Norwegian cyclist puts spotlight on refugees at World Cup finals stadium

News Stories, 26 May 2010

© UNHCR/B. Heidenstrom
'The Shirt,' made of up of 600 football shirts from around the world, is displayed before 70,000 fans at the opening of Soccer City, where the World Cup final will be played on July 11.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, May 26 (UNHCR) Bjorn Heidenstrom has almost reached the end of a marathon journey that has seen him bike through Europe and Africa over the past year to raise awareness about refugees among football players and supporters.

The former professional footballer from Norway arrived in Johannesburg just in time to attend last Saturday's gala opening by South Africa's President Jacob Zuma of Soccer City, the new 94,700-seat stadium that will host the June 11 opening and the big final a month later of the 2010 World Cup.

Heidenstrom, who set out from Oslo last June 20 (World Refuge Day), received a special surprise when a giant football shirt was brought out onto the pitch where some 70,000 people had gathered for the ceremony.

As well as spreading awareness about refugees and UNHCR during a journey that has taken him through 35 countries, Heidenstrom has also collected jerseys from professional and amateur football teams with the goal of sewing them together to make the world's biggest football shirt.

"I am crying right now!" exclaimed Heidenstrom as he gazed down at the Soccer City pitch. The shirts had been sewn together the previous day at the request of Kjetil Siem, chief executive officer of the South African Premier League. Siem is also from Norway and is a former director of the Oslo team Valerenga, where Heidenstrom is the media and marketing manager.

Before a championship game got under way to inaugurate the stadium, President Zuma signed a bright yellow jersey of South Africa's national team, popularly known as Bafana Bafana. This will become part of Heidenstrom's giant shirt, which could be checked by officials from Guinness World Records.

Heidenstrom is now working on getting "The Shirt" displayed in prominent areas around South Africa, including events organized by UNHCR to commemorate this year's World Refugee Day, so that as many people as possible can see it and learn about refugees.

His ultimate goal is to have the shirt on display in Soccer City during the World Cup final on July 11. "Just imagine how many people in the world will see it and think about refugees," the 41-year-old Norwegian reflected.

On his journey down through Africa, Heidenstrom has been inspired and encouraged by the stories of the forcibly displaced people that he has met. "I was especially struck by the Leopards football team from Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi which qualified to join the Malawian premier league," he said.

The remarkable team is made up of refugees from different nationalities. Heidenstrom noted that they had shared a common goal to win. "And now they are heroes in the camp. That is just inspirational."

UNHCR has been providing Heidenstrom with logistical assistance during his trip. Several top professional players, including Barcelona's Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry as well as Steven Gerrard, Francesco Totti and Fernando Torres of Liverpool have signed shirts for him. Other celebrity supporters include Sir Elton John and top international football officials, Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini.

By Tina Ghelli in Johannesburg, South Africa

For more on Heidenstrom's journey, go to www.theshirt2010.net