European football’s showpiece event isn’t just about the game’s elite; it’s about the grassroots game too. While the game’s richest and most talented players are given the ultimate stage on which to shine, the people who play the game on playing fields and municipal pitches also get their day in the sun. UEFA’s Equal Game initiative is all about giving every human being in Europe the opportunity to play football — regardless of their background, age, fitness level or disability. The likes of Paul Pogba, Ronaldinho and Henrik Larsson give up their time to promote grassroots football events across the continent. A simple phone call from Kevin De Bruyne can give youngsters in Afghanistan the motivation they need to continue the pursuit of their footballing dreams. Robert Lewandowski taking part in an amputee team’s training session can be the difference between giving up and carrying on for some young players. The message delivered by UEFA’s excellent Equal Game initiative is one of hope and support. It doesn’t matter what challenges you face in life; if you love the game, there’s a way of enjoying it.

This Year’s Equal Game Initiative Was Bigger Than Ever

Kiev in Ukraine hosted this year’s Champions’ League Final, as well as the annual UEFA Champions Festival that precedes the game. And 2018’s celebrations touched more lives than ever before. The festival took place between 24th May and 27th May this year, and involved a number of UEFA’s “Football Social Responsibility” partners. From the public, private and charitable sectors, organizations and individuals came together to promote equality and diversity in football. This year’s celebrations had their own village in the heart of Kiev. As well as stalls from all the main Champions’ League sponsors, the festival village included a “Together #WePlayStrong” zone, the “Champions’ League Trophy Experience” and the “Champions’ Pitch”, complete with grandstand. Invited guests and those participating in official football events were treated to a lavish opening ceremony, during which the actual Champions’ League trophy was paraded around the pitch. DJ Hardwell headlined the festival on Friday evening, and local hero (and Mayor) Vitali Klitschko enjoyed photo opportunities and the odd kickabout with youngsters from all over Europe. There were also several competitions, autograph-signing sessions and the annual Adidas Young Champions Tournament. But perhaps the most poignant and meaningful events during the festival were part of UEFA’s Equal Game campaign. The festival’s mini-pitch hosted a special game involving the Homeless World Cup Foundation. An unforgettable highlight of this year’s event was the amputee match, hosted by the European Amputee Football Federation. As well as putting on a great show for the amassed crowds, the players gave spectators a chance to play football with crutches and other types of mobility equipment. One eager participant was former Brazil player Cafu. As well as amputee football, there were also fantastic demonstrations of cerebral palsy football, Special Olympics football and homeless football. And all of the action was accessible for supporters too. The Centre for Access to Football in Europe even arranged audio-description of match commentary for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

Improving Lives and “Opening Hearts”

The power of these events simply can’t be underestimated. For many years, certain medical conditions, disabilities and socioeconomic factors precluded millions of people from playing the beautiful game. But the power of the world’s second largest governing body is changing all that. Combined with the presence and participation of the game’s brightest and best, UEFA’s efforts are changing lives. Also present at the Champions’ Festival were 12 Equal Game ambassadors. Every month, UEFA shines a light on someone from one of its 55 member associations. The people showcased are ordinary coaches, administrators, players and volunteers who help people from all walks of life to enjoy the beautiful game. People like Oleksandr Fomichov from host city Kiev — who says football has the power to “open hearts”. The lawyer and entrepreneur wants to use the “power of football” to improve the lives of ordinary people in their own communities. Despite having to give up his job and home in Donetsk to escape the region’s troubles, he has managed to find the time to hold regular coaching sessions for under-privileged and disabled youngsters in Kiev. While the likes of Paul Pogba and Kevin De Bruyne can provide the motivation for people to get involved, it’s people like Oleksander in Kiev who make Equal Game initiatives at the grassroots possible.