06 October 2007

Momo Sissoko finds perfect pitch at school

By Jim White

It can't have been what Momo Sissoko was expecting when he signed for Liverpool. The rangy midfielder from Mali must have thought he would be spending his time breaking up opposition attacks and launching a few of his own, not standing in front of several hundred children in the Breckfield area of the city leading them through a wildly enthusiastic version of She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain.
"I like that one very much," said Sissoko, grinning widely as the song came to an end. And no wonder. Several of the small boys and girls, sitting cross-legged on the floor of their school hall, seemed so excited to be engaging in a singalong with a bloke they had previously thought existed only on television, wearing red shorts and passing the ball three yards sideways to Steven Gerrard, they looked as if they might burst. As they chanted his name to the echo, this was clearly a school day they were going to remember for the rest of their lives.
And it is no one-off. At least twice a week, a member of the Liverpool first-team squad is out in the city's schools, bringing the European Cup with him and taking part in an assembly. Everywhere they go, the response from the children is the same: pure, undiluted, rapt attention. Which is the point. The players are not going out and about simply to develop their own singing skills. They are at the forefront of a sophisticated educational experiment which, it is hoped, will make a significant difference to the community in which their club is rooted.
Walking through the streets near the school, it is clear how much needs to be done. In the decaying terraces of Anfield and Breckfield, where gang members in black tracksuits hang on many a street corner, can be found a community facing an alarming spiral of social problems. This is a place where lack of opportunity is endemic, full-time employment is a minority pursuit, life expectancy is 10 years shorter than elsewhere in the country. It is a place where crime holds pernicious sway. It is, frankly, no straightforward place in which to grow up. Which is why, on this morning at least, watching the local children indulge in the simple, naive pleasure of a singalong is so refreshing.
After the music has stopped, Sissoko's colleagues in Liverpool's Truth 4 Youth scheme deliver an assembly based on several ethical homilies framed in the language of football. Written on cards held aloft by pupils, these vary from "give bullying the boot" to "kick drugs into touch". Where appropriate, the player is involved; Sissoko takes the lead on "show racism the red card".
"Momo," he is asked by Bill Bygroves, the Liverpool FC chaplain who conducts these assemblies, "have you ever been abused because of the colour of your skin?"
"In England, no," he replies. "In Spain, yes."
"And what did it feel like?"
"It wasn't nice."
For this overwhelmingly white audience, you get the feeling this is the first time they have heard a black person address such issues.
Recently, a new message has been added to the collection: "shoot goals not guns". And if anybody believes that primary school children are not yet old enough to be hearing such things, they have clearly not been out and about in inner-city Liverpool these past few weeks.
"If you're 10 years old then you're not too young to hear this message," Bygroves says. "Because you're not too young to be a victim."
Two months on, the death of Rhys Jones still haunts Merseyside. When Bygroves asks the 300 children whether they have heard of anyone affected by guns in the city, the name of the 11-year-old shot dead during his summer holidays bounces loud round the room.
Bygroves asks one of the tracksuited young community workers who line the back of the stage to tell the children his story. The lad recounts how he was a promising centre forward in the Liverpool youth team, the leading scorer, banging goals in for fun. Then, one day, as he came home from training, he was shot three times in the legs by a teenage gunman. Much like Rhys, he was the victim of mistaken identity. Unlike Rhys, he survived, but his top-class football career was over.
The children sit in silence as he speaks, their eyes wide, their mouths open, soaking up everything he says. Then Bygroves asks them to shout out the message together. They yell "shoot goals not guns" so loudly they might well have been heard as far away as Old Trafford.
"Football is the most persuasive vehicle to deliver educational messages," Bygroves explains afterwards, as the children are lining up to be photographed alongside the European Cup. "There has always been an obligation among professional clubs to return something to their communities. Maybe it is only now that we are beginning to realise the potential in that."
Indeed, 15 years ago, if they ran one at all, most clubs' community programmes were little more than semi-disguised scouting initiatives. These days, part-financed by the Premier League through the Kickz initiative, clubs such as Liverpool, Manchester City, Middlesbrough and the rest are beginning to appreciate the power of their product to affect social change well beyond the parameters of the game.
Every day of the week, the dozen members of Liverpool's community department are working in the city's education system. And working with impressive gusto. Bygroves, for instance, proves himself to be as effective at communicating with young children as Fernando Torres is at scoring goals, a world-class educator who, if he were so inclined, could persuade these staunch young Liverpudlians to support Manchester United.
"You can deliver any message you like through football," he says, though as a former Liverpool youth player it is unlikely to be the United one. "Numeracy, literacy, with older children we talk about personal health issues: you can introduce anything once football has unlocked the door. Because they always listen."
Listen they clearly do. But does Bygroves have any evidence that they do more than that? Are the messages at the core of his assemblies sticking? Could football actually change society for the better?
"We have students from Liverpool Hope University documenting this, researching whether it is working," he says. "But for me it seems a plain fact that the more messages of this sort our children hear, the better.
"All it takes for society to go wrong is for good people to do nothing. This football club is doing something. It has to, but then we all have to."
utusanlfc :
for a player who is very much responsible for the marseille debacle... he surely has his work done perfectly in the community... hmmm...

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