Adam Shaw talks to Mark Shannon, the Dublin born founder of charity Football Action that looks to educate disadvantaged children through football
It’s good to do good. Giving someone flowers, picking up a copy of The Big Issue, taking time to hold open the door – these are all things that giveus a short butfar-reaching moment offulfilment. Butfor aDubliner and two of his best friends, the concept of doing good became much more following a trip to Ethiopia.
Mark Shannon, 36, has always been mad about football and when he moved to London, he joined Westminster Wanderers, where Ben Patton and James Dillon also played. They headed off to Africa, in search of adventure and in the hope of doing some volunteer work.
They found what they were looking for and were inspired to return as soon as they could, with a firmer plan in place for giving something back.
“I had a good friend there and essentially it was a trip for fun, we played some football and did some work in a school,”Mark said.
“When we got back we thought, you know what, we can genuinely help – we just need more structure.” This was established through solid contacts in Addis Ababa – the group teamed up with Right to Play, a global organisation encouraging education through activity, and received funding from the IMF and guidance from the British Embassy.
They then looked at pooling their skills together to establish a strategy for running the charity. Mark worked in sports media and utilised his contacts there, Ben, 32, was working at Barclays so covered the corporate side of things and James, 33, contributed with his business expertise.
The name of their charity is Football Action, following a similar vein to Right to Play, the concept is to aid children in third world countries in their pursuit of education through the medium of sport. “The basis of our whole charity is football. Football is a global game, everyone gets it and everyone loves it the world over,” Mark explained. “Our main focus was the power of football – it’s a cheesy cliché but it absolutely works.
“It’s our passion and the effect of the game is amazing – it gets people doing things they wouldn’t have considered before.” This is something that is heard time and time again but does it actually work? You only need to hear of some of the experiences from the boys’ first proper project in Ethiopia to understand that it certainly does.
Mark recalled how they once went to Meskel Square, a gathering spot in Addis that fills with people during demonstrations and festivals. “We went there with a few balls and some cones. This place is bustling, noisy and quite intimidating in the evening. “We set up a small pitch and people spontaneously joined in. We did some training exercises and had a game. “By the end we had a crowd of 400-500 people, the footage is amazing, just us and local kids having a kick about. “That’s whatit’s all about,that demonstrates the power of football.”
On another occasion they ventured to the north ofthe country, to a deeply religious town called Lalibela. “We went into the mountains and played with a local team. “We gave them some boots and, as a gesture ofthanks,they all chipped in to buy us a goat. “They sacrificed this goat in our honour, we all drank Tej, the local moonshine, and we had a huge celebration. “These are the sort of relationships that are built through football.” After success in Ethiopia, Mark’s younger brother Kevin wanted to join the team to help expand the charity.
He had lived in Honduras for a year and suggested setting up a project there. Though it seems an unnatural jump to go from East Africa to Central America, it emphasises the fact that for a small charity run solely by volunteers, contacts are vital.
The charity follows a fairly similar plan in all of their projects, built around the idea of doing some training and leaving a legacy so the kids continue to play. Mark explained: “We have a certain model that we use throughout all our projects. It begins simply with balls and cones, then we look to revamp any football pitches or, if necessary, design and build new ones. “We then hope to fund a local coach to continue to train the kids. Our Ethiopian coach,Maluko, has been great.”
But the situation in Honduras wasn’t particularly appealing. “In Ethiopia the kids are happy despite being desperately poor and often malnourished. “There’s certainly a lot less Western influence so traditions and values remain,” Mark said. “In Honduras there’s a huge influence fromtheUS.They know they’re in a bad way when they see the success in America. “This is a breeding ground for drugs and gangs, so there’s more than just pure poverty over there. “There’re guns pretty much everywhere you look and walking around after dark is an absolute no-no.
“There’s an overall climate of fear and you can really feel the tension across the country.” “When you get any sort of money, you build a fence around your home – this has become a necessity. “If you can afford it, you make a few upgrades and perhaps built a sort of turret and hire an armed guard.” The work in Latin America ultimately proved too dangerous and the charity couldn’t continue their projects when volunteers’ lives were at risk. Charities are oftenquestioned when theywork abroad and this is something that Mark acknowledges.
“Of course, we could have stayed at home butthere’s already so much going on in the UK and Ireland. “Not everyone has it easy over here, of course, but, in general, things are a million timesworse in other parts ofthe world -there are bigger problems out there.” He attributes part of the desire to help in countries such as Ethiopia to his upbringing in Dublin.
“There’s always been a relationship between Ireland and Ethiopia.
“It was a huge focus for us growing up, the place was always in the frame, on the telly and in the papers.
“Bob Geldof, Trocaire and Goal Global were all doing work over there and without a doubt they were an influence on us,” he said. And the roaming nature of the Irish has always inspired him to look beyond his own borders. He added: “I think, as a nation, we always want to explore and always want to travel. “Perhaps that’s another reason why we looked abroad – we’ve been exporting people and our ideas for years.”
Mark and his brother regularly return to Ireland, a place they naturally perceive as their home. It was Ireland, in fact,thatinspired their most recentfundraising idea, when, after a few pints of Guinness,they decided to take up ultra-marathon running. In 2012 they ran 12 ultramarathons for Football Action and Mark’s current record is a gruelling 104 miles straight, which he completed in 20hrs 34mins. But his proudest achievement was when he and Kevin became only the 12th group to complete the Wicklow Round. This involved tackling 120km and 26 peaks in just 24 hours through the Wicklow Mountains just outside Dublin, something Mark modestly described as “pretty tough”.
And what’s next for Football Action?
Mark believes that encouraging more female involvement is at the forefront of their plans, alongside finding more people to move the charity forward. “A big thing for us is getting girls involved. We really want to push for female coaches because it will show the kids that if they can do it, so can you,” he explained. “Hope Powell, the former England women’s coach, has recently become an official ambassador for us which is great to see and a step in the right direction. “Our ultimate aim is to run an all girls project. We’re looking to Guatemala as our next port of call, as it’s a similar situation there to Honduras, and we want Hope to champion the project. “Equality is such an important message for us and, to be honest, football is not just for boys, the girls on our projects get into it as much as anyone.”
It was actually a case from Honduras that sparked the charity’s strong interest in women in football. Mark said: “In Honduras it’s a pretty grim situation, especially for women. “They’re essentially secondclass citizens, many ofthe girls we saw have been sex trafficked and have suffered badly at the hands of gangs.”
“There was one girl who had a horrific back story involving gangs, drugs and sexual abuse. “We helped pay for her education and she made itto university. She now goes back and speaks to the younger children and helps out at a refuge centre. “It’s an amazing story and shows the others that anything is possible with a little guidance.
“Some ofthese girls have been utterly destroyed and we want to give them their confidence back through sport and education.” And with the three founding members, Kevin and newest trustee Sally Robinson, 25, all getting married and thinking about settling down, Mark realises they can’t go on forever. He explained the fantastic work that Sally has done since coming in and hopes she can be an example for other prospective trustees to follow.
In five years, Football Action has changed thousands oflives for the better on two continents. They have funded numerous local coaches, developed and maintained three football pitches and introduced scholarships for higher education. Not bad for what started as three lads on an African adventure.
And for those who still doubt their model, and the power of football, they can heed the words of Mark Shannon as he remembered watching a televised match in Ethiopia.
“If you want to know how much it means to people in these places, just watch a game there between two big English clubs. “We were there when it was absolutely bucketing it down and we dived into this little rickety shack where there were about 150 people watching the Community Shield on a grainy TV, getting soaked in the process.”
“They just love it, they don’t care about much else – I’ve watched games at Wembley in a cushy box and I’ve watched them in African shacks and I know which I prefer.”
Learn more at: www.footballaction.org.uk