Doha, 13 April 2020 - The world is in a very uncertain place right now. We don’t know how much longer the current situation is going to last, whether it will get worse before it gets better, or what things will look like when it’s over. I want to start by acknowledging that people are all hurting in different ways, and some more than others. There are physical, mental and economic impacts being felt all over the world.
Sport has been front and centre in my life since I was old enough to kick a ball with my brothers and sister in the backyard, but something like this really puts things into perspective. It’s just not that important right now. People are unwell, scared and stressed, and many have lost loved ones. Kicking a ball doesn’t really register next to the life-changing circumstances that so many are experiencing.
But although now is the time for sport to take a back seat, I want to try and think forward to when this is over. Whether that’s six weeks, six months, or longer, I think that sport is going to be one of the most important tools we have to help people feel normal again. I don’t think that it will just be professional sport, although it will definitely have a role. I believe grassroots sport is going to be equally important in reuniting communities once the threat of coronavirus has passed.
One of the toughest things about the situation we’re in now is that it has divided us. First, we were divided into countries as borders across the world were closed, then cities as movement became restricted and then in many cases we have had to divide into individual households. It’s really important that we don’t hold on to this mentality once we are unrestricted again and I think that sport has a role to play here.
One of the greatest powers of sport is that it unites us. In particular, big international events like the Olympics and FIFA World Cup bring the world together in a pretty incredible way. I have been fortunate enough to take part in the 2004 Athens Olympics, four FIFA World Cups and I am now an ambassador for the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy in Qatar, the organisation responsible for delivering the next World Cup, in 2022.
As an athlete, you feel such a strong atmosphere at these events of shared celebration. In Russia during the 2018 tournament, the streets of Moscow were full of fans from all countries, celebrating together. The atmosphere was infectious. Although different groups are there to support particular countries and athletes, when you get to witness history being made, like Usain Bolt at the Rio Olympics, it feels like the whole world comes together as one. I know that the World Cup in Qatar is going to be just like this, and it will be coming at a time when we need it.
I’ve been lucky enough to see some of the stadiums coming together and they are preparing to put on a show that we will remember for a long time to come. Whether it’s attending in person or watching on TV, as the ‘next’ truly global football event that will likely follow this testing time, the 2022 World Cup is going to be a powerful symbol and an invaluable tool for unity, togetherness and recovery across the world.
The second way that I can see sport playing an important role is at a grassroots level. In the current situation we have been made to become physically distant from one another for our own safety. When I take my kids for a run around the block we have to give a wide berth to the people we would usually skip around with a smile and a wave. It’s the same at the supermarket and in any other public spaces. I have to say that this feels particularly alien to me. The world just feels a bit less friendly. It’s going to take a conscious effort on our part to close this space between us again once it’s safe to do so. This is where I’m hoping grassroots sport will have a role to play.
As a parent, there’s nothing better than cheering on your kids when they play – whether they’re following their dreams to one day play professionally, or just having fun with their mates. Sport brings us closer – high fives after goals, handshakes after games and hugs with mum and dad once it’s over. I’ve been involved at a grassroots level running football academies in Australia for eight years and also with the Generation Amazing programme in Qatar.
It’s been great to see – as we have in so many fields of sport, industry and media across the world – the ingenuity in the face of such testing times, as so many health, fitness and social responsibility programmes go online to play their part in keeping people connected, active and healthy. Generation Amazing has been no different – with its online sessions via Instagram. Something I look forward to taking part in soon.
Before this crisis began, I saw the confidence that kids get from being a part of these programmes and how much fun they have learning new skills and making new friends. I think in a post-coronavirus world, grassroots sport – whether it’s five-a-side at your local oval, in the playground at recess, or organised sport on the weekend – will help bring us closer again.
I think that for those of us who end up being fortunate enough to get through this current stage, there are a lot of things we definitely won’t be taking for granted anymore. Like many others, I’m separated from my parents and siblings, who live on the other side of the world. Thankfully, I’ve been able to keep in close contact with them and having my wife and kids with me every day has been a real comfort for all of us.
I know that first game of football back on TV and first kick in the park with my kids is going to be priceless. As it will for millions of others around the world. Although for now we’ve been forced by the circumstances to separate and be apart, I really believe that sport is one of the things that will bring us back together again.