This initiative uses sports as a tool for social cohesion to bring together children in areas of the world working toward post-conflict reconciliation. Launched in 1998 by the Danish non-governmental organisation (NGO) Cross Cultures Project Association (CCPA), the Open Fun Football Schools (OFFS) project involves connecting kids in war-torn areas such as Bosnia Herzegovina through football (or, soccer) - with the goal of enabling young people to meet and communicate in a space that is not "politically contaminated." OFFS serves as a supplement to the local football clubs. Every football school lasts for 5 days and includes a minimum of 200 boys and girls between 7 and 11 years old, 15 voluntary coaches, and 12 coach assistants. The overall purpose of the project is to stimulate the process of democracy, peace, stability, and social cohesion in South Eastern Europe by re-establishing friendships and sports co-operation between otherwise antagonistic population groups. The project has developed into a broad Nordic cooperation, which so far involves larger regional operations in the Balkans, Trans Caucasus and Moldova, and the Middle East.
This initiative uses what CCPA envisions as the entertaining and interactive medium of athletics in an effort to provide a platform for uniting elementary school teachers, local leaders, trainers, and children from different ethnic and social backgrounds. Grassroots football is the basis for communicating the principle of "sport for all", which CCPA conceives as involving a strong local foundation, democratic principles, volunteerism, and parental support. The founder of OFFS asserts that "football can function as a 'driver' that unites people across cultural or religious differences. Football constitutes a universal language....The language is fun, enjoyment and team spirit that derive from the game."
To illustrate this strategy "in action" in one OFFS location (the Balkans), the "playing for peace" concept is centred around the involvement of two municipalities and four football clubs. The municipalities must be from different sides of an ethnic divide or other line of confrontation. The football schools are conducted as games for children in mixed teams of approximately 16 children - each team comprising children from both municipalities and all football clubs. A basic regional structure for training of instructors and trainers is designed to ensure that all trainers fulfil a common programme of training and cooperate across ethnic and national groups themselves. Organisers claim that "[b]ringing all trainers through the same training in mixed groups from all over the Balkans creates formal and informal links between the groups of trainers in the different countries." The aim of the 3- to 5-day training process is to educate young trainers who can continue working under the same principles of the schools even after the project officially ends. By implementing training seminars and by leaving all the sports equipment behind, CCPA hopes to motivate and encourage the local football clubs to continue their community work.
The training philosophy reflects a commitment to bridging the generational gap between adults and children through the creation of a physical and social environment that is conducive to learning how to live a responsible and constructive life - both on and off the playground. Emphasis is placed on educating children to listen to each other, take care, show tolerance, make compromises, take on responsibilities together, and realise their interdependence - no matter their qualifications, sex, or skin colour. CCPA contends that "[t]he experience of unity during a game of football is essential. The children should acknowledge that everyone has a right to participate equally with the skill that each one possesses..." To this end, the schools promote girls' participation in football at all levels - such as by setting a benchmark of, at minimum, 25% of female players, coaches, and leaders.
The project started in Bosnia-Herzegovina with 12 football schools involving 2,254 boys and girls and 189 coaches and school leaders. Since then, the project has evolved from being a reconciliation tool developed in that particular post-war context to a tool to bridge understanding and tolerance across existing divides between population groups. In the summer of 2003, OFFS organised a total of 78 schools involving 16,000 youngsters (13,000 boys and 3,000 girls) and 1,400 coaches and school leaders from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Serbia and Montenegro. Since then the programme has expanded; as of this writing, 890 schools have been established; a total of 180,000 boys and girls are involved, and approximately 17,000 voluntary coaches and leaders have been trained.
One coach said, "...And here I am in Struga Macedonia among Macedonians, Albanians, Kosovo-Albanians, Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Bosnian Serbs, Muslims,..., - and Armenians and Georgians. Coaches and leaders that each and every one carry around war stories that for the part of Armenians and Georgians are still being written. In spite of personal and national fate, football, sports, and the mission to bring children and adults together through sports, gather these people in a unity that signals the joy of movement, the joy of football and the joy of giving children — with all sorts of ethnic backgrounds - a fun and educational experience. When they are out there on the pitch they are 'just' football coaches laughing, playing and they want what's best for the children. I can't se[e] if they are Croats, Bosnians or Macedonians, but I can se[e] that sports has been a part of breaking the boundaries and I can see that sports creates communities and happy people."
Another OFFS participant claims that "[t]he schools have stimulated the formation of hundreds of local football clubs in the respective countries that are organising football for all children regardless gender, talent, ethnic or social backgrounds."
CCPA is a politically independent, non-profit, humanitarian organisation that works to develop, participate in, and implement projects which have as their main objective the promotion of reconciliation and integration among people through dialogue and collaboration.
The project is coordinated with the national football associations in the project countries. Furthermore, the Football Association of Norway and the Danish Football Association are seated in the CCPA board. A number of international and national donors have been funding the football schools, including (but not limited to) the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), Sida, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Finish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and ECHO. Finally, in recent years the OFFS project is increasingly being funding through corporate social responsibility (CSR) partnerships with companies such as Novo Nordisk, StatoilHydro, SOCAR, Nike, and Velux (the Villum Kann Rasmussen Foundation).