For the second year in a row, the international children's tournament "Football for Friendship" has been held online due to COVID-19 restrictions.
It aims to unite kids from all over the world around sportsmanship – despite borders, wars and a drawn-out pandemic.
The children's social programme, organised by the Russian energy giant Gazprom since 2013, relied on a host of digital events to offer thousands of children aged 12-14 from various backgrounds the opportunity to discover new horizons whilst promoting peace and equality.
Participants from over 200 countries took part remotely in numerous activities throughout the year, and important topics such as the well-being of our planet and gender equality in sport regularly featured in group discussions in online forums.
"It’s about giving the participants the platform to be able to have these topics of discussion because they are the ones who are going to be leading these discussions when they get a little bit older as well," said Football for Friendship Ambassador Rich Williams.
"By giving them that chance to have those discussions, to have those forums and to start thinking about these important things will hopefully hold them all in really good stead – and not just them, but their peers and everyone else in the world, as we kind of move forward and things hopefully change for the better."
Online Grand Final
For the project's big season-ending event, kids took part in the eWorld Championship: an online football tournament. Perhaps it didn't replace the real thing – children normally meet up in person for the tournament – but it still left unforgettable memories etched in the minds of participants.
"It was a great experience," said young Football for Friendship journalist and coach Nicolas Lysandrou.
"I like being able to have some new friends and learn about different countries. I especially like the different roles that they have because you can be a coach, a player or a journalist and you can learn a bunch of skills that you can use in everyday life."
Young journalist Medina Maysar said that as her home country, Kazakhstan, was in lockdown, she couldn't communicate with her friends as much as she wanted to: "But thanks to this project, I can communicate with my new friends without leaving my room."
For the programme's ninth season, 32 teams were pitted into eight groups of four during a glamourous draw held in good spirits and broadcast live for all participants to watch. Using a phone app specifically developed for Football for Friendship, football lovers were able to connect and demonstrate their skills online.
The programme earned its third Guinness World Records title for the most users to visit a virtual stadium. It had previously set records for the most nationalities in a football training session in history and for the most users at a football video hangout.
After a hard-fought tournament, team Argali, represented by players from Aruba, Belize, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Mexico, was eventually crowned champion, but the real prize was shared by all the participants as so many new friendships were formed despite the miles separating the players.
Over the years, Football for Friendship, with the backing of major sports organisations like UEFA, FIFA and the IOC, has united more than 16,000 participants from 211 countries and regions.
The programme’s growth hasn’t been hampered by the pandemic, and it hopes to continue with its promotion of a healthy lifestyle and the sharing of essential human values such as friendship, peace and equality to an even wider audience in the years to come.