Football fans at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium, headquarters of the Liberian Football Association. After over a decade of civil war that wrecked the nation, football is helping bring communities back together. From Football's Hidden Stories © Peter Dench.
Now that the dust has settled on domestic dramas around the globe, football’s attention switches to South Africa, hosts of this summer’s World Cup. But a world away from the razzmatazz of FIFA’s quadrennial showcase the game goes on, in the most unlikely circumstances.
Peter Dench was commissioned to document Football’s Hidden Stories, a FIFA-funded initiative recording the way in which the sport thrives in the most improbable circumstances and in which enthusiasm for the game is being harnessed for the good of the community. His travels took him to Chile and China, Indonesia and Israel and many points in between. “I spent 151 days abroad on the project over 15 months. I’ve some work to do on my carbon footprint.”
But the team found some extraordinary tales of hope, valour and sheer weirdness (he was accompanied by a journalist, cameraman, producer and various guides). “We were at the first game between an Israeli team and Druze Syrians originally from the Golan Heights. It was a bridge-building friendly – the Druze visitors hammered the hosts. It was in Chile, I think, where there was a pitch surrounded by steep slopes covered with shanties and nearly as many stray dogs as people. When the rains came a slurry would sweep down the streets past, and sometimes through the lower houses and on to the pitch. ‘Unplayable’ I thought, but they still wanted to play.
“There’s a crew in Iraq called Spirit of Soccer who are trying to clear landmines and educate kids about the dangers of mines through a soccer camp. Outside one town they have a fine full-size pitch enclosed in soaring wire-mesh fences and roofed the same, for fear that children might be killed or injured chasing a wayward ball into the desert scrub. In Thailand they have their own preferred version of football – futsal – usually played on smaller areas with fewer participants, but flexible. It was quite nice to find different versions of the game, and FIFA weren’t so specific that it had to be 11 versus 11.”
In total, Dench covered 26 stories in 20 countries, often with as few as two days to research, interview and picture an assignment in a given location. It wasn’t always plain sailing. “In Haiti (before the earthquake) we took in a game between a Haitian under-17 team and visitors from the US. The game was watched by four and a half thousand, and I walked around taking pictures of the crowd. The atmosphere wasn’t good, we weren’t welcome and there was hissing and a mood of ‘get out, you’re not wanted, get your gear and go’. No one is smiling [in his shots] it’s just a general volley of abuse. Anyway, they went home happy – the u-17s easily beat their older American opponents.”
But the highlight for him was the Liberian leg of the trip. “We tried to shoot iconic shots from each visit embodying hope for the future. It would be too easy to take pictures of poverty. We wanted to capture football stories, positive stories. Liberia is now recovering from a devastating civil war. There are many amputees among the casualties and while before they were considered worthless by society, football has given them a new sense of status and esteem. Result? Amputee Football Champions of Africa.”
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