Doha, Qatar. A World Cup which has filled many football fans with conflicting emotions. But what will its legacy be, and can some good come from it? When you see the work that UK based charity Street Child United have achieved through this World Cup, you can’t deny that once again the power of sport can be a huge vehicle for change.
I have been fortunate enough to be an ambassador for the charity for over two years now and have been out in Doha for the last week hosting their festival of art and sport. The experience has been humbling, and a reminder of the tireless work charitable organisations like Street Child United, largely run by volunteers, does to help children in need. Meeting the young leaders whose lives have been changed through SCU and football, has been one of the most eye-opening and inspiring experiences I’ve had as a journalist.
I met Aya. An 18-year-old girl from Palestine. She told me - via a translator - that back at home in Tulkarem, girls don’t play football and rarely keep their hair short, and for years she lacked the confidence to express herself as her society aimed to keep her within a box. Aya and her family live in a refugee camp in unimaginable conditions. Overcrowding, poor infrastructure, an overburdened sewerage network, unemployment, and the dropout rate in schools is also relatively high - all of which are commonplace. But Aya has dreams to become a professional footballer, however, she told me playing football hasn’t been straightforward. When she went out to practice she was told ‘football is just for boys!’ She felt excluded and unable to be herself.
That all changed when Palestine Sports For Life, one of Street Child United’s partners, organised a football tournament in her district and Aya went along to watch, shocked to see other girls playing. She met a coach who gave her the confidence to go along to the next session. Since that day, Aya attends football training twice per week and plays matches at the weekend. Thanks to the confidence and motivation she achieved through playing sports, it also helped her education, graduating as one of the best in her class.
Fast forward to the Street Child World Cup in Qatar, she was made captain of the Palestine girl's team. Furthermore, thanks to the work SCU have done with the Qatar Foundation, she’s now been given a full university scholarship in Education City, which will include expenses and trips home to visit her family every year.
This is just one of the many remarkable stories of the young people I’ve been speaking to over the last week in Doha, and the Street Child World Cup has brought them all together. Representing 24 countries, 280 children and young people, comprising 13 girls teams and 15 boys teams, all who’ve had experiences of living or working on the streets, took part in the 2022 edition of the tournament, with Egypt's boy's team and Brazil's girls coming out on top.
As well as the tournament itself, in partnership with the British Council, SCU showcased an art exhibition, which included pieces made by the children, and last week unveiled a beautiful mural created by a collaboration of artists. It was also an opportunity to promote Street Child United’s next big campaign - One Million and One - an unprecedented idea to obtain one million and one birth certificates for street children before the start of the next World Cup in 2026, which will be held in the USA, Canada and Mexico.
Whilst out in Qatar, the young leaders and our SCU team were able to soak up the atmosphere of the World Cup too. We watched some brilliant matches in some incredible stadiums, including England’s win over Wales which confirmed Gareth Southgate’s side as group winners into the round of 16. There were concerns about how a one-city World Cup would work practically, but from my experiences out here, it has been well organised, the transport system on the metro has been free and easy to use, and the majority of the stadiums take within an hour to get to from the city centre. The lack of readily available, cheap alcohol has often made for a friendlier, less hostile atmosphere amongst the fans, and a particularly good tournament for children to attend.
There were certainly some worries amongst my colleagues and friends about adapting to a Qatari culture and way of living whilst here, and on a couple of occasions, it has felt intimidating and uncomfortable. Some females have experienced negativity from stadium staff, which they felt was purely down to their gender. However, a pregnant friend of mine was extremely well looked after and given extra special care, and as a female fan out here I’ve felt pretty safe. Not forgetting the many political issues that marred the awarding of this World Cup to Qatar initially and the fallout which followed and bled into the tournament itself, it’s understandable that some people have felt hostage to it, or felt guilty for enjoying it.
However, one of the beauties of sport is its ability to provide a spectator with a moment of joy, an escape, unrivalled by anything else. On the pitch, the football has had everything you hope a World Cup should have - superstars shining, new talent emerging, shock exits, surprise victories, outstanding goals, and results and stories that will be spoken about for years to come. It’s these euphoric moments for fans that make watching live sports incomparable. The support in Doha for each nation has been brilliant, particularly for Argentina, Mexico, Morocco and Japan. And ultimately, that’s what the World Cup is all about - the fans and the people at the heart of it.
Using Aya’s story as an example, she is a testament to not only how football can transform lives, but the joy it can bring to a person struggling. That is Street Child United’s mission, to use the power of sport to provide a global platform for street children so they can demand the protection, support, and opportunities every child needs, and that work now continues to 2026 with One Million and One.
As we wait to find out who will be lifting the World Cup trophy on December 18, the Street Child World Cup in Qatar has already won. It’s been the World Cup that’s truly made a difference to people’s lives and that is a legacy to be proud of.