“Hi Daniel. This is Galit, the PE teacher from your son’s school. How are you?”
Without pausing long enough for me to answer, she continued: “You know something about football, right?”
It was 2013 and my son was in the 5th grade.
Being an active parent in the school, I knew Galit quite well, making her introduction completely superfluous.
Furthermore, having founded Redwood International Sports nine years earlier, a company dedicated to understanding the way footballers perform on the pitch to the minutest detail, you could say that I “knew something about football”. In fact, entering the footballing arena professionally with Redwood back in 2004 made me realize that I had been analyzing every movement of the players since I was a wide-eyed child watching the likes of Glenn Hoddle, Steve Archibald and Ossie Ardiles play for spurs at the 1980s version of White Hart Lane.
Galit, the PE teacher, went on to explain that the local council had set up a football tournament between primary schools in celebration of the Under-21 European Championships being held in Israel that summer. It was a big thing. Israel had never hosted a tournament of this stature before and there was a genuine air of anticipation. The local government was excited about connecting the educational infrastructure to the football buzz and had conjured up a terrifically organized event for the younger children.
Galit wanted me to put a team together to represent the school and coach them through the tournament. I didn’t hesitate. I had enjoyed coaching children in various sports teams when I was younger and the inner joys of doing so had never eroded from my memory.
“There’s one catch” added Galit.
She went on to tell me that the tournament allowed for eight teams. Seven schools were already registered, and the last spot was being contested by our school and one other.
“We are trying to agree with the other school that we can combine and create one team together so neither school misses out.”
It worked. They agreed. We agreed.
Now, as the coach of this combined team I had a greater challenge. With the other school located in a more upmarket area of town, the makeup of the children between the two was, on the surface at least, quite different. My first task was to create ONE team where the differences between children from one school and the other would be impossible to identify. This is the sort of job I relish. Bringing different people together has been a favourite pastime of mine for as long as I can remember. Whether it be through creation of diverse management teams for business or understanding and leveraging the different value sets of assorted cultures, or even more recently, bridging between Israeli and Arab neighbours to do whatever I can to support a new, more collaborative and more peaceful, Middle East.
Coaching session 1: With the kids all lined up on the touchline, I directly broached the need to be ONE team and what that required from each of them. That from that moment on, we would not refer to whether a player came from School A or School B. We all belonged together.
That was the last time it was mentioned. The team had been created. We were ONE.
We had two months to prepare for the tournament and, quite honestly, I can’t recall doing much of my real-life job as Redwood CEO during that time. I poured myself into the gratification of seeing these eleven-year-olds learn to play together efficiently and with unbridled pleasure. I convinced the local football club from the lower leagues to allow us to use their pitch for training. The school yard with a hard court was ok up to a point, but I wanted to prepare the players for the nicely cut grass surface of the tournament. I brought my whiteboard on a stand to practices and took the kids through an analytical view of how they were playing and how we would improve. I recall a number of random passers-by who stopped to gaze at our training sessions through the mesh fencing, in awe at the professional aura of what met their eyes. “Are these professional tryouts?” one person asked me. I felt proud. Of both myself and the kids. I always believe in doing things in an absolute manner and with wholehearted professionalism, no matter what task I take on.
I could write reams about what happened in that tournament.
I could describe at length about how we turned up as complete outsiders and, through a roller coaster journey of both physical and emotional endurance, we went on to win against all odds.
Yes… we won.
The moving sight of all team members being joined by parents and some onlookers in an uncontrollably jubilant hug and dance near the center circle will stay with me forever, as will the indelible sentiment of positivity and purity that particular moment left on my soul.
But if I went into any detail around the tournament itself, I would be missing the point of this story. And that is that Sport is never just about Sport. It is never simply a matter of one team against another in an athletic exercise where A triumphs over B. Sport is far more significant than the tally of goals/points/runs/whatever flashing up on a fancy scoreboard or the latest fan-engagement app.
Sport is far greater than all those easily definable themes.
Sport is Life. No Less.
Now, I’m clearly not objective. Sport has been my life since…well, forever. From the stereotypical and mischievous way I used to relentlessly kick a ball around my parents living room as a small child, I eventually matured (some would disagree…) to have had the great privilege of enjoying a hugely fulfilling career in the sports industry spanning 22 years, encompassing work in the broadcast, media, data, analytics, performance and betting verticals.
It has always been about sport for me. Candidly, after that many years in the industry, whether at C-level, as an advisor or an investor, I am not sure I know how to do anything else. I certainly know that I don’t want to.
Franz Becknebauer, one of the greatest of German players to have ever graced the midfield, said the following of the beautiful game of Football:
“Football is one of the world’s best means of communication. It is impartial, apolitical and universal. Football unites people around the world every day.”
How true this is. When people come together on the field of play, whether children or adults, they are united by a passion, and any inherent differences between them are outed as merely superficial, disappearing instantly from any level of significance.
People are naturally scared and suspicious of things that are different and, in particular, of other people who seem different.
People who speak a different language.
People who gesticulate in a different manner.
People who have a different colour or culture.
I hail from a pretty diverse background. My mother was born in Mumbai, India to Iraqi parents. My father was born in London to my polish grandfather and Russian grandmother who had met in Germany and left when the Nazi’s came to power. I myself am married to an Israeli woman of Yemenite origin on both sides.
“Different” for me has proved totally normal and has afforded me a natural ability to be shed of any skepticism or suspicion as far as assorted cultures from around the world are concerned.
I see “different” as a fascination and something to be leveraged, as being different is also immensely powerful. And when we combine many different kinds of people, we become stronger, together.
Sport has that power of aligning different people to one shared passion and to one shared “goal”, both literally and metaphorically. I simply cannot imagine a better bridge between people. The sports field is where we come together. All of us.
The ethos of the Olympic games illustrates this perfectly. The three values of Olympism are excellence, respect and friendship. They constitute the foundation on which the Olympic Movement builds its activities to promote sport, culture and education with a view to building a better world.
Back to Football, and Mr. Beckenbauer had more wise words. He continued:
“Young or old, players or fans, rich or poor, the game makes everyone equal, stirs the imagination, makes people happy and makes them sad”.
Yes indeed, my dear Franz. Nothing drives our emotions greater than sport. We all have our sob stories of a lost final or the game that got away from us. And on the flip side, we wait and pray for those triumphs that lift us through the heavens to a plateau that anyone uninterested in sport (who ARE these people?) cannot even contemplate.
Sport is certainly the greatest equalizer and unifier that I know.
In a post-pandemic world where public messages of hope and togetherness are continuously countered by widening polarization in society, it feels like we are at a tipping point. Many commentators write about the lack of leadership in the western world as a confused public continues to scroll inanely through their chosen feeds in search of empty answers.
There is so much dividing us when really, there should be more and more connecting us. When we add to the mix the persistently growing gap between those who “have” and those who “have not”, all exacerbated through a social media driven world where that reality is magnified into a more fake, yet perilous mirror, we have to find every means possible to reconnect, bridge those gaps and find a way to embrace differences rather than scorn them.
The only answer I have is through sport. But I do believe it is a powerful one at a time when the world needs connecting more than ever, and this is a principal reason for now setting out on a new venture to support the footballing and sporting ambitions of emerging nations by connecting them better to the technological advances of our time. Armed with the aim of creating maximum impact to peoples’ lives through football, we will be working with associations and governing bodies to improve all aspects of the game across performance to monetization and through all levels.
I simply cannot wait.
Whether serving a team of school kids, grassroots amateur football or a national team, I will always give my all.
For this is Sport. This is Life.