The World Cup soccer tournament kicked off today in South Africa with the United Nations highlighting the critical role that sport plays in promoting both peace and development and in spurring action on a range of vital issues.
The UN is harnessing the power of the World Cup, which is being held for the first time in Africa, to advance a host of objectives from ensuring quality education and a clean environment to reducing hunger and disease.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who attended the World Cup opening ceremony and game today in Johannesburg, described the event as a “great moment for the African continent” and a triumph for humanity.
He told UN Radio that he was amazed by the “excitement and explosive energy” of all the nearly 100,000 spectators at the opening ceremony.
“This gives a great sense of hope to many developing countries which have not been able to host this kind of a world event… I am very much impressed by what the South African Government and people have achieved now.
Today’s opening “was a moment of reconciliation, victory and unity. Sport gives a great tool for development and political reconciliation and peacebuilding.”
Mr. Ban and the UN family are using the World Cup to make a major push for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – the eight targets world leaders have pledged to achieve by 2015.
“As we cheer the teams on the football pitch, let us remember: achieving the MDGs is not a spectator sport. It takes every one of us on the field,” he said in remarks to the Sports for Peace Gala in Johannesburg on Tuesday night.
“If we work together, we can score a victory over poverty. We can defeat ignorance, discrimination and want. We can ensure every man and woman, every girl and boy has an opportunity on the playing field of life,” he stated.
Wilfried Lemke, the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Sport for Development and Peace, stressed the opportunities presented by mega-events such as the World Cup and the Olympic Games to boost social, economic and environmental development.
“Sport has the unique power to attract, mobilize and inspire and is by far, the most popular activity in which youth engage,” he said ahead of the month-long World Cup.
A host of UN agencies are undertaking efforts in connection with the event, including a major initiative to ‘green’ the World Cup and help reduce carbon emissions involving the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the South African Government.
The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has a series of partnerships and programmes to harness the power of sport to promote children’s rights. It includes a programme to enable young people in Rwanda and Zambia who would otherwise not have the chance to watch the World Cup matches to do so via large open-air screens and projectors.
A massive “Red Card” campaign has also been launched to target child abuse, exploitation, child sex tourism and trafficking.
Other UN events and campaigns include those addressing racism and intolerance, child labour, violence and women and girls, and HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, care and support.