On Sunday 16th June the world’s biggest charity football match will be played at Chelsea Football Club’s Stamford Bridge in London bringing together a star-studded line up of football legends and celebrities, who will be battling it out on the pitch so that more children can grow up happy, healthy and able play – just like children should.
fcbusiness speaks to Mike Penrose, Executive Director of Unicef UK, to find out more about this year’s historic game and what it means to the charity.
fc: So, Mike, tell us about your role within Unicef UK and Soccer Aid.
Mike: I’m the Executive Director of Unicef in the UK. Unicef is the world’s leading children’s organisation and we’re in 190 countries around the world. Our primary job is to ensure every child has the things that we think they deserve such as clean water, food, education, vaccination, healthcare and also the right to play and the access to sport.
Soccer Aid for Unicef is great for us and is one of our biggest vehicles globally for celebrating our work and really helps connect the public with the work we do for children all around the world. That brilliance that sport has in bringing everyone together makes it a fabulous event for us.
You have an illustrious background in the charity and humanitarian sector. Can you tell us a bit about your career to date?
I’ve been in the sector, predominantly in humanitarian and development work overseas, for about 24 to 25 years now and I’ve worked all over Africa, Asia, the Middle East on a number of large humanitarian responses.
The one thing that stuck out, and one of the reasons I love Soccer Aid for Unicef, is that throughout all my career, it doesn’t matter where I’m working whether it’s in our schools in the UK or if I’m in Sierra Leone or Sudan, the one common factor is when you throw a football out into the open all the kids immediately gather round and start playing, laughing and cheering. It’s a wonderful tool to use.
So my background is having worked all over the world on some of the biggest responses from the Tsunami response for the World Health Organisation or a number of big charities in Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Indonesia, Malaysia – but the one thing that sticks in my mind it the power that football has.
And now with Soccer Aid for Unicef – you have the chance to use the game of football to raise important funds for your organisation?
It’s incredibly powerful and first and foremost it’s allowed us to engage children in the UK and around the world in football. To date Soccer Aid has raise over £30m for some of the most critical programmes we run around the world.
It’s an incredibly powerful brand in terms of putting Unicef, and the work we believe in for children, at the forefront of the public’s mind at prime time on ITV. It also raises a great deal of money – last year it raised nearly £7m and we certainly hope to top that this year.
Soccer Aid for Unicef is a huge moment in the calendar for the charity and sports sector – isn’t it?
The game is shown in the UK on prime time TV and around the world and last year we had over 800 million different views on social media and in the press because of the celebrities were able to bring to play that game. They resonate all around the world, from people like Usain Bolt to Robbie Williams, who is one of the founders of Soccer Aid and has fans everywhere. It’s certainly something we’re looking to take outside the UK in the future, but that’s the power of football – everyone loves it.
What is it about the game which brings so many big names from around the world together?
The feedback we get year in year out from the players, supporters and everyone involved is that they absolutely adore doing it; they don’t consider it an obligation. The former professional footballers love to come and play alongside some of the biggest celebrities from the UK and around the world.
The celebrities, many of whom have dreamt of running out at Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge all their life, get the opportunity to pull on the Soccer Aid Unicef World XI shirt or the England shirt and run out in front of a cheering crowd like they’re a Premier League player.
But there’s also the build up to it, the celebrities visit schools and see some of our work. We have a lot of our ambassadors making appearances across the country but this is an event that they really enjoy doing and I think that comes across on the TV. They take the match seriously and they have great fun but it is also really competitive whilst supporting a great cause – what’s not to like!
The game has sold out Wembley and Old Trafford before. There must be a huge amount of work going on behind the scenes to ensure everything goes smoothly, and that the game raises lots of money.
It is a 365 day effort to build up and put on a match like this whilst developing the campaign and rolling it out to schools and the public to ensure our message resonates.
We work closely with ITV on a three and half hour prime time TV show which is a big effort and it brings together the biggest names in football and entertainment with one of the best television companies in the UK.
This is a huge effort to pull together but I think that comes across with the professionalism and the passion that we see on the pitch culminating with a fantastic match in front of a packed out stadium.
Last year’s event raised nearly £7m and once again this year every pound donated to Soccer Aid for Unicef will be matched by the UK government, doubling the difference you make to children’s lives.
How important is it that you have the support of ITV and that prime time slot in delivering the message of Unicef?
It’s hugely important. There are two channels we have that get the word out to the most number of people about Soccer Aid. The first is the passion and commitment that ITV have shown, they give us a great slot and we’ve seen a lot of their famous shows and daytime programmes mentioning Soccer Aid.
Two of their daytime stars, Suzanna Reid and Piers Morgan are co-managers of the teams this year and have talked about it on the Good Morning Britain since we launched, so it’s really been positioned as part of ITV’s core offering and that helps us no end in terms of it being placed in view of the British public’s mind.
The other is the huge support from Chelsea this year. The club’s chairman, Bruce Buck and his team have been fantastic and they’ve helped push this out to all their supporters too. ITV and Chelsea have been instrumental in helping us raise awareness with this and also the work that Unicef does with children around the world.
This year’s match is an historic one, in that female players will be taking to the field for the first time. What is the background to that decision and what do you expect will be the impact on the women’s game from something like this?
We’ve received so many positive messages around this which will be the first FA sanctioned charity football match with mixed teams. We’ve got two former Brazilian World Cup winners and two England legends – Rachel Yankey and Katie Chapman. We also have ITV breakfast show host Suzanna Reid as one of the co-managers along with a number of female referees.
We’ve had huge support for this and it’s been wonderful that The Football Association (The FA) have come in to help this. Mark Bullingham at The FA and Baroness Campbell have been incredibly supportive. We’ve been talking to The FA for a very long time on this and they’ve done all they can to make it happen. We’re really proud that this game features female players but there will also be a study carried out around the game by Brunel University.
Ultimately, we think it sends a really good message to all the young girls that we support to say ‘pursue your dreams – if you love football and you train hard you can not only represent your country but also run out onto the same pitch as Usain Bolt.’
For me, the real pleasing point has been looking at all of the social media comments we’ve received since we announced these female players. The number of women and girls that came out saying how wonderful it is and how they play for their local clubs and this will not only convince them to buy a ticket and watch but also support and get involved with what Unicef does, has been inspiring.
It’s been a really fabulous addition to the line up.
What can fans attending expect to see on Sunday 16 June?
The draw of Soccer Aid is that it’s a competitive top quality football match. You’ll have seen at the end of last year’s game with the passion of the penalties at the end. They’ll see the rivalry between Piers Morgan and Suzanna Reid as well as Big Sam against Harry Redknapp – that should bring some real passion to the game.
On top of that we have a really good build up with the TV show and some really good entertainment being put on as well. We have Rita Ora who will be singing, we have films about how the money helps by Unicef UK Ambassadors Rita, James Nesbitt and Olivia Colman – an Oscar winner – doing a film for us so it will be a really entertaining build up show.
But ultimately they’ll see a really fantastic football match. I’ve been to several of these and I’ve loved every minute of every one – it’s enthralling. You see the passion; it’s like being at the FA Cup final. It will be an amazing night of television, some really great celebrities from A-list Hollywood stars right through to familiar ITV faces, songs by Rita Ora and a feast of a football match. What more can you ask for!
Hospitality tickets for Soccer Aid for Unicef at Stamford Bridge for England for Soccer Aid World XI are still available at socceraid.org.uk/tickets/hospitality or by calling 020 7386 2019.
Soccer Aid for Unicef takes place on Sunday 16th June at London’s Stamford Bridge Stadium, and broadcast exclusively live on ITV and STV from 6:30pm
Mike Penrose took over as Executive Director of Unicef UK in May 2016. Prior to this he was CEO of Action Contre La Faim in Paris, and Humanitarian Director at Save the Children International. He has 24 years’ experience working in aid and development as well as risk, crisis and disaster management in more than 60 countries.
Mike has extensive experience of crisis and emergency response, including deployments as Head of Operations for the UN World Health Organisation in Banda Aceh for the Tsunami response; Crisis Management Advisor for the Torino Winter Olympics; DFID Humanitarian Advisor in numerous emergencies, including Iraq 2003 and the Pakistan earthquake in 2005; and as the Evacuation Team Leader for the inter-governmental civilian evacuations of Lebanon 2006, Guinea 2007 and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2007.
Mike has also advised many large commercial organisations on how to operate effectively and ethically in fragile environments. He currently lives in London with his wife and young son. Unicef UK employs over 300 people across the UK.
Picture: Left to right – Manchester United Executive Chairman, Ed Woodward with Mike Penrose and Chelsea Chairman, Bruce Buck at Stamford Bridge.