Even before coming to Moscow for the sixth annual Football For Friendship Children’s Social Programme that ended yesterday, Lengo’s Laigwanani Mollel felt like the luckiest boy in the world.
For the 12-year-old from Ngaramtoni, near Arusha, it meant the realisation of a dream he never expected to fulfil in his lifetime – to fly in a plane, becoming the first person in his family to do so, and the first even to leave Tanzania.
The week long journey would continue to expand his horizons and bring surprises and wonders galore that have been life changing, and would culminate in Laigwanani flying his country’s flag at the opening ceremony for the 2018 World Cup.
Afterwards, and after watching hosts Russia beat Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the tournament’s opening game, a tired but happy Laigwanani said he felt he had done a good job and represented his country well. He had enjoyed the whole experience which he said had been “great”.
Speaking earlier, before appearing at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium in front of a global TV audience of 3.5 billion, as one of 211 children (one from each country represented at F4F), he had said: “I will be so proud because Tanzania has never qualified in the World Cup finals, so I will be the one to represent the country. I will feel confident and represent my country well and I know in my mind that one day Tanzania will be here in the World Cup finals! Speaking in his native Swahili through interpreter Amani Mzava, his coach and one of his chaperones for the trip, Laigwanani looked back at a week of wonder for him and fellow delegate, Ziporah Mollel.
“When I left Tanzania to come here I expected to learn some things but I learned much more than I expected to. First of all, everyone respects Football For Friendship and are respecting the Nine Values,” referring to Gazprom-sponsored F4F’s key principles such as friendship, honour and tradition. “I made lots of friends and I really now do think that everyone in the world has equal value.
“What I will take back with me is that I will make sure that I am going to promote gender equality, because the community I come from still has gender inequality.” He said for example fewer girls thought they could take part in football, so there were far fewer girls’ teams than boys’. “So I will practice gender equality.
“I am also going to advise teammates at Lengo that, if the opponent is leading, don’t give up! Come back … motivate each other in order to win the game!”
“I am going to teach my teammates though that at the end football has three results – win, lose and draw – and you have to accept each one and to learn from mistakes.”
The Social Programme comprised three days of football training in one of 32 teams named after endangered animals to raise awareness of conservation; followed by a tournament day to contest the F4F World Championship, and finally a Children’s Forum.
The 211 countries and regions was a record for a sports event, more than have ever attended an Olympics, and encompassing more countries than does the United Nations.
They came from every part of the globe, from nations great and small, rich and poor, neutral and warring, into a Moscow melting pot of races, religions, cultures and political and ideological persuasions, where differences were set aside in the name of friendship. And football.
While the footballers played, their counterpart 12 year-olds – and fellow soccer-lovers – designated Young Journalists, published a daily newspaper of events, attended ‘masterclasses’ and discussed ethical issues aimed at enabling them all to help ‘change the world’.
In his football heart, like every player, Laigwanani plays to win, and acknowledged some hard lessons from the tournament day. After a brilliant start, with three straight wins, his team, Big Turtle, went out in the quarter-finals to eventual finalists Kimodo Dragon.
“At the first games in the group stage my team, Big Turtle, had good morale because we won the first three games. We expected to win the tournament! Afterwards I felt really bad because what I had expected didn’t happen.
“When we lost the quarter-final we all felt very bad, but everyone encouraged each other and tried to cheer each other up. No one was blaming anyone else.”
“I know football is a game of mistakes and I agreed with the result, but what I learned was that the team, all of the team, were friends and supported each other.”
To review, award prizes and wrap up the week, there was a Children’s Forum on Wednesday, a formal show with distinguished guests and speeches, at the Moskvarium marine life centre. There was musical entertainment, ‘Cirque de Solieil’-style acrobatics, and a spectacular display by the Moskvarium’s killer whales.
“The show was fantastic,” said Laigwanani. I saw things that I have never seen before and didn’t expect to see then!
“I saw some animals I have never seen before. Every moment was surprising. Everything that they [the orcas] did they did as a team, so everything was surprising!” He added, laughing that he previously did not know the killer whales existed.
He added: “In the speech of [legendary Spanish goalkeeper] Iker Cassillas I learned that I have to work hard and keep my goals and never give up.”
“I have made so many friends. Where I am from the life is really hard but the opportunity I got to come here made me just like other people [from more affluent nations]. I learned equality.”
Laigwanani said his favourite one of the nine F4F values was peace. “Because all of this that has taken place is possible only because there is peace.”
When Amani, interpreting, asked as requested whether Laigwanani had ever been on an aeroplane before flying to Moscow, the young boy dissolved into laughter. Asked to explain why, he said, through – and to – Amani: “It’s funny because you know I had never been on an aeroplane before!
“When I got the opportunity to come here it was a dream come true for me, as it was the only way for me to fly in a plane. In my [Maasai, Mollel] family I am the only one ever to have flown.” He made clear this would mean massive kudos for him back at home. “I was not scared but was very excited and very happy.
“When I was starting my journey to come here my mum was worried because I was the first person from our clan ever to go out of the country.
“When I get back this, everything that has happened, will make my mum believe in my talent. She did not believe football would change my life.”
By Dominic Biggs