• Chris Thomas

A Tale of Many Cities

Updated: May 26, 2020

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.”


VIOLENT STREETS


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”


PASSION


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.