28/01/2016 12:46 GMT | Updated 28/01/2017 05:12 GMT

Football 1 - Radicalism 0


The result that really matters: Football 1 - Radicalism 0

The other day I went for a kick-about with some teenagers.

Nothing special about that, you may think. Except that I was exchanging tackles and passes with youngsters who, but for football, might well have let their lives take a very different track. Dangerously different.

As we still reel over Paris and San Bernadino, one question haunts us: "How can people share our country and so despise our values?"

Here in London, one group of people passionate for unity and integration is quietly getting on with the job of providing an alternative. The fledgling charity the Unity of Faiths Foundation (TUFF) is tackling the problem of alienation and the threat of radicalisation in ways that are clever, fun - and effective enough to provide huge encouragement to us all.

TUFF uses the common passion for football to bring together young people from every background.

In sharing a football pitch, they start to share a common interest, trust and values. Before, they might have been running in gangs, indulging in sectarian or racial violence and, at worst, drifting into the clutches of the violent extremists.

I realise readers may feel they have heard this before: the power of sport, music or whatever else to divert disadvantaged kids and keep them out of trouble. And I mean no disrespect whatsoever to similar schemes which have operated successfully for decades.

But what is truly remarkable about TUFFs is the scale of its results. A dozen young people who had been directly targeted as potential recruits by Daesh or the so-called Islamic State, and other terrorists have been saved.

In one case, a teenage girl of Somali origin was on the verge of flying to Turkey en route to Syria. Thanks to the trust already established, she confided in Shamender Talwar, TUFF founder and a clinical psychologist by profession.

He put in a call to her beloved Chelsea FC, pulled a couple of strings and offered her a life-defining choice.

"Here is the departure gate to Turkey and Syria," said Dr Talwar. "...And here are the gates to Stamford Bridge to see Jose Morinho."

When the girl entered the stadium she was so overcome she knelt and kissed the ground, and the terrorists lost a recruit.

TUFF 1 - Daesh 0. One success among many, not just in combating radicalism but in unifying youngsters from different faiths and cultural backgrounds.

TUFF was launched in Southall where it organised cross-cultural music festivals before moving on to sport. Now it involves people from all over the capital.

The approach works because the messaging process is subtle. Enjoyment is the priority, or so it seems. As I saw on Friday, the football coaching is of a high calibre, the facilities excellent.

Training sessions are weekly, creating better footballers while encouraging respect for rules and boundaries, rigour and most importantly teamwork.

The concept of fairness will crop up regularly. So will the reality of discipline. As Dr Talwar sees it, these values become part of the air they all breathe, part of the culture. Such labels may not be used overtly, but British values are what they are.

Now the challenge is to repeat the TUFF success story across Britain and in other countries.

A broader charity Football for Unity (FFU) has been created to take the project global. The issue is how to organise the "franchising", for want of a better word, and make sure the magical mix of messaging and the enjoyment of sport which Dr Talwar and his team have achieved in London is replicated effectively elsewhere.

Word is spreading. President Obama wants them to visit the White House. Atletico Madrid want to help take the idea to Spain. Diego Maradona has pledged his support (students of football history may predict a hands-on role).

Last month I arranged for the FFU team to visit 10 Downing Street and there is hope the Government's anti-radicalisation Prevent programme may take on board lessons from the project and even offer some support.

In the near future I want to bring the TUFF team to Brussels to talk to EU leaders and play a side from that city's troubled suburb Molenbeek.

It is all part of a long game, but we are playing to win hearts and minds.