Football for Humanity: the life and times of Christopher Thomas
Posted by Psyche Roxas-Mendoza | Philippines Graphic
In 1983, Paul McCartney—famous English singer-songwriter and member of the Beatles, acknowledged as the most influential rock band of the 20th century—shot a video for his song, “Pipes of Peace.”
The video depicted the famous 1914 Christmas truce during the First World War when German and British soldiers crossed trenches and ventured into no man’s land to exchange holiday greetings and play a bit of football.
It is this powerful memory of universal brotherhood in a period of extreme conflict that moves another Englishman to cross time zones, venture across cultures, and like the soldiers of that historic Christmas Day, offer football as an act of peace.
Said 36-year-old Christopher Thomas, founder of Football for Humanity (FFH): “The two fiercest fighting forces in the world were dug in the trenches. And all of a sudden there were Christmas carols being sung. They popped their heads up, came out, and walked across the trenches. Instead of killing each other in a violent war, they shook hands and got a football out. They played football and this is what brought these nations together. They became friends. Through the power of this sport, we can do the same all over the Philippines. No matter what the background is.”
As a child of seven, Thomas already discovered how football could bring peace in a neighbourhood. In Merseyside—a county in North West England that includes the boroughs or districts of St. Helens, where he grew up, and Liverpool, the birthplace of the Beatles—violence was commonplace in the streets.
The area surrounding St. Helens were a little bit more violent. There was gun crime and knife crime, with a lot of gangs. If rival gangs were facing each other on the street, you couldn’t cross for fear of getting killed or stabbed or shot, Thomas said.
“We’d stay in the streets to play football. But the police would have a problem with us because the neighbours would complain about the ball, that it might damage property. So they would tell us to go to the park. But if we go to the park, we might be attacked by gangs,” he said.
Thomas narrated that they eventually found places where they felt safe; where they could play because they just wanted to be friends. One time, a classmate of his tried to bully him. He fought back and broke his classmate’s nose. But as Thomas matured and started attending secondary school, he came to the realization that fighting violence with violence wasn’t the way.
“I was small so I was a bit of an easy target. I had to defend myself in many different ways. And it got to the point when people began to think they don’t want to pick a fight with me anymore.” Thomas said, however, that it was better to be a diplomat of sorts; to be more peaceful in the approach and to dissolve a situation before it escalates. “From a young age, I was able to prefer that method. Rather than going at it, you know, throwing my fist and beating people.”
His view about the futility of violence grew stronger in the midst of the 1980 to 1990 attacks of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in England, particularly the truck bomb detonated by the IRA in Central Manchester, injuring over 200 people. Fortunately, no one was killed.
The bombing was not far from where Thomas lived. Greater Manchester was about 45 mins away by motorway from St. Helens.
On top of the social disorder and poverty in their midst, Thomas said: “we were always on our toes for when the next bomb will explode. In Merseyside, we are literally across the waters from Northern Ireland where armed conflict was a long, lasting reality”
Although a Protestant, Thomas finished his elementary education at the St. John Vianney, a Catholic school. He began high school at another Catholic school, the De La Salle Secondary School in St. Helens. But because of discrimination, Thomas transferred to a non-sectarian public school, the Sutton Academy, where he completed high school.
Thomas as a young boy at the De La Salle Secondary School in St. Helens, North West England. The only Protestant in the Catholic school, Thomas soon transferred to a non-sectarian public school, Sutton Academy, where he completed high school.
Born to working-class parents, Thomas said he and his younger brother grew up facing financial difficulties after their father fell seriously ill.
Suffering from a medical condition that induced long-term fatigue, the elder Thomas was forced to quit his job in the decorating trade. His wife also left her full-time job in a medical supply company and worked part-time as a nail artist to take care of her husband.
The times when money proved scarce, however, was mitigated by Thomas’ growing passion for football.
He said that he first got to know about the game in the years when both his parents were still working. “My parents were working a lot. So, I got brought up in my auntie’s house, with my cousins. That’s when I saw the football team on TV. I liked the colour red, and I became attached to the team that played. I found out it was Manchester United.”
Thomas added that he was exposed to football at the age of four or five, first through the TV, then through the school, where he got introduced to local coaches and school teams.
“Maybe because I was athletic. I had a lot of intensity in me, a lot of energy. I just enjoyed it because the game was to me many things. The teachers were just guiding me. The game taught me about positive values—teamwork, camaraderie, and respect. Instead of snatching the ball away, you say, it’s your ball and thus, take the ball. It (football) taught me how to be a good human being.”
When Thomas started playing football, he was a goalkeeper. In football terms, a goalkeeper is the designated player responsible for directly preventing the opposite team from scoring by blocking shots at goal.
But his teachers were quick to realize that they needed to move Thomas to another position because he got bored easily. And because he was able to run fast and had good dribbling skills, he became a rightwinger.
Over time, Thomas said he even had training sessions with Welsh football coach and former Manchester United player Ryan Giggs. He also trained with Sir Bobby Charlton, regarded as one of the greatest midfielders of all time, and an essential member of the England team who won the World Cup in 1966.
Thomas said education wasn’t taught to him as something vital to growing up. “Football was the only thing that kept me alive. It got to a point when I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I didn’t know where I wanted to go. There was no dream, no aspiration. I needed a drastic change.”
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Change came to Thomas in 2003, when he decided to join the Royal Marine Commandos. “The training really made me understand my athletic abilities. My shooting abilities were pretty good as well, actually, pretty much a sharpshooter. They wanted to put me forward as a sniper because my shot was so accurate. But that direction wasn’t the direction for me,” he said.
Thomas, already 22 at that time, said that the direction that was the military was probably not the best approach for him. It wasn’t consistent with what he really wanted, because the Royal Marine Commandos is war and frontline fighting and killing. “I wanted to make a difference, not just in my life but also, in other people’s lives, as well.”
Around that time, he also came to realize that education was very important to his own personal development in society. With help from Graham Smith, his high school Physical Education (P.E.) teacher, Thomas gained entrance at Edge Hill, a campus-based public university. There he earned his degree in Sports Development. Thomas has very fond memories of his high school teacher who helped him gain admission to college even if, at first, he did not qualify for university.
“I approached him (Smith) and I said: ‘Look, I didn’t do my best in school. But I believe I can do university. I believe I can do this. It’s really something that I am passionate about.’ So he gave me a test to see what level I am at. I did the test. It was an essay. And he said that I can do it. He gave me an opportunity. I thin he was a Tranmere Rovers and Everton Football Club (F.C.) coach in the Premier League. And he was multi-skilled, multi-talented, and absolutely amazing.”
He added that Smith, a native of Liverpool, taught him how to be a good person. It was in high school while studying at a Manchester United School, that Thomas met people from different nations around the world.
This inspired him to broaden his horizons and to go international, “because of the different people, different languages, and different cultures coming together through football.” Said Thomas: “My direction in life came from my childhood, my experience growing up. I want to really share that type of experience with people because I know the type of power that particular sport has in bringing together people in a friendly way until it becomes a part of their lifestyle.”
Thomas flew to Thailand in 2009, immediately after finishing college. He took a job as an English teacher and stayed in Bangkok.
But it didn’t take long before he began teaching football as well. At school, they played the foreigners versus the locals in games that were fierce but nonetheless inspired camaraderie and respect.
Thomas briskly rubbed his hands over his arms, saying he felt a tingle run over his body as he recalled those games. “I would see the students come and cheer for us (foreigners) and sometimes for their teachers. He said the school became so inspired they built bleachers and renovated the area. Thomas added that he helped them develop a Football Academy, the schedules, and the costing. “Towards the end of the project, I decided to move on. My job was done.”
Thomas compares his life and football with that of a farmer in a field. “You put a seed in the soil and there it grows. That’s how I see myself. When I go into areas, I plant a seed of inspiration for football and it always grows. The results in Thailand empowered me to do even more and more. This is because I have seen the results from it. You plant a seed and it grows.”
At the age of 33, Thomas travelled to the Philippines. It was 2014, just a year after he watched news of Super Typhoon Yolanda devastating a country he paid little notice to before. Being on a sabbatical from teaching, Thomas stayed to get a feel of the people and culture of the country. He began to understand Philippine Football culture and the demand for it.
“That’s when everything started. All my life experiences, from my youth to (my stay in) Thailand, I just brought here. And I wanted to go on a bit of a mission. Planting those seeds of inspiration, seeds of transformation, so we could grow traditions, grow cultures, grow identity. We can grow so much by using football in the community that is crying out for it.”
The following year, in 2015, Thomas partnered with a United Kingdom (UK)-based insurance firm for its football advocacy. The partnership offered an opportunity to share with thousands of underprivileged children his passion for the sport.
Together with insurance marketing executive Belle Tiongco, Thomas founded and officially registered FFH in the UK in 2017.
Within the year, FFH had coordinated with the local government units (LGUs) of Naga province and Marawi City in Lanao del Sur province “to help towards social transformation by building a set of facilities to develop football.”
Naga City is home to our first cage. On Christmas Day, 2016, a typhoon flattened our cage…but not our spirit.
Thomas admitted that their strategy and action plans were put to the test in Bicol, their pilot area. “The biggest learning for our team was that it’s always a group effort. For real change to take place—the government, the education system, the barangay leadership, and private NGOs (non-government organizations) like us need to work together so that the effort becomes fruitful and the community experiences the change,” he said. “Filipino children have the ability to attain football skills that can bring them to global prominence in football.”
Sustainability is another factor that Thomas said they aim to see through. “We do not want it to be just a PR (public relations) effort. FFH wants cultural and societal change. I think we have been able to make some changes in the lives of the people we touched, even if these are tiny changes. We mean to follow through, and with a lot of faith and hard work, we know we will see success in the future.” Thomas further explained: “We believe in social inclusion. Football is for everybody. We want the whole world to come in no matter the age, religion, race or nationality. Some say football is for rich people. I’m breaking that mentality. Some of the poorest people who are (football) superstars today came from gang culture, armed conflict, violence and drugs. And now these are the most looked upon people in the world.”
He added that LGUs like the idea and the concept. As the children, Thomas said, “they are so excited. They’re buzzing, every time we set foot in there. They (children) become their favourite players; they become the international football superstars. So, we massage their imagination to allow them to be free. They enter that space and they become free human beings.”
It takes P150,000 to P300,000 to construct a low-cost football cage, the basic structure for playing football. The cages can also cost as high as P5 million to P40 million, depending on the quality of materials used.
Thomas said that his approach is to do it at the cheapest possible, but the most durable way. “This is a long term project. I want to see long-term results. And I see that there is a lot to do in this country and my hidden competitive vision is: for every basketball court, there is going to be a football court.
It’s a dream right now, but I’ve started it. There are three already (in Naga province). I’m a person who doesn’t give up. I don’t like to give up easy.”
“We went to Marawi to bring our kind of football to the children who were affected by armed conflict”
FFH resolve to spread the philosophy of football found renewed relevance in Marawi City, Lanao del Sur. A day before their visit to a sitio in the city, thousands were displaced after an encounter with the military and the remnants of the Maute group took place.
Linking up with Col. Thomas Sedano, regiment commander of the Civil-Military Operations Regiment of the Armed Forces of the Philippines gave us an opportunity and accessibility to enter restricted zones so we could execute our strategy.
“It gives us more reason to work harder, knowing that sports is a bridge toward peace. Whether it’s Naga or Legazpi or Marawi, we have seen that there is much work to be done. You can see the hunger for football in the children’s eyes,” he said.
According to Thomas, it is the warmth and sincerity displayed by the children, their parents, teachers, and community leaders that inspire them to keep pushing even when frustrated by the lack of infrastructure, lack of equipment, and at times the lack of interest or cynicism exhibited by some local and national leaders.
“One of our colleagues said that we can’t really expect to be everywhere; but in those places where we are able to establish our efforts, we can continue to work so that children will learn football, live their dreams, and grow up with positive values. We will continue our work in Bicol, in Marawi, and in many other places in the country,” Thomas said.
Paraphrasing a famous passage from Hollywood actor Kevin Coster’s hit movie, “Field of Dreams,” Thomas said: “If you build it, they will come. This has actually been our experience. And we can even add: If you build it, change will come and good things will take root.”