Friday, 19 November 2010

Giving something back. The nicer side of football

Flying the flag: Essien was in Ghana supporting his foundation
Overpaid, poor role models, on field prima donnas, disenfranchised from reality. These are only a few of the slurs aimed at the modern-day footballer.

The off-the-field antics of the likes of John Terry, Ashley Cole, Wayne Rooney and even youngster Andy Carroll and Jack Wilshere in recent weeks have only fuelled the fire of ill-feeling towards this particular group.

Believe it or not, although there are some bad eggs who continuously profess to have turned a corner (Joey Barton perhaps?) there those who go the extra mile to give something back.

Only this week Michael Essien returned to his hometown in Ghana, Awutu, to help promote his charity, the Michael Essien Foundation.

To date, it has helped fund a water bore hole in the centre of the town, as well as new public toilets.
“It is so good to be home and be able to give something back to my community,” said Essien.

“It is great to be here, where I used to play football, and the amount of people here is really special, it makes me really proud.”

The Ghana international is not alone by any means. Football fans across the land may have been surprised to learn Craig Bellamy opened a school in Sierra Leone earlier this year.

Although the cynics may see these as well-timed PR stunts, the Essien visit coinciding nicely with a three-game ban following a nasty two-footed lunge last week, while the Craig Bellamy Foundation set up to placate those who feel the Welsh international is little more than an angry thug, the pair are demonstrating a more generous and compassionate side to their feisty characters.

But there is plenty that goes on out of the public eye.

“Lots of players are setting up foundations,” said former Liverpool defender Phil Babb, speaking at The Sue Ryder International Cup, a charity event hoping to raise money for its international work.

“There are so many things going on behind the scenes. People don’t always see what’s happening – players are constantly out there giving something back.”

Babb was joined by fellow ex-pros Bob Bolder, Steve Lomas, Kerry Dixon and Steve Claridge in a legends team which faced the tournament’s winners.
Football friends: Getting up close and personal with the legends
Claridge and Dixon regularly feature in tournaments, while Lomas helps out at Children’s Hospice Haven House back in his native Northern Ireland.

Lomas said: “There are a lot of wonderful people involved there.

“Ray Winstone’s a patron and they give valuable support to the families.”

Babb said he and his teammates realise just how privileged they are and he remains grateful for the impact football has had on his life.

The former Republic of Ireland international has played for various Liverpool legends teams over the past seven years, while the club regularly host a Football Aid event.

Indeed, Liverpool as a club, and city, have a rich history of charitable work.

Both Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres have raised money for LUPUS UK, while vice-captain Jamie Carragher has set up his own charity, the 23 Foundation, which hopes to give children on Merseyside a better life.

Across Stanley Park, Everton skipper Phil Neville and his wife Julie are patrons of the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital Charity.

Their daughter Isabella was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when she was just 18 months old and they were told she may never walk.

Despite this setback the couple, in particular Julie, have embarked on a vigorous fund-raising campaign which has seen a celebrity auction, a reception for the appeal at No10 with the Prime Minister, a series of fundraising races and two concerts.

To date, the charity has raised over £20 million.

In June this year, celebrities and some of the biggest names in football joined forces for Soccer Aid, a match held at Old Trafford to raise money to benefit UNICEF projects around the world.

While all of the above barely scratches the surface of charitable work carried out by current and former pros, it remains to be seen whether the football community can shackle the tarnished image created by many of the game’s less than responsible characters.

As long as the fund raising continues, be it in the public eye or behind the scenes, I doubt the game’s true legends will care.