A Community Comes Together: Football Foundation supports Mainland Football and Canterbury Cricket’s Diversity and Inclusion Strategy

Under the bright South Island sunshine on a picturesque Ōtautahi Christchurch weekend, football brought communities together. Children came to the home of football, English Park, to partake in Mainland Football’s multi-ethnic communities festival, organised as part of the organisation’s wider mission to improve diversity and inclusion in sport in their region.

In the weeks and months following the mosque attacks on March 15th, 2019, the sporting community in Canterbury realised they needed to reflect and change, in order for sport to provide a way for the community to unite and heal. Mainland Football – organisers of the world game in Canterbury – immediately stepped up to help.

The Christchurch football community had suffered tragic losses in March 2019: young footballers, coaches, parents, supporters and young football players including New Zealand Futsal Whites goalkeeper Atta Elayyan. Mainland Football wanted to play its part in the healing process.

In seeking to build connection with the Muslim community, the football community teamed up with Canterbury Cricket Association. The combination of cricket and football, were thought to provide a way to increase cohesion in a city that had endured so many tragedies.

Canterbury Cricket Association Chief Executive Jeremy Curwin said of the collaboration,

“Canterbury Cricket are extremely proud to be working with Mainland Football on our Diversity and Inclusion Strategy. Sport has a unique ability to break down perceived barriers and bring people together from different backgrounds, so it is exciting to join forces on this unique and ground breaking programme in New Zealand. Now that the mahi has been done to develop the Strategy, the next steps are to bring it to life, start delivering the programmes and bring smiles to people’s face through our sports.”

Working together, football and cricket resolved to work towards three pillars of the diversity and inclusion strategy: partnership, removing barriers, and building relationships. Diversity and Inclusion Manager at Canterbury Cricket and Mainland Football, Hussain Hanif, says the primary goal of their work has been “to build social cohesion through programmes and participation”.

Chief Executive of Mainland Football Federation, Martin Field Dodgson, explained the aim of the combined strategy of football and cricket.

“Sport is essentially about creating a sense of belonging for anyone wanting to participate in it and allowing them to enjoy the experience. We’ve teamed up with Canterbury Cricket to try and provide this opportunity to those members of our wider community who may not currently be involved in our sports, especially those from ethnically diverse backgrounds. Our shared Diversity and Inclusion strategy has a number of similar programs that are all aimed at this objective of building social cohesion through participation.”

This brings us to the festival at English Park.

The multi-ethnic festival brings youth from divided communities that are from different faiths, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds together through the power of football, Hanif says. The rangatahi got to enjoy some football and a halal and vegetarian sausage sizzle – for many families this was their first time enjoying the famous kiwi tradition. The festival showed these communities that football was for them, too, Hanif says.

Festival participants enjoy the sausage sizzle. Image: Mainland Football.

For Field Dodgson, the day was a profound success.

“The festival itself was a great success, essentially because we had an extremely clear purpose – to have kids running around with smiles on their faces. Hussain Hanif and the staff of both Canterbury Cricket and Mainland Football did a fantastic job of organizing the day which saw hundreds of children and their families coming together to enjoy the sporting opportunity”.

Mainland Football had worked hard to ensure their initiative reached the community. The Federation held meetings with every community they reached out to in order to understand their needs, and is now working with the football clubs, and the Foundation, to ensure club personnel have the understanding and skills they need to welcome people from a broader range of backgrounds.

“We want our football clubs to look like our local PaknSaves, at their busiest time – reflections of our local communities”, Hanif says. The way to do that is to connect everyone to football, and make it a game that is safe and fun for all. The photos from the festival speak for themselves: Mainland well and truly achieved the goal of making sure everyone had fun.

Football Foundation trustee Garth Gallaway, who embodies the collaboration as a former elite cricketer and proud Cantabrian, attended the tournament.

“On a perfect Ōtautahi day, it was a such a thrill to watch so many New Zealand youngsters, from different ethnic backgrounds, enjoying playing football together. It was a beautiful demonstration of Aotearoa’s rich and diverse population and it served to remind us all what a vital role football has to play in New Zealand’s future”, Gallaway says.

A young footballer takes a throw in. Image: Mainland Football.

The festival is one part of many in an ongoing project to bring the community together through sport. The New Zealand Football Foundation has provided funding to Mainland Football for the wider project to support ethnic and Muslim communities. For this part of the initiative, the Foundation’s expertise in working with football clubs has come to the fore.

It’s all about retaining players in the game, Hanif says, and the Foundation has helped Mainland work with local clubs to establish football hubs launching in September. 150 of the players who attended the tournament will now stay connected to football, and each other, through these hubs.

“To follow up the festival we’re in the process of finalising a number of community hubs, where these same children will be able to have similar experiences within their own communities at locations in and around Christchurch. Local football clubs have engaged in the program and will be involved in assisting with the hubs thereby providing further participation options for the families” says Field Dodgson.

The Foundation is excited for the launch of the football hubs, and to support the football clubs in their work, so that everyone in the Canterbury community can experience football for good. The work of both the cricket and football communities has shown what the spirit of collaboration and sport can do, not just for Christchurch, but for Aotearoa.

As Field Dodgson commented,

“We’re delighted to be a part of this initiative and have already seen the social benefits of using our sports as a vehicle to drive a sense of belonging and togetherness. We are also extremely grateful for our program partners who have backed the two codes in delivering the strategy. The New Zealand Football Foundation needs special recognition as without their support, the festival would not have been the success that it was.”

Field-Dodgson says the Foundation’s “on-going support is greatly appreciated – essentially because it allows us to put smiles on kid’s faces”. And that is what Mainland Football and Canterbury Cricket are ultimately striving for: a way to bring people together. Though two very different codes, football and cricket in Canterbury are united in their desire to harness the power of sport for good. The Foundation is delighted to be a part of that important work, which has the potential to create such lasting impact.

Image: Mainland Football.