Unlike Man U, Fun Direction made it into Europe this season !

There’s a popular myth (in Ireland at least) that 4-time football World Cup winners Germany traditionally wear green as their “change” kit because Ireland were the first team to play Germany after World War 2. Given Ireland are unlikely to ever win the World Cup, this was one small link us Irish football fans THOUGHT we had with a superpower of world football ! However, there’s no truth in it unfortunately and in fact Ireland were the 5th country to play Germany after WW2. Apparently, the Deutscher Fussball Bund (DFB or German FA), designed a new logo after the war which had a green background and this is probably the most logical explanation for choosing green as the colour of their “change” kit.

Aside from this mythical connection, Germany and particularly the Neckarstadion in Stuttgart will always have a very special place in the heart of Irish football fans as the place where the Ireland team and our “green” fans (in every sense of the word) first announced themselves on the world football stage when Ray Houghton put the ball in the English net ! With a team full of top players we can only dream of now, we somehow beat the old enemy as the whole world watched on with joy ! I was the luckiest 14 year old in the world that day as I was at the game with my Mam, Dad and older sister.

Ray Houghton

Where were you when….?

Ever since that fantastic first visit in 1988, I always welcome the opportunity to travel to Germany and had two wonderful days last week visiting the Kicking Girls football project. The project runs football coaching sessions once a week after school for German girls aged 6-8 in disadvantaged areas of German cities. Up to 3,600 girls in 60 cities participate each week and are coached mainly by female coaches and local female teenage assistants who learn to coach football within the project. Tournaments are then organised 3 or 4 times a year between each school participating in the project in that city. In this way, both the girls and teenage assistant coaches make new friends and learn the value of competition. During school holidays, 2 day camps are offered to girls with football central to all activities. Both participating players and teenage coaches are linked with local clubs so that they can find their rightful place in the German football family. This is particularly significant because over 60% of the girls participating come from a non-German background, typically because their parents or grandparents moved to Germany to work in previous decades.

Kicking Girls

Don’t mess with these ladies !

I have looked across Europe for projects with similar methods and objectives to Project Fun Direction and Kicking Girls was the only one I managed to identify to date. I was keen to learn from people who were successfully offering sporting opportunities to young girls that would otherwise be distanced from sport. In October, I made contact with the national co-ordinator of Kicking Girls, Bastian Kuhlmann, who has  been extremely helpful from the point he received my first e-mail. Bastian and his colleague Hannes Teetz kindly hosted me in the beautiful city of Osnabruck, from where the project is run. We visited 2 schools in Osnabruck and Duisberg to watch the weekly activity and also visited a local club in Duisberg called Rhenania Hamborn. The club had a lovely atmosphere where some players mothers socialised over tea in the club’s prefab cafe and other children completed their homework in an adjoining room, supervised by a student volunteer. The Rhenania club are proud of their members’ Turkish heritage and the opportunities they continue to give young people of all backgrounds to integrate into German society through the means of sport. While my guests described their club facilities as modest by German standards, they easily surpassed the facilities available to the majority of Irish amateur football clubs. Rhenania field 40 teams a week, mostly children’s teams including 10 girls teams. In the last 10 years, the club has been at the forefront of tackling a historic taboo about Muslim girls playing sport, supported by the founders of the Kicking Girls project. A number of their female members have had their first experience of football in the project.

Rhenania Hamborn U16 training, suburb of Duisberg

Why is all this relevant to my work with Fun Direction ?

Firstly, it’s very encouraging for me to see a football activity used in exactly the same way as I try to use football and other sports to engage young girls in sport. Our principles are remarkably similar as is our method of delivering sport. It’s also interesting that Europe’s strongest and biggest economy still needs a successful intervention programme like this to reach young girls in so many cities. That tells me it’s not a question of funding, it’s the mindset to work community by community that is important.

Secondly, it’s equally encouraging this project is run centrally by no more than 2-3 people, yet reaches nationwide to the number of girls and venues it does. The primary reason for the success of this model is using young coaches (many of whom volunteer) and late-teenage assistant coaches, with most of both categories being female. Co-ordinators oversee coaches in clusters of regional cities. The project also only works within schools which makes it easier to administer on a nationwide basis. German primary schools have an interesting and enviable model whereby regular classes finish at 1 o’clock but the children remain on school premises until 3 o’clock participating in activities ranging from sport to music to art and crafts. These activities are all provided by the school, some involving teachers, using internal funds or bringing in funded programmes such as Kicking Girls. Children or parents do not pay for these activities. Clearly the Irish school system works very differently but it is interesting to see good school facilities being used in a structured way for more of the day. Interestingly, one of the schools we visited had a sign above the front door saying “Open and European…. All day long !”

Bastian, his colleagues and I are very interested in linking our projects in a number of ways. They are willing to travel to Ireland with a group of girls and coaches, many of whom may not have travelled outside Germany previously, to experience football and other sports in another culture. Bastian has also kindly offered to travel to Dublin to run his 2-day induction coaching programme to young female coaches here that I can involve in coaching girls within Fun Direction. Coaching children is a fantastic skill for a young person to acquire as they develop their personality and interests towards adult life.

Kicking Girls Discussion

L-R Bastian Kuhlmann, Ciaran Duffy, Hannes Teetz, Juliana Hinkel, Prof Dr Ahmet Derecik

Lastly, the funding model of Kicking Girls is one which I believe can also work in Ireland, on a smaller but significant scale. The Laureus Foundation fund the project’s central infrastructure on a 3 year basis and local cities pay a relatively small sum per local school per year that the project runs in their area. The Laureus Foundation’s mission is “Using the power of sport as a tool for social change”, supported by it’s World Sports Academy, which contains 50 legendary sportsmen and women across various sports who volunteer to promote the foundations 150 projects in 8 countries including Germany. They have an excellent website with more details on their work at www.laureus.com.

Conducted in the right way, making sport accessible to help child and social development is surprisingly straightforward. It doesn’t demand huge resources if it is rooted in communities where local people can take ownership and take pride in seeing children participate. In Ireland, I believe we do have ample resources already to engage more girls in sport effectively, but often we don’t coordinate these resources well enough across sporting and public bodies at a local level. We also fall behind other countries in having enough qualified coaches at age-appropriate levels, which is a key feature in making the sports experience a good one for children who do get opportunities.

Overall, it was a few days very well spent that have given me lots of impetus as we embark on the research stage of Fun Direction in some new venues shortly. To my mind, Kicking Girls is at the forefront of it’s kind in Europe, delivering sport in a novel way to young girls that have typically missed out on that opportunity. Our understanding of what sport can do also works across borders and language barriers ! Making contact with with Bastian, Hannes and their colleagues and seeing their project has been a fantastic resource for me in developing Fun Direction further.

P.S Where we you when Ray Houghton put the ball in the English net ??

All answers welcome

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