Syed Kamall: Sporting way to defeat radical forces

Jose Mourinho
Jose Mourinho
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THE result that really matters: Football 1 - Radicalism 0

The world is still reeling over Paris and San Bernadino. In a replay of our emotions over 7/7, we in the West are aghast that such capacity for hatred and violence has somehow has been engendered in people living among us.

The question haunts us: “How can people share our country and so despise our values?”

Yet one group of people passionate for unity and integration is quietly getting on with the job of providing an alternative. The fledgling charity, the Unity of Faiths Foundation (TUFF), is tackling the problem of alienation and the threat of radicalisation in ways that are clever, fun - and effective enough to provide huge encouragement to us all.

Did I say tackling? Well, there’s passing, heading, overlapping and tracking-back involved as well. Because TUFF uses the common passion for football to bring together young people from all and every background.

In sharing a football pitch, they start to share common a interest, trust and values. Before, they might have been running in gangs, indulging in sectarian or racial violence and, at worst, drifting into the clutches of the violent extremists.

I realise readers may feel they have heard this before: the power of sport, music or whatever else to divert disadvantaged kids and keep them out of trouble. And I mean no disrespect whatsoever to similar schemes which have operated successfully for decades.

But what is truly remarkable about TUFFs is the scale of its results. A dozen young people who had been directly targeted as potential recruits by Daesh or the so-called Islamic State and other terrorists have been saved.

In one case, a teenage girl of Somali origin was on the verge of flying to Turkey en route to Syria. Thanks to the trust already established, she confided in Shamender Talwar, TUFF founder and a clinical psychologist by profession.

He put in a call to her beloved Chelsea FC, pulled a couple of strings and offered her a life-defining choice.

“Here is the departure gate to Turkey and Syria,” said Dr Talwar. “And here are the gates to Stamford Bridge and a meeting with Jose Morinho.”

When the girl entered the stadium she was so overcome she knelt and kissed the ground, and the terrorists lost a recruit.

TUFF 1 - Daesh 0. One success among many, not just in combating radicalism but in unifying youngsters from different faiths and cultural backgrounds.

TUFF was launched in Southall, London, where it organised cross-cultural music festivals before moving on to sport. Now it involves people from all over my home city.

The approach works because the messaging process is subtle. Enjoyment is the priority, or so it seems. The football coaching is of a high calibre, the facilities excellent.

Training sessions are weekly, creating better footballers whilst encouraging respect for rules and boundaries, rigour and most importantly teamwork.

The concept of fairness will crop up regularly. So will the reality of discipline. As Dr Talwar sees it, these British or European values become part of the air they all breathe, part of the culture. Such labels may not be used, but British values are what they are.

Now the challenge is to repeat the TUFF success story across Britain and in other countries.

A broader charity Football for Unity (FFU) has been created to take the project global. The issue is how to organise the “franchising”, for want of a better word, and make sure the magical mix of messaging and the enjoyment of sport which Dr Talwar and his team have achieved is replicated effectively elsewhere.

Contact has already been made with communities in Bradford.

Word is spreading. President Obama wants them to visit the White House. Athletico Madrid want to help take the idea to Spain. Diego Maradona has pledged his support (students of football history may predict a hands-on role).

Last month, I arranged for the FFU team to visit 10 Downing Street and there is hope the Government’s anti-radicalisation Prevent programme may support the training and logistics needed to spread of the project.

In the New Year, I want to bring the TUFF team to Brussels to talk to EU leaders and play a side from that city’s troubled suburb Molenbeek.

It is all part of a long game, but we are are playing to win hearts and minds.

• Syed Kamall is Conservative MEP for London and leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group in the European Parliament.