Scotland prides itself on being a multicultural society, but not everyone is as tolerant of other races as they could or should be.
This is especially true in football where sectarianism is still a major issue. The trouble at the most recent Old Firm match shone the spotlight once again on “Scotland’s shame”.
Whether it is religion, colour or race, there are always bigots who let the side down, but children today are being taught the ills of the narrow-minded which will help eradicate racism and bigotry for future generations.
And teams of youths in Falkirk are right on message championing equality and diversity through community football that is breaking down racial barriers.
Coo Park United AFC and Al Masaar AFC are playing a starring role in helping children from ethnic minorities settle and feel welcome in Scotland by promoting multicultural diversity and social inclusion.
Indeed, some of the 75 registered youngsters are drawn from no fewer than seven different backgrounds including Scots Asian and Chinese, or have recently arrived here from war-torn Syria and Turkey.
Racism and intolerance aren’t the only ills faced in modern society – deprivation is worsening throughout these times of austerity, but thanks to the charity football set-up, kids are able to get the chance to learn the game.
Coo Park United comprises 35 children and was set up in March last year by Charlie Hastie as a charitable sporting outreach in the community.
Charlie co-coaches the side with his daughter Leah Hastie and it is a project firmly rooted in Bainsford and Langlees which gives children aged four to 11-years-old from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to participate in football-related activities in a safe and supervised environment.
Al Masaar AFC was founded in the summer of 2014 by Falkirk school teacher and community activist, Sofia Akhbar. The aim is to provide a focal point for the coaching and bringing together of the children and a year on Al Masaar has recruited PhD student Nida Khalid as a development worker to make sure the message hits the back of the net.
Al Masaar coach Nida Kahlid said: “Al Masaar and Coo Park United are community football teams set up for the kids so that they are a part of something bigger. The aim is to give access to football related activities for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds who can’t afford to participate in existing organised provisions running in the area.
“Both teams offer weekly training sessions and events for free. Each team has their own uniform, private equipment and logo. They regularly hold fundraising projects to pay for these expenses and to cover transport costs for fun days. Both teams rely heavily on donations, fundraisers and community funding initiatives.
“Working closely with the Scottish Football Association, Falkirk Community Trust and the inner community we have been able to offer free football coaching sessions. On average the kids play four hours a week at the Dawson Centre Astroturf.”
Coo Park’s Leah Hastie said the team is going from strength to strength with children progressing to national attention.
She said: “We started with nine kids and are now delivering 10 hours per week sessions with over 80 local kids participating. The sessions are free and delivered by local people who have undergone SFA training.
“The key to the project’s success has been the involvement of the local community which has supported and recognised the barriers our children face in having equal opportunities to participate and develop their talents in relation to their peers from better of backgrounds.
“An example of this can be seen in two of our young female players have been supported by the community to sign up for the Falkirk FC girls under-14s team. Both are now having trials for the Scottish national team within this age group.
“Through football we aim to get the community working together to address equality issues the wider sense. As Bill Shankly famously said, ‘You must believe you are the best, then make sure you are’.”
Both teams took part in the recent annual Multicultural Football Festival tournament in Edinburgh, which is part of the Scottish FA’s strategy to advance equality and diversity in sport.
The younger players, aged four to nine, competed in teams of four with no goalkeeper. The older teams, aged 10-14, played in seven-person-squads with a detailed formation. Representatives of the Chinese Football Association were being given a tour of the Academy by the SFA at the time and met some of the young Falkirk players.
Falkirk MP John McNally said: “In addition to the physical benefits of health and wellbeing that competitive sport naturally brings to communities, by advancing the cause of equality and multicultural diversity the teams are using football creatively as a medium for positive social change.
“As a lifelong fan of football who has been involved in setting up community teams in the past, I am thrilled to see the good work that Coo Park United AFC and Al Masaar AFC are doing within my Falkirk constituency and in the wider Forth Valley area.
“I’d like to take this opportunity to congratulate the two sides and their respective leaders, Charlie and Leah Hastie, and Sofia Akbar and Nida Khalid and wish them continued success and fulfilment in their ethically commendable endeavours, both on and off the field.”
By encouraging their children to participate in team sport, the aim of Coo Park United and Al Masaar is to enhance the health, confidence and wellbeing of youngsters and help their families integrate and positively engage with the wider community.
By championing the multicultural aspect of equality, both the teams also want to empower kids from economically disadvantaged backgrounds through football.
The majority of those the teams provide for are from families unable to afford other organised sporting activities in the area.
Gender equality is also a key issue as the teams are made up of a healthy balance of boys and girls, with females actually forming the majority of players.