David Luiz is a man on a mission – and only part of it has to do with football.
The Chelsea footballer was among the club’s superstars in Boston this week for a charity match to raise funds for 15 anti-discrimination causes in the UK and America, including the Community Security Trust and Holocaust Educational Trust.
The match was conceived by The Blues’ owner Roman Abramovich and his counterpart at the New England Patriots, Robert Kraft, as part of ongoing efforts to highlight the rise in antisemitism around the world.
Luiz, one of the best known names and recognisable faces in the international game, is clear that events on the pitch are secondary on occasions like this. “And Not just this week,” the Brazilian told me during a break in the three-day schedule stateside. “With football we have the opportunity to travel the world and show a positive example. We travelled thousands of miles to do something really special and it’s great to be here because of the cause. We know people love football but I hope people can understand the cause.”
He cautioned against falling into the trap of believing it isn’t possible to change people’s perceptions about difference – and is keen to use his fame to play a role. “Football has a lot of power around the world. It is up to us to change the way people think and the way they see life. We have on this trip people of different religions and nationalities and we all respect each other.”
For teammate Ruben Loftus-Cheek, the anti-racism campaign conceived by Abramovich feels particularly close to home. “I’ve been a victim when I was young,” he said. “It’s important we do as much as we can as a club.” Chelsea has not shied away from the fact it has over the years had a problem with antisemitism among some fans and the midfielder insisted he’s not been “oblivious” to incidents of anti-Jewish hate even this season, adding: “This game has come at a good moment.”
But the fact the squad took a break from their preparations for the Europa League final to play a friendly match thousands of miles away underlines the importance the club places on its No To Antisemitism campaign, launched over a year ago in the presence of the Chief Rabbi and other community leaders. With the regular build-up to such a big game being a mixture of rest, training and intense monitoring at their UK training base, Maurizio Sarri expressed concern as head coach at the lack of rest his players would get as a result of the extra fixture. But he added: “We go there for a good reason, so as a man I am very happy to go.”
Shoshana, who guides groups to the memorial, told @ChelseaFC how her grandmother survived Mathausen camp. In a powerful moment at the end, @DavidLuiz_4 quietly went up to her at end to tell Shoshana to give her kiss from him. She told me how touched she was pic.twitter.com/HCLkO0EZIi
— Justin Cohen (@CohenJust) May 14, 2019
This week’s match was the latest stage of a campaign that has included Holocaust survivors speaking to the men’s and women’s teams, the production of resources for stewards and the introduction of educational sessions for supporters responsible for antisemitic behaviour through ignorance. The campaign has even been incorporated into a course at New York University.
The Chelsea Foundation runs equalities training workshops in 75 schools across the UK and Chelsea sent five coaches and two educators to Boston ahead of the players’ arrival in order that hundreds of American schoolchildren could also benefit. The initiative – developed with the Football Association – sees youngsters enjoy a kickabout while learning about the positive impact of diversity through examples in sport and the Chelsea set-up itself.
On Tuesday, pupils at Fuller Middle School welcomed three surprise guests – Luiz, Loftus-Cheek and Emerson – to their classrooms.
The trio listened intently and applauded when the kids read out their personal pledges on equality, as Luiz captivated the young audience with a unique blend of serious and silly that helped him convey the serious message which brought Chelsea to Boston.
One minute he was animatedly conducting applause behind the Boston mayor’s back and orchestrating selfies (one official joked he is 32 going on 12) and the next he was imparting the kind of wisdom you wouldn’t necessarily expect from the mouth of a top sports star.
Pearls from the man who once wanted to be a maths teacher included: ‘the brain is the most important muscle’, ‘take care of your parents as they are the most precious thing in life’ and ‘you can always learn if you want to. Just because something bad happens it isn’t the end’.
The opportunity to do good away from the pitch, he told me later, is “one of the most important things in my career right now. I’m a footballer not just to win titles but to help people’s lives. This so the opportunity football gave me”. And his readiness to do above and beyond was underlined when all the players joined their Revolution counterparts at the city’s Holocaust Memorial later that day. After guide Shoshana had told the group of her family’s experiences in the Shoah, she was moved to be approached by the footballer asking her to pass on ‘a big kiss’ to her 94-year-old survivor grandmother.
In our interview, Luiz spoke to the impact on him of hearing an “inspirational” talk last year from survivor Harry Spiro. He said: “I learnt a lot and it was a great opportunity to us. In school I never understood a lot about history.” He recalled Harry’s “energy” in passing on the memory to future generations and how he had refused to allow his horrific experiences to govern the rrest of his life.
On the day Rudi Oppenheimer passed away, Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck said it was all the more important to hear survivor testimony first hand at a time when the number of survivors is dwindling by the day.
Although he acknowledged it was tough to quantify the impact of the antisemitism campaign so far, he said: “There’s enough positivity from the fans and others to encourage us to do more.” He hopes the partnership with Revolution would be repeated with other clubs going forward.
As Abramovich, who was the driving force behind the campaign, flew into Boston for the Final Whistle in Hate game, Buck added: “The fact he’s here shows how much he believes in the importance of the project. We all agree we can multiple in some fashion what we’re doing and that can only be good for the objective of tackling antisemitism.”
Footballers often get a bad press rap. But while the likes of Luiz and his teammates are determined to use their voice to raise awareness you can’t help but take away some hope that sport and the spotlight it brings can make a dent in tackling the world’s oldest hatred. Such global icons have so much potential in this fight – a year in, their work has only just begun.
Arrived at Gillette Stadium in Boston ahead of Chelsea’s charity match against New England Revolution. 30k expected for a truly special event. Hopefully the first of many such collaborations pic.twitter.com/ZskhGC8l5i
— Justin Cohen (@CohenJust) May 15, 2019
- Community Security Trust
- Holocaust Educational Trust
- Roman Abramovich
- New England Patriots
- Robert Kraft
- Ruben Loftus-Cheek
- Maurizio Sarri
- Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis
- Chelsea Foundation
- Chelsea football club
- Fuller Middle School
- Harry Spiro
- Rudi Oppenheimer
- Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck
- Final Whistle
- News Features