Lengo wasn’t necessarily what we had in mind when we dreamed of making a mark on the world through football.
For one thing, Lengo’s founder wouldn’t even be born for another 20-odd years when me and my near next-door neighbour Chris Haywood became friends as toddlers in London’s suburban overspill in the 1960s. The charity itself would have to wait another 40-plus years until 2012 to be brought into being by Emanuel Saakai in Arusha, Tanzania.
But happily after the long journey to this point on our separate paths through life and football – always for both of us there was football –today finds us joining up again as teammates, as Chris launches one of the most generous regular donor partnerships Lengo has had in its relatively young history, and the first and most significant of its kind in the UK.
Back in the day though, dreams were all about the beautiful game. Born two months apart, and two doors apart in semi-rural Ferndale Road, for Chris and me ‘Wembley’ was the long, thin back garden of Chris’s family’s post-war semi, where we’d crash footballs into his home-built mini goal morning, noon and night, rain or shine and year-round. The real Wembley – the classic original – was 30 miles up the road in the ‘big smoke’, and in the bunting-bedecked summer of 1966 when we were aged six, England won the World Cup there. We were smitten.
In our dreams and our games England would go on to win the Cup every four years. Like the Charlton brothers we would get to play in a final together and one of us, like West Ham striker Geoff Hurst, would score a winning hat-trick and we would be thanked by the Queen. The world, we would soon learn, was not always like that everywhere. Football’s refusal, for example, to ‘come home’ to England 50 years on is an irrelevance in a world where, in 2019, extreme poverty in Africa is still and will continue rising against the global trend.*
We walked to the infants’ school up the hill at the end of our street, and moved together to the same nearby Crookham junior school, where we first played organised XI-a-side football together for the school team (pictured – coloured). We progressed through the District Schools teams and even when separated at different high schools, continued as teammates on weekend club teams (pictured – b&w).
In 1968 my family got its first black-and-white box TV and I was allowed to stay up to watch Manchester United thrillingly beat Benfica 4-1 after extra time in the European Cup Final at Wembley. (Everything seemed to be at Wembley in those days. And our team always won). Naturally Chris and me both became Man Utd fans and have remained so ever since. More than 30 years later we were both in the crowd at Barcelona’s Nou Camp to witness the next time Man Utd’s hands grasped the trophy as champions, even more thrillingly, in “Fergie time”, 2-1against Bayern Munich.
By that time, in 1999, we had long since gone our separate ways: in my case to live briefly in Africa, then to Hong Kong, the United States and Australia; and Chris to travel around the world and back again. But we always periodically kept in touch. Chris managed rock bands and had other music business roles before setting up his existing business, now key Lengo sponsor, Topher Ltd, a successful UK security parking company, in 2007.
As Facebook friends, Chris and others received regular updates about my role with Lengo and the work of the football academy charity educating and helping sustain disadvantaged people in Africa, and pioneering social justice work helping refugees in Melbourne, Australia.
He was quiet about the impact it had made until, on a recent visit back to England – needless to say watching football in the pub near Ferndale Road – Chris said he wanted to share his good fortune in life and make a difference to those less fortunate by sponsoring Lengo.
By any standard it is an extremely generous, significant, regular sum committed for at least a year. For a young, volunteer-led charity like Lengo, where waste is zero and so much can be done with so relatively little, it represents a life-changing contribution to scores of hardworking and deserving disadvantaged people.
To me personally it represents not only special recognition of a lifelong friendship, but also a reaffirmation of faith in human nature, endorsement of our work and confirmation of the driving force at the heart of Lengo – a belief in the universal power of football to bring people together and, through the shared experience in a spirit of fair play, to make a difference.
From me to you – and on behalf of Lengo and the hundreds in Ngaramtoni who will be ecstatic and have new hope and purpose – heartfelt thank you Chris and welcome to the team.
* Brookings Institute/World Data Lab; ‘extreme poverty’ classified as living on US$1.90 per day or less. Seventy per cent of the world’s poor, up from 50 per cent five years ago, and 27 out of the 28 poorest countries are in Africa; which alone in 2019 has more than 400 million people living in extreme poverty (and rising), versus fewer than 150 million now in the rest of the world combined, including India and China (and falling, expected to halve by 2030). (Brookings). UNICEF estimates 22,000 children per day die due to poverty-related causes.