World Cups in Disaster Zones: Journal article


Johnie McGlade with puppet Seamus, 1998

Johnie McGlade with puppet Seamus, 1998


The 2014 final is already a memory, but where did you watch previous big World Cup games? Johnie McGlade of the international children’s charity No Strings looks back on big match experiences around the world and throws light on people’s love of the tournament everywhere you go


2010: Spain – Germany, semi-finals / Holland – Spain, finals. Uganda

“I was in Karamoja, Uganda, one of the most remote regions of Africa, researching with local people about a possible series of films on issues around peace and climate change. It’s a place where the traditional nomadic lifestyle of cattle rearing has become threatened as drought affects grass growth, leading to increasing poverty and hunger, and, in consequence, cattle raids. Guns are replacing spears.

Saying that, the community leaders who turned up later that day to watch our Africa HIV puppet films were all carrying spears, wearing little more than tribal underpant kind of things and a blanket over their shoulders. They were fascinated by the films. For many, they’d never seen anything like them in their lives.

I arrived in the village on roads that had seen just a handful of vehicles in the past few months due to a series of attacks and general lawlessness. It was dry and vast, with mountains in the distance, about as remote as you can get and similar in many ways to nearby southern Sudan where I’ve done a lot of work. There’d been practically no rain for a good couple of years and it was almost eerie. But then I got out and was greeted immediately by a very cheerful padre with a cold beer from Crouch End, London, my old home! We watched the match in a little community house surrounded by tukuls, or mud huts, with a dish up and the generator on, in the company of the villagers. The reception was incredible.

“By the day of the finals, I’d flown back to the capital, Kampala, and had gone to the rugby club for the afternoon to write up reports. I’d arranged to meet some partner colleagues in another bar later, an Irish pub, which I was delighted about as it was right near my hotel even though the rugby club seemed an obvious choice. As with the rugby club, they’d put hundreds of seats outside for the match and it was full of locals and aid workers. Then all of a sudden I could just see something was going down. All the phones and walkie talkies were going, then boom, everyone was gone. There was clearly a security shut-down. I got back to the hotel and rang my wife in Newcastle to check the internet. There’d been two coordinated explosions in front of big screens nearing the 90th minute, bombs, one at the rugby club. Seventy four people were dead. It was just luck we weren’t there. I watched the BBC all night on the hotel TV. Absolutely devastating.”


2006: Italy – Germany semi-finals. Afghanistan

“I was in Kabul with our patron, the actor Hugo Speer, and two guys from eRanger. It’s a Harrogate company that make these amazing sidecar units for scrambler bikes. We’d had four shipped in, two cinema units for getting our landmine-awareness film ChucheQhalin out to more remote regions, and two ambulance bikes for people injured by landmines, etc. The security wasn’t great so we watched this classic match in our compound kind of a thing. They had all the games, with English commentary, as well. I think it was an Indian channel. Extraordinary, really. All the Afghans we worked with were really into the World Cup, loving the whole thing.

There were problems getting the bikes released from customs but we got them in time for our big launch, and Hugo drove one up to this school on a hillside so it went really well.

I’ll not forget the flight back to Dubai. We were taxiing down the runway ready for take-off when this guy, an Afghan, started running down the aisle to the cockpit. I was with some foreign correspondents and we thought that was it, gonners. Anyhow, time passed and nothing happened, and we thought, great, it’s just a hijack. We’d just assumed he was Taliban. The plane turned round and headed back to the airport and it wasn’t till we were nearly there that they finally announced the man was on the wrong flight. He’d panicked, and realised he had to stop the pilot! He was supposed to be flying to Herat.

I then took a flight to Indonesia, where we were launching a series of films called the Tales of Disasters about how to prepare for and be safe in natural disasters. I watched the World Cup final in Jakarta. It was about three in the morning and it seemed the whole city was glued to little TV screens they’d brought outside of their homes to watch together.”


2002: England – Brazil quarter-finals. Israel / Gaza

“I watched all the games from the quarter-finals on in the West Bank and Gaza, but this is the match I remember. I was in Gaza and everyone was glued, another wonderful people who passionately follow the World Cup. Just before I left, Ireland (my team) had been knocked out on penalties by Spain, and when I arrived through airport security I was let through no problem at all. Security there is unbelievable as you can imagine, and this was the first time this had ever happened to me, but this time they felt sorry for me. I was working for WarChild at the time and with an English colleague. He was brought off for an hour and had the full body. Cavity search, the works – and it was his first time in the field! So I was very proud of my Irish passport, though disappointed for the Irish team.

I was in the region for about six months, on and off, working with local NGOs to set up safe play areas where kids could come and have a game of football or play on swings and have fun together in secure areas.

One of the things we both remember from that trip is visiting the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem at the end of the infamous siege there. There were still bullet marks on the walls. The place was deserted. Because of what had gone on we were the only people there in the world.”


1998: England – Colombia (Beckham scores!) /England – Argentina (Beckham gets sent off… ) Lokichogio, Kenya

“I watched these two matches in Lokichogio with the actors Adrian Dunbar and Neil Morrissey who’s supported all my work overseas and is now a No Strings patron, about 30 miles from the southern Sudanese border (now South Sudan). The town served as massive logistics base for the humanitarian relief effort there, and the guys were with me to create awareness around the dreadful situation that was unfolding as part of Operation Lifeline Sudan. We watched the two England matches in a ramshackle, made-up bar for aid workers coming back from the field.

My work there was related to the support of major feeding and medical projects. There were a huge number of malnourished children, and I was coordinating assessments for therapeutic feeding and that sort of a thing. It’s actually one of the first times I brought Seamus out, this old puppet I’d been given. I’m no puppeteer but he had people flocking around him in ways I’d never managed, such an amazing way to get vital messages to people. That’s basically how I got the idea for No Strings.

We also did a number of air drops which the guys came along on, dropping huge food and medical items from planes where you couldn’t land for security reasons. They still talk about it to this day.”


1994: Brazil – Italy finals, Anglola

“I was the field director with GOAL at the time, an Irish NGO, in Angola in the middle of a civil war. We were running major feeding and medical projects in Luanda and a town called Saurimo, a three-hour flight from the capital on the DRC border (then Zaire). In Saurimo, we had six medical clinics and literally thousands of people through our doors each day. Because of the security conditions we were one of very few NGOs operating there, with rebels surrounding the city and constantly bombarding it.

Anyhow, I was there throughout the World Cup. The Angolans are big football lovers, and it was a huge deal for those who could get to watch a match. On the day of the final, I was back in Luanda where we were also running a lot of clinics. There were many thousands of displaced people living there too, and we were treating anything from physical trauma to malaria and billharzia and all manner of tropical diseases. We also did food distribution, and again, we’d have thousands of people arriving each day. We had these huge blue boxes of every drug imaginable and every day we’d bring them back to our compound and haul them up the stairs to a secure area.

The Angolans share a common language with the Brazilians, Portuguese, and there were incredible celebrations in the centre of the city when the Brazilains won on penalties. Everyone who had a gun (including the guards at the house where we’d been watching) went out onto the streets and fired into the air, fireworks not being available, and tragically, there were a good number of casualties because of course, what goes up has to come down. It was just part of the exceptional circumstances everyone was living in.”


This article originally appeared in The Journal newspaper, Wednesday July 9th 2014