Dr Dan Parnell



Sport for Peace

Football for Good

This article was originally published on The Football Collective.

On International Day for Sport Development and Peace colleagues of The Football Collective reflect on their experiences.

By Dr Daniel Parnell, Dr Pedro Pablo Cardoso Castro and Dr Alexander Cardenas

For the past two-years we have been fortunate enough to travel and work with colleagues in Medellín, Colombia. These fieldwork trips involved engagement with the public sector sport and recreation department, Inder Medellín and local academic institute, Universidad de Antioquia. The fieldwork was funded by the British Council and most recently by Inder Medellín. During this time  we were able to spend twenty days working with government departments, academics and community groups building our understanding of the role football plays in social good. The purpose of this article is to share some of the context and innovation observed. The article will raise questions for those in football development, public health, coaching, managers and policy makers.

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Inder Medellin presentation

The context

Medellín is a Colombian city and capital of the region of Antioqiua. It lies in the north-western region of the country in the centre of Aburra Valley in the Andes mountain range. The valley is crossed by the heavily polluted Medellín River and is a densely populated urban area, the second most inhabited city in Colombia.

The history of Medellín has been troubled, in the eighties and nighties it was considered the most violent city in the World, with a murder rate of 381 killings per 100,000 in 1990. This symbolic nature of its recent past accompanied by programmes such as the recent Netflix hit Narco’s, which provides a United States DEA agents insight and perspective on the cocaine trade, has helped cement words such as crime, violence, drug cartels and murder very closely with the culture of Medellín. That said, Medellín cannot and does not try to avoid its past as once being home to South America’s most notorious drugs cartel, with 6,349 killings in 1991 alone (this was a rate of 380 per 100,000 people).

On commencing our first trip to Medellín, accompanied by students, the risk assessment supported these notions of travel being high-risk, which meant (on paper at least) that there was a high risk of kidnap and terrorism. Indeed, arriving with our four students (who took on the apparent risk to join us), flying from Bogota to Medellín and then driving deep into the unknown helped create tensions and nervousness not felt before by the Dan and students. Pedro Pablo and Alexander on the other hand was more excited about visiting Medellín, the envy of Colombia.

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These outdated impressions were pleasingly rebuffed during our first visit. Moreover, our experiences of Medellín, working officially and exploring the city by day and night, could not be further from the this perception. Here, we were extended a warm welcome from our host, our colleagues and from the people we met in the communas (communities) who shared their insight, experiences and perspectives on politics, public policy, education and sport, especially the national game football.

Sport development and peace in post-conflict Colombia

Despite sport and recreation playing a huge role in regeneration, some of which Dan has written about in an article for The Conversation, Colombia has experienced the longest-running internal conflict in the Western hemisphere. For over 50-years government forces, guerillas and paramilitaries have been in confrontation. This confrontation has recorded 220,000 deaths between 1958-2010, a displacement of 5.7million people, 900,000 assassinations and much more, which you can read about here on a blog post by Alex.

From fear to hope: regeneration in Medellín

The city is also renowned for its cable car system – we joined quite a few tourists in Santa Domingo; which links communities in the hillside to the metro and city centre, helping build the interconnectivity of residents of the communas across the city. This infrastructure involves public spaces, libraries, escalators into the hillside of Commune 13, which also have outreach schools and police stations. This innovation also includes, Commune 4, where a mountain garbage site was converted into a public park, to the most recent Parques del Río Medellín, which has been labelled the cities boldest yet.

Alongside this urban and community innovation we were able to enjoy a glimpse into the everyday life for people of the paisa region, who appeared to enjoy this new change and passed tradition. Including the formidable bandeja paisa – a meal of fried pork, lots of crackling, lots of beans, eggs, black pudding, maize buns and plantain. Beyond gaining insight into traditions of the paisa, we also received an extensive insight into the sport operations across the city and how sport and football was being used to help shape regeneration and social good in the city.

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Sport is a visible feature across the city

Football and Medellín

Football has been a key part of the history of Medellín. Two of most high profile names associated with football historically in Medellín is the Escobars, Pablo the drug cartel kingpin who maintained a close relationship with professional and international footballers in Colombia, and Andrés, the Colombian World Cup 1994 player who was tragically murdered. Recently however, during the last World Cup in Brazil (2014), Colombia shined on the world sporting stage.

Regardless of ongoing turmoil associated with conflict nationally and regionally, football has remained a key game for Colombians. During the 2014 Brazil World Cup (featured on the New York Times online edition) a study explored the perception of football fans in nineteen countries. In relation to Colombia, the study found that 94 percent of Colombians were interested in football, the highest percentage of all countries surveyed. Despite this, we were still surprised to witness,when we were took in an off road vehicle to one of the highest communities to take a walk along the newly created hillside trail (through the community allotment enterprises), football pitches  emerging from these communities…

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Articulated Life Units: taking sport and recreation to the hearts of the community

The football pitches that somehow ascend from the environment, are in fact a new urban intervention located in the heart of neighborhoods of the city for communities to engage in healthy physical activity and recreational sports practices; cultural events and promoting opportunities for community participation (civic engagement). These are called, life units and emerge from the neighbourhoods as huge concrete football pitches, yet they are also colourful, clean, powerful structures, typically covered with an assortment of pitches.


The football pitch is just the symbolic vision, these sites are undoubtedly  a community-led initiative and asset. Looking below the surface, under the roof-top football pitch is layers of other activities and facilities. High spec gym facilities, childcare and play settings, cinemas, computer labs, teaching areas, community shop spaces, dance rooms, dj recording labs, swimming pools, water zones, basketball courts and below the above football oriented life unit – a full size futsal pitch pictured earlier. This sounds great, but the exciting thing is that these units are designed by the local community and entrenched with the environment of makeshift housing that surrounds them. Each community that receives a life unit, has a budget provided by the local authority (municipality) and can choose what activities and facilities they want to develop.

An example of how Medellín ties in their communities sport and recreation to their city-wide sporting ambitions is the type of infrastructure they provide.  Medellín recently replaced an underachieving bid city and will be a venue for the 2016 FIFA Futsal World Cup awarded on behalf of the Colombian Football Federation. This won’t come to a surprise to anyone in Medellín, or Inder Medellín who have been planning and delivering strategic and coherent sport and recreation, programmes, facilities and events for many years. As part of these ongoing intentions, Medellín have invested in Futsal courts like the one we visited below for their communities. This court is on a lower-level of the life unit pictured above (and has more seating than the Futsal facility in the national football centre in England – St Georges Park).

This is a full size Futsal court below the life unit picture earlier

The life units allow for local communities to meet, socialise and engage in different types of social, physical and sporting activities. For many local communities this is ‘their space’ that the local communities own and take responsibility for the management and sustainability of the centre. The life units have high quality sanitary facilities and access to water fountains, for those that did not opt for the development of a swimming pool infrastructure, which was very expensive, this could be their major access to flowing water for play or to cool in the often intense heat.


Putting the football facilities to one-side, an integral part of these incredible facilities is that the life units house medical support services such as general practitioners and limited accident and emergency alongside a range of health and social care services for local communities. This is all incredible, but the most astonishing thing about all of this public/state funded activity is that is is all freely accessible to the local community – there is no charge for use or entrance.

Whether you are playing football, using the computer labs, recording a demo tune, watching the cinema, borrowing a book, taking part in dancing – there is no charge.  This entire venture, is a result of a collective community where local people, communities and organisations in the city, under the leadership of the local authority or municipal administration, who provide expertise, investment and knowledge for the consolidation of public spaces help create integrated multipurpose, inclusive and innovative environment.

Floodlit artificial grass pitch in the comuna – see the overview of this life unit below

Medellín is one of the most incredible places we have ever visited. The people, the nature, the geography, the climate and the football. Football is front-line and centre as a means to bring together communities for physical activity, peace and public health. With the life units costing in the region of millions of US dollars, all resourced by public funds, it is exciting to watch the city local authorities/administration working in collaboration to continue to innovate the city, in this very innovative approach. For those interested in football’s role for social good, Medellín is most certainly a place to research and explore further. Moreover, it is a place eager to explore and incorporate new approaches too, tackling social issues and develop whether in sport development and peace, sport management, coach education, sport and social change, or research and evaluation.

To contact Dan on email: or to link up on Twitter @parnell_daniel. You will also find more about Dan here on his University profile and his other research on Academiaedu.

To contact Pedro Pablo email:  You will also find more about Pedro Pablo here on his Linkedin or his other research on Academiaedu.

To contact Alex contact email:  You can explore more of Alex’s work on his Linkedin page.



Football and health improvement: an emergent field

I am very pleased to present the latest published issue of Soccer & Society, Football and health improvement: an emergent field. This issue was edited by my colleague Dr Andy Pringle and I. 

Volume 17, Issue 2, 2016.

The issue includes contributions from across the UK, Europe and the middle-East and includes special contributions from the English Premier League, Football League, Football Foundation and European Healthy Stadia Network.

This eclectic mix of contributions discusses and challenges the role of football as a vehicle for health improvement, whilst celebration developments in the field. The below section outlines the contributions from the authors, however if you require access to any articles please do not hesitate to contact me on (Twitter @parnell_daniel) or the corresponding author directly:

Football and health improvement: an emerging field Daniel Parnell , Andy Pringle Soccer & Society Vol. 17, Iss. 2, 2016

A perspective from key stakeholders on football and health improvement Angus Martin , Simon Morgan , Daniel Parnell , Matthew Philpott , Andy Pringle, Michael Rigby , Andy Taylor , Jon Topham Soccer & Society  Vol. 17, Iss. 2, 2016

Supporting lifestyle risk reduction: promoting men’s health through professional football

S. Zwolinsky , J. McKenna , A. Pringle , A. Daly-Smith , S. Robertson , A. White Soccer & Society Vol. 17, Iss. 2, 2016

Effectiveness of a community football programme on improving physiological markers of health in a hard-to-reach male population: the role of exercise intensity Andrew Thomas Hulton , David Flower , Rebecca Murphy , Dave Richardson , Barry Drust , Kathryn Curran Soccer & Society Vol. 17, Iss. 2, 2016

Evaluating conflict mitigation and health improvement through soccer: a two-year study of Mifalot’s ‘United Soccer for Peace’ programme Tal Litvak-Hirsch , Yair Galily , Michael Leitner Soccer & Society Vol. 17, Iss. 2, 2016

The pursuit of lifelong participation: the role of professional football clubs in the delivery of physical education and school sport in England Daniel Parnell , Sarah Buxton , Des Hewitt , Matthew J. Reeves , Ed Cope , Richard Bailey Soccer & Society Vol. 17, Iss. 2, 2016

Can ‘English Premier League’ funding for PE and school sport achieve its aims? Stephen Zwolinsky , Jim McKenna , Daniel Parnell , Andy Pringle Soccer & Society Vol. 17, Iss. 2, 2016

The influence of club football on children’s daily physical activity Glen Nielsen , Anna Bugge , Lars Bo Andersen Soccer & Society Vol. 17, Iss. 2, 2016

Football for health: getting strategic Simon Lansley , Daniel Parnell Soccer & Society Vol. 17, Iss. 2, 2016

Sport for peace in a post – conflict Colombia

This is an article by my colleague Dr Alexander Cárdenas who wrote on Sport for Peace in a post-conflict Colombia. We are currently visiting INDER Medellín exploring their sport based initiatives.

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If properly managed and articulated, sport could make a modest, yet tangible contribution to Colombia’s post-conflict era. 

Colombia has experienced the longest-running internal conflict in the Western hemisphere. Extending for fifty years, the confrontation between government forces, guerillas and paramilitaries has caused a profound fragmentation of society and a devastating loss of human life. In 2012 a series of exploratory talks between the government of president Santos and the FARC guerilla began in Cuba with the aim to find a political solution to the armed conflict. With Norway and Cuba as guarantors, and a number of governments supporting the talks, this has been the first serious attempt in a decade to bring the two major actors of the conflict to the negotiating table.

Key Facts at August 2015 

  • The National Center for Historical Memory indicates that between 1958 and 2010, 220,000 people have been killed in the Colombian conflict (with 81 percent being civilian casualties).
  • 5,7 million have been displaced.
  • 900,000 have been assassinated.
  • 147,000 have been victims of forced disappearance.
  • Because of the internal conflict and rural violence, Colombia is home to the second largest internally displaced population in the world.
  • A surveyed conducted during the 2014 Brazil World Cup and featured on the New York Times online edition set out to explore the perception of football fans in nineteen countries. In relation to Colombia, the study found that 94 percent of Colombians were interested in football, the highest percentage of all countries surveyed.
  • 94% percent of Colombians believe football is important or very important for the nation.
  • During 1949 and 1954, a period known as El Dorado, Colombia’s football league was the strongest and best-paid in the world.
  • Bogota, Colombia’s capital, is home to the largest bicycle network (ciclovía) in the world.
  • Colombia has a strong sport-for-development tradition which began more than two decades ago.

Columbia- national football stadium in Bogota

Peace-building and sport in Colombia

Efforts at fostering peace are not restricted to finding a political solution to the hostilities but a peace movement largely associated with civil society seeks the mobilisation of all sectors of Colombian society to act in favour of peace through a variety of efforts and initiatives.

Increasingly, cultural and artistic expressions and notably sport, have been acknowledged by political leaders, international organisations and civil society as powerful allies to advancing peace-building in this nation.

Interest in exploring the role of sport as a tool for peace within the particular conflict context of Colombia is gaining momentum. Evidence of this is provided by the increase in the number of sport-based programmes and interventions that use sport as a tool to promote peace in communities affected by violence and conflict, as well as by an upsurge in newspaper and magazine reports, TV and radio shows, seminars and forums informing the public on the sport for development and peace (SDP) phenomenon and showcasing the progress made by organisations operating in this field.

There are a variety of ways in which sport has made a contribution to building peace in this nation afflicted by five decades of violence and war. Sport-based initiatives promoted by NGOs (e.g. Colombianitos, Tiempo de Juego, Fútbol Con Corazón, Goles por la Paz), governmental programs (e.g. Golombiao, Gestores del Deporte) and the international community (notably UNDP, UNICEF, German International Cooperation Agency, Inter-American Development Bank, Peace and Sport) have all positively impacted the lives of thousands of children and youth across Colombia, while at the same time, raising awareness of the potential of sport as a vehicle to foster the values that are generally associated with peace such as non-violence, open dialogue, understanding and respect.

The enthusiasm and expectation that sport generates as a social cohesion tool must be coupled with a pragmatic understanding of the advantages and limitations of sport as a promoter of positive change within Colombia’s conflict dynamics, and even more so – since a peace deal can be reached as early as this year – within a potential post-conflict scenario.

Post-conflict and sport

There are critical issues that need to be addressed in order to take advantage of the opportunities that sport may offer in building a post-conflict nation.

Since sport is not a holistic peace-building and development tool, it is advised that SDP interventions and programmes should be embedded and operate within greater regional and national peace and development objectives and in conjunction with non-sport-based programmes.

The momentum that sport generates in Colombia as a peace tool needs to be sustained with substantive political reform. This may entail not only developing specific public policy on sport within the post-conflict context, but in addition, current programmes and interventions must be redesigned to meet the challenges that the post-conflict phase may pose.

Of particular interest is examining how sport can assist in reintegrating combatants back to civilian life and in providing psychosocial recovery and creating economic opportunities for victims of war.

A recent study conducted by the author found that SDP officials – including trainers and coaches – perceived themselves as peacemakers or peace facilitators.

Given this, officials and trainers operating with NGOs may enhance their peace-making skills by receiving formal instruction from academic institutions and practitioners whose work gravitate around areas such as peace-building and conflict resolution.

Collaboration between academic institutions (in training personnel and assisting foundations in designing, implementing and evaluating SDP programs) and NGOs operating in this field is yet to happen and is strongly recommended. Moreover, academic institutions can critically reflect on the possibilities and limitations offered by sport as a peace tool with the aim of improving sport-based interventions.

Finally, as the international community turns its eyes and resources on Colombia and its post-conflict era, material resources and technical assistance can be leveraged in order  to support post-conflict SDP initiatives via international cooperation schemes.


Sport will not put an end to Colombia’s five-decade war but it can make a modest and tangible contribution to building (and ideally, sustaining) peace in this nation.

A thorough analysis of the advantages and limitations of sport as a viable peace tool is necessary. It is also paramount to successfully mobilize the diverse stakeholders involved in the SDP sector and develop clear policy on the social role of sport with a focus on Colombia’s post-conflict phase.

Link to the original article is here.

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