The eyes of the world will turn to Russia this week for the World Cup but it is far away you must look to find the sport’s beating heart – on war-ravaged streets and in poverty-stricken slums where the simple act of scoring a goal transcends the grind of everyday life.
For every goal celebrated by the 32-teams at the four-yearly gathering of football’s superstars, thousands more will be scored on makeshift pitches in Yemen, Somalia and Gaza and beyond.
They will not be recorded for posterity and replayed thousands of times over. But they will not be forgotten and the scorer, for a few minutes at least, can dream of being a hero.
“My favourite player is (Argentina’s Lionel) Messi. When I score a goal I feel happy and successful, I’m pleased that my team mates are also happy with me,” 14-year-old Mohammed Ali Kargbo said after scoring a goal in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
In the four years since FIFA’s extravaganza was played out across Brazil, soccer’s governing body has been dogged by corruption scandals provoking accusations from fans that the ‘beautiful game’ has been poisoned by greed.
The month-long tournament in Russia is officially costing an eye-watering 683 billion roubles ($11 billion). Many of the players are millionaires many times over.
Dreams cost nothing, though. Try telling 12-year-old Aoud Moustafa, who plays with his friends in Syria’s Zaizon refugee camp in Deraa that soccer has lost its soul.
“When I score I feel very happy and I also feel that I am stronger and faster than my friends,” he said after a game on a dusty patch of earth.
The World Cup will be played in 12 ultra-modern stadiums across Russia, most newly-built with sums of money that would be truly life-changing for millions of vulnerable people across Africa and the Middle East.
Yet access to a ball and a goal, be it a couple of chunks of masonry, two twisted sticks in the desert or a the remains of a bombed-out building can provide a ‘theatre of dreams’ — a refuge from the horrors of armed conflict or the daily struggle of a life lived in the most challenging circumstances.
For one young boy playing in the playground of a bomb-damaged school in Benghazi, Libya, the simple act of scoring a goal represents a homecoming of sorts — the chance of a return to some semblance of normality
“I feel joyful because I am playing in my own area, which I have been unable to do for more than three years because of the war,” he said.