By David Young, PA
Teenagers from across Northern Ireland sampled a big match experience when footballing legends joined them for a special televised game in Belfast.
Presenters, pundits and cameras from BT Sport were in north Belfast to cover the youth challenge match, which was organised to raise awareness about the impact of online hate in sport and among young people.
Played ahead of this week’s UEFA Super Cup in Belfast, the game was organised by the Irish FA in conjunction with BT’s Hope United and the Uefa Foundation for Children.
Hope United is a campaign aimed at empowering people with digital skills to better protect themselves and others online.
The match at Seaview, the home of Irish League side Crusaders, involved children aged between 14 and 17 from groups engaged in cross community work and projects caring for refugees who have settled in Northern Ireland.
The teams were managed by former England stars Glenn Hoddle and Joe Cole while fellow England legends Rio Ferdinand and Eniola Aluko presented the TV coverage of the game.
Ex-Liverpool, Real Madrid, Manchester City and England great Steve McManaman was part of the commentary team.
Footage of the match will feature in a Hope United documentary that will be broadcast on BT Sport ahead of the Super Cup game at the National Stadium at Windsor Park on Wednesday evening.
BT Sport is broadcasting the Super Cup clash between Chelsea and Villarreal.
Ex-Manchester United defender Ferdinand, a leading figure in the Hope United initiative, said: “My work, both on and off the pitch, has taught me that there is no hiding place from social media abuse.
“Passions run high during big football tournaments and having seen the devastating effect that can result from online hate first-hand, it is more important than ever that sport unites to combat it.”
One of those playing in Tuesday’s challenge match was 16-year-old Niamh Coyle, who plays for Sion Swifts Ladies’ football club in Co Tyrone.
“I’ve been playing football since I was five years old and I love the game,” she said.
“I travel three times a week from Strabane to Belfast for training, a six-hour round trip, and that’s really challenging for me as I’m also preparing for my 10 GCSEs.
“I have friends who’ve experienced abuse and I’ve helped them through it, making sure they know online abuse is not OK and to just keep playing football.
“Playing in this match has been really special to me and I hope I can achieve my aim to play for Northern Ireland’s Women’s Team one day.”
Leo Brown from Bangor, Co Down, is a youth ambassador with the Rio Ferdinand Foundation.
“This is one of best events I’ve ever been to,” he said.
“I wish I was young so I could experience it. You could see with the teams, the way the teams are all mixed and players are getting along, that sport is such a great centre for equality and when it comes to sport you’re just another player.”
Urs Kluser, general secretary of the Uefa Foundation for Children, added: “Young people are all too often victims of hate messages and harassment on social media and it is our duty to defend them.
“Thanks to the BT Tech Tips to beat online hate, young people can access real tools that teach them how to detect and respond to abuse but also learn to be more conscious about their own action online and to lead by example.”
(Joe Cole , Leo Brown, Northern Ireland Ambassador for the Rio Ferdinand Foundation and Glenn Hoddle during the BT Hope United match at Crusaders FC Seaview grounds in Belfast)
Simon Green, managing director at BT Sport, said: “As lead partner of the home nations football teams, we’re asking the UK to take a stand against hate speech on social media as well as giving everyone the knowledge and tools they need to be part of the solution.
“As a major sports broadcaster, we launched our Hope United team and campaign at the start of the Euros to bolster the fight against online hatred.
“The campaign has been well received, but the continued abuse online shows how far we have to go. No-one should ever dread getting online in fear of abuse. Nobody should feel unsafe.”