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[SOCIAL CHANGE] Urawa Reds’ SDGs Bring Change Outside the Stadium

The Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) have become a major trend in the world today. The term has even taken root as a standard principle among advanced companies and people. That trend has, of course, spread into the sports world as well. Various initiatives are underway across the globe to contribute to society through the power of sports. We want to take a look at one of them, the Heart-full Club initiative, which is led by the Urawa Red Diamonds (hereafter “Urawa Reds”), a professional soccer team belonging to the Japan Professional Football League (J. League). The Heart-full Club carries out unique programs both in Japan and abroad that aim to nurture children’s hearts through soccer. In 2018, it received the HEROs AWARD, which commends outstanding activities that contribute to society. So what sort of unique activities do they offer children in Japan and the world outside the stadium? We talked to Hiroshi Ochiai, Captain of the Heart-full Club to find out.

Heroes to Thai Children! A Story of Friendship by the Urawa Reds

The Heart-full Club visiting Ban Rom Sai to report that they won the HEROs AWARD

Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second-largest city, is located around 720 km north of the nation’s capital, Bangkok. This is where Ban Rom Sai is located, a living facility established in 1999 for orphans who were infected with HIV/AIDS through their mothers. Back then, Thailand suffered a widespread outbreak of AIDS and many people lost their lives to the disease. Ban Rom Sai became a safe haven and provided support to the increasing number of children who had lost their parents to AIDS and were themselves infected at birth.

The disease itself naturally harmed the children’s social lives, but an even greater issue was society’s discrimination and bias toward those infected by HIV/AIDS. There was virtually zero interaction between Ban Rom Sai and the villagers, stemming from a lack of understanding of the disease. The children even faced persecution at times.

Then heroes arrived to save the children of Ban Rom Sai. The Urawa Reds were teaching children across Asia the fun of soccer through a social contribution initiative called Heart-full Soccer in ASIA. They were given the opportunity to visit Thailand, and Ochiai and the coaches were struck by the hardships faced by the children of Ban Rom Sai. So they took on the challenge of teaching soccer to the children of the village and Ban Rom Sai together.

Ochiai teaching the children of Ban Rom Sai

“Since soccer is a team sport, we suggested teaching all the children together,” said Ochiai. “Naturally, they clashed and competed against each other at first, but as they continued to play, they quickly became friends. Whatever preconceptions they had, they started to open up as teammates. In soccer, passing the ball is communication and shooting goals is a common aim, so it brings all the team members together in spirit.”

In fact, Ochiai was witness to the extraordinary moment when their efforts bore fruit.

“After a match, the children of Ban Rom Sai drank bottled water, and then amazingly, the village children drank out of the same bottles. Before, discrimination and bias against AIDS were so strong, it was unthinkable for the village children to drink from the same bottles. But by playing soccer together, the children formed a new bond. Teachers from the village were also deeply amazed and praised the power of soccer.”

Oftentimes, the behaviors of adults plant negative stereotypes in the minds of children. But soccer allowed them to connect from the heart and naturally realize that they’re all humans and friends.

These initiatives by Heart-full Soccer in ASIA became a stepping-stone in erasing discrimination and bias against HIV/AIDS and were highly praised by the international community. As a result, the team was presented with the HEROs AWARD in 2018, which is given to athletes or groups who promote social contribution through sports. The Urawa Reds later continued to visit Ban Rom Sai, and their efforts led to establishing a joint soccer team with the village children. What’s more, one of the children from Ban Rom Sai went on to join the Thai national team. This shows how Heart-full Soccer in ASIA also greatly contributed to promoting the sport.

How Different is Japan Compared to the Rest of the World? Children’s Incredibly Honest Reactions

Children from a mountainous tribal village in Thailand listening in an elementary school

What began as the Heart-full Club’s effort to give back to their home town community eventually developed into an initiative that reaches across Asia. In addition to the aforementioned project in Thailand, the team has visited over 40 cities in 27 countries in 10 years, including Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam and Bhutan. Through their activities, they have exchanged heartfelt interactions with over 8,000 children.

Cultures are, of course, different wherever they go. The way the children listen and respond to lessons vary depending on the country. Nevertheless, what the team teaches is the same as what they teach in Japan. This can be seen as proof that the Heart-full Club’s lessons on nurturing the heart can be conveyed to children worldwide.

As Ochiai put it, “Some developing countries don’t even have traffic lights and many regions don’t have firmly established social rules. Sometimes, the children haven’t been taught things as basic as sitting still and listening to lessons. So they often move around and do as they want.”

Ochiai nevertheless speaks to the children patiently from the heart and uses soccer to teach them the importance of following rules. Once the children understand that soccer is all about enjoying freedom within a set of rules, they start to properly listen to the coaches and instructors.

Teaching in Cambodia; Ochiai taught children to greet people while looking them in the eye

Ochiai went on to explain that talking about his overseas experience to children in Japan further creates synergy effects.

Ochiai talking about his experiences with children abroad at a Japanese elementary school

“I show Japanese students pictures and explain that there are many children in Asia who face great difficulties but still play soccer and give it their all,” said Ochiai. “Then when I ask, ‘What about you?’ even students who weren’t taking the lesson seriously suddenly change their expressions and start listening intently.”

When Ochiai visits developing countries, he says he’s always reminded that it’s not money or products that matter, but the heart. Since Japan is materially rich, children may find the concept hard to grasp. Listening to Ochiai’s experiences allows them to learn about and imagine things beyond their world. It presents a unique opportunity to think on their own and achieve mental growth.

text by Jun Takayanagi(Parasapo Lab)
photo by Urawa Reds Heart-full Club

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