social inclusion; Game of Three Halves shows the power of sport to promote respect and diversity; Street League gives homeless people, ex-offenders, drug and alcohol dependent individuals, the long-term unemployed, refugees and asylum seekers new motivation through football; Women's World United and World United provides weekly training sessions which help people of various nationalities integrate in the community.
Internationally, Football for All supports anti-racism initiatives such as the UEFA and FARE anti-racism campaign, and is sharing in the drive to nurture women's football. Strategic work in conjunction with fans is breaking down barriers of the past, and supporters have also been involved in the consultation process over the future development of the Windsor Park venue in Belfast into a National Football Stadium.
The IFA and its Football for All team is conscientious in obtaining feedback about its community work. Penrose said: "One of the unique aspects of Football for All is that we're very much research-led – we're focused on measuring the social and economic impact of our work. We try to do this wherever possible."
The work being undertaken in Northern Ireland has also been recognised further afield, in particular by the European Union. "Over the last ten years, the Football For All Project has transformed the atmosphere at Northern Ireland international football games creating a fun, safe and family friendly environment," said EU commissioner for regional policy Johannes Hahn. "Bringing together key partners from both the private and public sectors, the project has played a central role to get real progress in community relations in football (…) Not only has Football For All made a meaningful difference locally, but we also see it as a model which other countries around Europe can learn from and aspire to."
"We are committed to transforming football in Northern Ireland, and making it more accessible and inclusive," said Penrose. "I think for any project, it's always useful to know what we're doing well and things that can be done better. We realise that there's always more work to do – but it's positive to have such respected recognition."
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