Last week, Barcelona president Joan Laporta led a club delegation to visit the Kiziba Refugee camp in western Rwanda. The trip was part of a collaboration project between the club and the UN's refugee agency UNHCR. Barca has given over $100,000, part of which was spent on building a multi functional sports centre. Laporta was there to cut the ribbon and officially open the centre.
As you come down the hill into Kiziba you can see the camp site from a distance. It looks beautiful. Nestling between several hills in what is a lush and green Rwandan countryside, you can see hundreds upon hundreds of tiny houses with white roofs. As the cavalcade of UNHCR 4x4's which carry the Barcelona delegation winds down to the camp, local villagers stop working. Most simply stare but some young children run by waving energetically and laughing enthusiastically.
The Kiziba camp was built in 1996 and houses close onto 19,000 refugees. Most of them are from neighbouring DR Congo which has been racked with years of internal fighting. As Laporta's entourage enters the camp hundreds of refugees have been waiting patiently to greet him. A large Barcelona FC badge is held aloft and a long line of line of people unveil a huge Catalan flag. Singers, dancers and a welcoming committee are eager to greet the president of officially the best club side in world football.
After a welcoming ceremony inside the newly built sports centre in which a karate team, dancers and football players provide the entertainment Laporta is shown around the camp. Overall it’s pretty grim viewing. The tiny mud built huts are dark and cramped. The school lacks space and has very few facilities to offer the children. The market is empty, and overcrowding is an obvious problem. It’s almost surreal to see Laporta in this environment. The last time we spoke was when Johan Cruyff was named as coach of Catalunya and Laporta was present at his official unveiling. Television cameras, photographers, men in suits, Barcelona's high society mingling around the hors d'ouevres and canapes, were the order of that day.
Yet here we were chatting outside of a grim looking classroom. In the background a dirt track ran away from us with a ditch on either side. It’s the rainy season still in Rwanda, and the track has turned into a dark, angry looking orange pregnant with rain and with puddles sitting everywhere. Hundreds of children in their blue uniforms hum around us, smiling, eager and full of excitement. So my first question to Laporta is obvious.
“What are we doing here?” He echoes me. “ We are showing our soul to the less fortunate, because Barcelona is more than a club. When we say this, it’s not a slogan it's a declaration of principles. The best way to show this is to give back to society a part of what society has given to us. Thanks to the people we have this chance to show our solidarity. Here in Kiziba we are involved with UNHCR, in order to develop programmes which are based around education, nutrition and of course sport."
UNHCR says that this year alone the club's funding has been over $100,000. It may not seem like a huge deal but the figures are impressive when you add them all up. Since 2006, the Blaugrana has been donating 0.7% of its annual budget to the Barcelona Foundation, which oversees all of the charitable work the club carries out. The club donates just over $2 million dollars annually to UNICEF to wear their logo on their shirts. It's a deal which will last for five years and end in 2011. And of course its estimated that the club has lost over $100 million dollars in revenues from not having a private shirt sponsor.
“You know I tell the refugees that they are stronger than my players. I believe in this. I say that to encourage them, so they can improve and face up to their difficulties," Laporta continues. "And my players are very proud that their club is involved in work like this. We have the logo of UNICEF on our shirts, but that's not enough. We have to promote these programmes and we have to find ways to resource them. The people here are living in very bad conditions and we have to help them. My players are very proud of the refugees and we are playing for them too.”
It all sounds very nice and sugary. It's almost a Hollywood ending. The world's top club not only plays champagne football but also helps the needy worldwide. It almost feels like Barcelona are the good guys of football. Everyone's favourite heroes. It's a great publicity stint isn't it? After all Laporta sweeping into a camp, shaking a few hands and handing over some money for programmes and projects looks pretty impressive in front of cameras and microphones. At the end of the day Barcelona is about football and in today's world football is also about business. Clubs are not charities. Fans want to see trophies in the cabinet and the best stars wearing their shirt. That is what matters.
"I think we have to have a wider view of the world than that,” Laporta asserts himself. “Yes we are a football club and football is the most popular sport in the world. We have the honour of belonging to a small group of clubs who are among the elite in this sport and I think we have to give something more and not just football. We have to give something to people especially to the most vulnerable and especially to boys and girls. I think we have this responsibility and we have this obligation. And my answer to the critics is that I respect their point of view but you know this is my way to understand the presidency and this is my way to understand my club.”
The problem Barcelona's critics face is that the club can back up its actions with its programmes. Aside from sponsoring UNICEF and working with UNHCR, Barcelona's Foundation has set up twelve centres worldwide including countries such as Malawi, Burkina Faso, Brazil and even in Catalunya. These social integration centres are aimed at providing vulnerable children with extra school activities, which include nutrition, regular health checks and education. This is unlike many clubs, who have football schools which are no more than marketing ventures. These are located in strategic places such as the USA, Middle East and the Far East. Nor are these social centres academies to siphon off local talent. The only genuine football academy that Barcelona runs is located in Argentina.
Whether it’s all about generating good publicity or for a genuine desire to make a difference one thing is sure, Laporta finding time to come out to Rwanda and spend a day in a refugee camp has made a huge impact on the everyday refugees who live there. I speak to some of them and one in particular. Arseno is only 17-years-old. He has lived in Kiziba for 14 years. Both his parents died in fighting in DR Congo and his only remaining family is his uncle and a younger brother. He catches my eye because he is covered in head to foot in Barcelona colours with several scarves wrapped around him.
“I am a real fan of Barcelona and I am very happy that the president is here today, Arseno said. “I really like soccer and I would love to be a player. But I have no chance of being one because as a refugee I have no citizenship. It means I have no opportunity to go outside of this camp. No chance of a team ever taking me I can only play here in this camp.”
Another refugee called Johnny is 22-years-old and loves to play basketball which he says is very popular in the camp.
“I was very excited when I heard the news from the BBC and from Radio Rwanda that he [Laporta] was coming here to our camp. It means a lot. We face a lot of problems here, mainly from hunger and from having little means by which to do anything. Maybe he can make things better for us with his visit.”
UNHCR feels its collaboration with Barcelona is beneficial. Aside from the funding and the building of the multi functional sports centre inside Kiziba, the mere presence of Laporta has made a difference even if it is just for a day. The Rwandan government has also encouraged Barcelona's work. The government has turned to sport as one of its main ways of reconciliation after the genocide of 1996. Around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred in a matter of a few months as ethnic tensions between Hutus and Tutsis flared up. Since then sport has played a part in rebuilding communities, and any sporting help provides something for the refugees.
It may not be ideal because there are no guarantees that it can be sustained. For example all this work done by Barcelona could end as soon as a new president is voted into power in June when Laporta steps down. There may well be an element of playing to the crowd as the club can only gain positive publicity from being associated with charitable causes. It may seem too noble to be true in the avaricious world of football, where making money is the main ambition. The sport's public image is not the best. In football it seems everyone just wants. The fans want success and the best players, the best players want the best contracts, and owners want maximum profits.
For every Barcelona there is a Real Madrid which today under Florentino Perez is as much an economic venture as it is a football adventure. For every Real Madrid there is a Portsmouth or a Chester City, one gone into administration, the other into extinction. But whatever the team, and whatever the reason, be it reducing ticket prices for kids, players going on visits to hospitals or club presidents travelling to Rwanda, if in the end it makes a difference, then football should remember it still has something worth shouting about.