(Reposted from: The Jerusalem Post. November 18, 2020)
By Zachary Keyser
NBA Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo was joined alongside storied Portuguese soccer manager Jose Mourinho as guest speakers for the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation’s Mini Mondial that took place last week.
The Peres Center has held its mini mondial for over a decade now, which plays off the theme of the World Cup, to celebrate the annual culmination of its youth sports programs.
On a normal year, the event would be attended in person by around 1,000 boys and girls – Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs removing barriers and playing on the same field as they have done throughout the year – and collectively 22,500 others across the world. However, this year the event had to be moved online.
Mourinho, who visited Israel in 2005 and met with Shimon Peres as part of a tour of the center and its programs said, “The values of Shimon Peres are amazing – equality, sport, to bring people together, to make children feel love and togetherness. I am so, so proud to belong to it.”
“Sport is a very, very important social vehicle,” he added. “It is a wonderful thing, this Peres Center program, for children of different nationalities, different religions and to bring them together and make them feel the equality, the love and the passion and the togetherness.”
Mourinho is notably one of the most successful coaches of all time, leading teams such as Chelsea, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, Machester United and Porto to Champion’s League, Primeira Liga, La Liga, Serie A and Premier League glory – with players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Didier Drogba and Zlatan Ibrahimović, among many, many others. Mourinho is currently the head coach of the Tottenham Spurs, who have a large Jewish following and fan base within England.
Mutombo played 18 seasons in the NBA, winning four NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards and earning eight all-star appearances throughout his career. He is regarded as one of the greatest shot-blockers of all time, and his signature finger wag that followed the bulk of his 3,289 blocks – second most in NBA history – could be definitively be classified as a meme before memes were even a thing.
“I think because we have been admired by so many, we have the key to build a bridge to our society and to make a big difference. Sport is an international language,” Mutombo said at the event.
The two legends, each to their own sport, were among leaders and activists from the Middle East who gathered together for the mini mondial to discuss the impact sport can have on peace building and social change.
The event itself hosted academics and industry professionals from Israel, Jordan and Iraq, who have all benefited from sport-based diplomacy in some form or another, and shared their experiences as well as learning from using such an approach towards conflict resolution and advancing peace in the Middle East – a separate panel of international speakers focused on the global perspective of this approach.
The center’s main endeavor is to educate groups of Palestinians and Israelistogether, to find harmony among one another through regular interactions, education as well as sports themselves.
“At the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, we believe that soccer is a positive tool for connecting people,” said director of the center’s Education for Peace and Innovation Department Tami Hay-Sagiv.
“The center’s projects have been operating for more than 18 years, connecting boys and girls across the country. Today’s conference provided a platform for a variety of organizations from across the Middle East with shared values and activities in this area.”
“In an era in which a new Middle East is being built, there is no doubt that sport has a role to play in spreading the message of unity across borders and sectors,” she added.
Mutombo visited Israel for his first time in November of 2018 to launch the Jr. NBA’s youth basketball program for boys and girls ages 6-14 in Jerusalem. The visit and inauguration of the junior league coincided with the opening of the Sylvan Adams Sports Center at the Jerusalem YMCA, the largest facility of its kind in the Middle East located on King David Street, which is one of the few places in the capital where both Arabs and Jews feel equally at home.
“This is my first time in Israel, and it certainly won’t be my last,” Mutombo, who represents the NBA as its global ambassador, told The Jerusalem Postat the time. “I am going to bring my children. Today I visited the [Yad Vashem] Holocaust Museum. I thought I knew the complete history until I walked into the museum, and then I felt like I didn’t know enough.”
During the program at Jerusalem’s YMCA, Mutombo spoke to the children about the importance of education: “One day this basketball is going to stop bouncing. And when it does and you can’t play anymore, you need to make sure you have the education to fall back on.”