In 1995 Nelson Mandela uttered the famous phrase, “Sport has the power to change the world.” Since then this thought has been repeated hundreds of times, often without much follow through. Still, there remains a sentiment that football can unite people, bridging social and political divides with a common love for the round ball. For many young Londoners Bloomsbury Football is the sports organization bringing positive change to their world.
Bloomsbury is a British charity organization that works to improve the lives of over 5,000 young people every week, giving them access to football, fun and a sense of community. At a time when social isolation, obesity, mental illness and crime rates are all on the rise, Bloomsbury is bringing young people together to share in their passion for the beautiful game.
Founded in Camden Town, just north of Regent’s Park and the British Library, Bloomsbury has come a long way since its creation in 2018. From September until the end of November, passersby in Kings Cross, Central London had the chance to see the Game Changers Exhibition – a 32 photograph display of sixteen Bloomsbury girls that celebrates their participation in football. The exhibition also seeks to remove barriers to female participation and help women reach their potential.
Bloomsbury was created by CEO Charlie Hyman because of the challenges he saw as a grassroots coach in London. The sport which was supposed to bring joy to kids and help accelerate their social outcomes was marred by waterlogged fields, disorganized sessions and a lack of equipment. With inequality and costs rising across the city, young people – especially those in disadvantaged communities – were being pushed out of the game, unable to rent a field or pay club fees. Seeking to right these wrongs, Hyman created a charity that celebrates the uniqueness of the London community and offers young people a chance to play the sport they love.
Hyman’s goal was to create the largest grassroots football organization in London and use the positive power of the beautiful game to enrich the lives of local children. Five years later, the charity is moving full-steam ahead with 30 full-time staff members and 50 coaches who run daily sessions throughout London. The charity has grown so much it now offers an array of programs including its foundation, its academy, futsal, holiday camps and disability football. More importantly, Bloomsbury has successfully built a reputation for bringing together people from all walks of life and instilling them with confidence, decision making skills and self awareness. Bloomsbury’s core tenet is that it will never turn away any children, regardless of economic means.
Addressing challenges like obesity, disconnection from community, confidence issues and self awareness, while fighting for playing time and space in the most crowded city in the country is no easy feat. But Bloomsbury is committed to providing local children a safe space to train, learn and have fun. Charlie believes the key to solving many of these personal and social issues is getting young people active. When asked why he is so sure football has the power to address today’s social challenges, Hyman points to positive behavior changes amongst participating children. He also notes that compared to other sports, football is still the most accessible (little infrastructure needed) and most popular, thus it can have the greatest impact.
To keep the program afloat organizers ask that families that can pay do so. Family payments and school contributions make up roughly 50% of the charity’s budget, the rest of the funding stems from generous donors, trusts, local authorities and major enterprises like Nike
In recent years women’s football has become a serious focus for Bloomsbury. Charlie notes that the data shows that “girls are not participating anywhere near as much as boys.” Thus, Bloomsbury has made a conscious effort “to tackle the societal view that football isn’t for girls.” The Lionesses winning the 2022 Euros on home soil and making the 2023 FIFA World Cup final have been pivotal moments for the growth of the girls game in the U.K, with girls participation numbers increasing dramatically. Bloomsbury has been able to capitalize on this momentum, and now works with over 1,500 girls every week. But the charity is still looking to grow that number and attract more funding and resources to help girls fall in love with and stay in the game.
Rebecca, 16, is one of the girls who featured in the Game Changers Exhibition. She is from the London borough of Brent, home to Wembley Stadium, but was born in Brazil, to Brazilian parents. Naturally she found her way to football and has been at Bloomsbury for just over a year. The young central midfielder says football has helped her “develop friendships” and “forget about everything outside the field.” Most importantly she says she has “such a good time” playing the game and has really enjoyed her Bloomsbury experience.
Having played in the foundation for a while, Rebecca is now in Bloomsbury’s academy program. Despite being more competitive, she notes that all the coaches have been very kind. Most excitingly for her, she senses the passion the Euros have sparked in girls and says that “before the Euros in 2022, 10 girls played football on my team at school. Now there are 25 of us.” In her eyes, this increase in numbers is a reflection of the Lionesses showing the country that women can do exactly what men do.
Carla, 16, also featured in the exhibition at Kings Cross, and like her teammate Rebecca, she found her way to Bloomsbury by way of immigration. Originally from Canberra, Carla admits that at first she didn’t like London, and did not want to move there. After a bad experience at a top-level academy in Australia, Carla was also hesitant to play competitively again. At Bloomsbury she says she has found “a sense of community,” where all the coaches and players are nice. She says that back in Australia she did not even talk to coaches, and after seeing her sister quit the game and other teammates suffer from anxiety she began to get nervous and wonder if she would also become stressed.
Now Carla says, “I love playing football because it gives me a sense of belonging.” The young Right Back notes that the game introduces people to others with similar interests and fosters friendship. Moreover, she says that she is “happier just playing,” and that she enjoys “being in nature, not thinking about school and bonding with teammates.” The Bloomsbury experience has been so great that Carla is thinking of attending a sports oriented university like Loughborough, where she can study IT or Math, while still playing football.
Despite the positive feedback and continued growth the work never stops for Charlie and his staff. Bloomsbury is continuously reaching out to schools and communities seeking to engage with more young people with the hopes of getting them active. The charity is expanding its program portfolio to allow kids to play more than once a week and has just completed a 5-year strategic plan. The focus is on “creating more impact for less money in London,” with the hopes of working with 20,000 children a week by 2028. To do so Charlie and co will need to collaborate with the stakeholders to secure the necessary funding to roll out greater operational capacity while maintaining the quality of the programs they currently run.
In a football-mad city like London, there are always more kids to coach and more communities to connect with. Fortunately, Bloomsbury exists to provide local kids the opportunity to play their favorite sport everyday and develop skills for the rest of their lives.