Students at work (photo: Geir Ove Halvorsen).
Students at work (photo: Geir Ove Halvorsen).

Formation for Human Rights

Football is a language

Football is more than a game. It’s a language. This aspect holds tremendous potential for education. Can football language be used productively in teaching?

FMH team member and school history teacher Geir Ove Halvorsen, supported by friend of FMH and bestselling football author David Goldblatt set out to conduct a creative experimental class project to test this on the topic of Human Rights.

This article talks about the educational approach which was chosen, how it worked out in practice and what else we could do going forward.

Qatar Matters

As the football world is preparing for the controversial World Cup in Qatar 2022, so have high school students all over the world been following their teams approach to this tournament. Certainly, students in countries which have qualified will be somehow engaged with this tournament coming winter. Evidently not all students care about football, and neither should everybody care about it! But. At the same time, the various issues raised by such a large cultural event being hosted in a country which, for example, has been found to offer very bad working conditions to the people building the stadiums, are important discussions to be had in and around football. Should this World Cup be boycotted? What are the prevailing interests that have led to this decision in the first place? Are opinions about this being shaped based on a rigorous analysis? And so on.

Into the past

The issues around the World Cup offer an opportunity to shed light on Human Rights issues, in a similar way that the UEFA European Championship 2020 (in 2021) demonstrated the difficult relation that football has with values, neutrality and activism. Further back in history, the World Cup of 1978 comes to mind. One example we wrote about was the Dutch cultural activism which called for a boycott then. Theatre makes Freek de Jonge, together with sport historian Jurryt van de Vooren in fact remain active and also call for a boycott for the upcoming tournament with their action Nooit Meer Qatar. But also footballers themselves are getting more involved. This is why we have added Tim Sparv to our collection of Football Lives. In this way the past and present continue to be bridged.

Back to school

During their years in class, high school students learn about human rights and democracy at different moments. They learn about the political transformations of the modern age, the rise of democracy, the various fights for equality and emancipation and so on. But often these are delivered in a dry, factual, fashion, which risks being less relevant to the everyday life of the students. Enter football. Could the context given by Qatar be used to re-engage with human rights and democracy history? We set out to try.

Challenge: the Human Rights Starting XI

Not a single match in the world escapes this. The conversation around the line-up. Are the right people starting? Are they in the right position? Is the chosen formation well suited to beat the opponent? Should it be 4-3-3, or 4-4-2? And so on. We took this language, and challenged students to apply it to their knowledge of human rights and democracy history.

The class projects was set-up in parts over a two week period:

  1. In the first week, during two classes, the students worked in teams to research relations between football and human rights today and in the past using Football Makes History and other resources offered by their teachers;
  2. In the second week, their small teams were given various suggestions on how to create a successful line-up. It had to relate to various elements of human rights, covered different countries and cultures and mixed in football with societal frames of reference.
  3. At the end of the second week, they created short pitch presentations of their starting formations and submitted these to David Goldblatt, who offered to be the one-man-jury. In the final lesson, an open conversation was waged based on David’s analysis and findings, which created a valuable space for wider reflections.

Playing around the pitch

The students played around with these concepts, resulting in very creative line-ups. You can explore the work of the students in the slideshow, or even listen to some of the pitch presentations the students created. For example the audio recording of the Blue Team as they pitch their team which includes Martin Luther King Jr. as the creative midfielder, as well as Mandela at central back. Or consider the Purple Team’s take on Rosa Parks, Gandhi and Rashford.

Some patterns in the work of the students are worth noting. They clearly had fun presenting their (new) knowledge about human rights defenders through the prism of football line-ups being presented. Some names returned many times, such as Gandhi, Mandela, Malala and Obama. But there were also various surprising names, which allowed some students to also present and feed into the group people they know more about. The concept of Human Rights also was conceived in various ways, inviting for example also philosophers and footballers to be in the line-ups. But also Greta Thunberg showed an interesting mix of historical and contemporary ‘players’.

On other hand, some aspects remained less explored. None of the students went further into their line-ups in terms of how players could play together. Neither were tactics of the formations really discussed. This means the activity could be deepened.

Reflecting on the work

When asked about what they had learned of the project, the students answered that they had gained knowledge of a wider range of human activists and methods they have used to promote human rights. Moreover, they indicated that they had learned about the development of human rights and about the conditions of human rights in Qatar. A couple of students wrote that they had learned to see different perspectives about human rights. Some of them pointed out the working conditions in Qatar and the situation that make the workers accept these conditions versus the situation in the countries that criticise the conditions in Qatar. Some pointed out that they had to do research, discuss with the others in the group and give reasons for their choice of “players”, position and formation.

History teacher Geir Ove Halvorsen appreciated the in-depth set-up of the project which went from the introduction to the class where the class watched Lise Klaveness’ speech at the FIFA congress and the first lessons where the students had some good discussions about footballs role in politics and wether footballers should be activists, to the work with the starting XI’s and the final product, and the session with David Goldblatt. He noted:

I think this project has brought new perspectives to the students when it comes to their view on football and human rights. They have gained new knowledge about human rights activists and the variety of human rights. The students have worked on skills that are essential both as a historian, but also in their life as a citizen. Skills such as reading texts, discussing in groups and give reasons for their choices. And above all the project has motivated the students to learn and to be active in their learning process.

Also David Goldblatt reflected on this approach:

The Human Rights football XI sessions allowed students to produce some really good work, cleverly thinking about the ways in which football langue and analogy could be used to talk about human rights struggles, as well as recognising the powerful role that football itself can sometimes play in human rights issues. Students  looked at a wide range of different kinds of human rights from many different parts of the world, injected some clear political thinking into the conversation (do human rights struggles just need to be defensive, what is the role of organising midfielders, attackers, what formation balances these best etc) and some nice humour too!

A Call for (Educational) Action

Are you a teacher, or do you otherwise work with young people? Would you like to also take part in such an experimental lesson? At FMH we are eager to connect with you and – on the road to the World Cup in Qatar 2022, try to create and test more educational activities around Human Rights and Democracy. We seek to find out more how “Football’s language” can be used by students to work with their creativity, conduct research and increase their awareness of complex issues in the world they live in. Reach out to us by mail before 4th September if you are eager to join a working group on this.


  • Formations created by the students: Grey Team.
  • Formations created by the students: Purple Team.
  • Formations created by the students: Red Team.
  • Formations created by the students: Yellow Team.
  • Formations created by the students: Blue Team.

A class of high school history students in Oslo was asked to create an ideal starting XI line-up based on Human Rights. Find out why and how it went.

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Students at work (photo: Geir Ove Halvorsen).
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Abdelhak ‘Appie’ Nouri, 2017 (Photo: AFC Ajax).
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