'Beyond proud': AS Roma stunned by success of missing children's campaign

Stanislas TOUCHOT
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Campaign: Roma defender Leonardo Spinazzola (left)

On the left, the smile of a footballer, happy to join his new club. On the right, another smile, but one which hides a dramatic story.

Since last summer, AS Roma have taken advantage of each transfer announcement made by the Italian football club to draw attention to the plight of missing children.

Roma is one of the two major clubs from the Italian capital along with eternal rivals Lazio and on Sunday both will go head-to-head in a fiery derby clash at the Stadio Olimpico.

On social media, clubs compete for originality when it comes to announcing new signings, and in recent years Roma have built a solid reputation for their quirky humour and style.

But in 2019, the three-time Italian champions decided to take another approach to announcing new signings, using the club's extensive digital media following for social good.

New recruits are now presented alongside the face of a missing child, with information, a phone number and a video clip.

The project is run with 13 associations and since June 30 and the signing of Italian defender Leonardo Spinazzola, six children featured have been found, in Great Britain, Belgium and Kenya.

"I don't think any of us expected a child we'd featured in a video to return home safely, obviously we prayed it would happen but we didn't expect it," Paul Rogers, AS Roma's Chief Strategy Officer told AFP.

"When I got the first call from the charity Missing People to say a teenage girl from London who had featured in the Mert Cetin video six days earlier had been found safe, it was one of the best days I have ever had at work. I was so excited to tell everyone. It was just brilliant."

In total, Roma broadcast 72 videos last summer, presenting 109 missing children from 13 different countries.

It was truly global with the focus on the United States, South America, Europe and Africa.

These videos were viewed 11 million times, the club said.

At the launch of the initiative, Jo Youle, CEO of the British association Missing People, stressed how precious the power of Roma on social media could be.

"AS Roma is giving us a fantastic opportunity to reach a wide audience by sharing appeals for missing children and young people with their millions of fans," she said.

"Raising awareness among as many people as possible is crucial."

- 'Painful context' -

The concept was inspired by American rock band Soul Asylum's 1993 video 'Runaway Train' which featured missing children, 21 of whom were later found.

"Obviously, there was no public internet and no social media back then, so the band used MTV, which I guess was the best way to reach young people across America and the world at the time," explained Rogers.

"With Roma, we thought we could try and do something similar but updated for the social media generation."

The fact that footballers, who have millions of followers on Twitter and Instagram, are associated with the campaign means that it reaches an even bigger audience.

"I have spoken with some players like Chris Smalling, whose video announcement featured a teenager who later returned home safely, and I can say that they were beyond proud," said Rogers.

The initiative was to continue during the January transfer window which closes next Friday, but Roma have not yet recruited a new player.

And the recent announcement of the death of a young American who had been due to appear in the next video was a stark reminder of the painful context.

"The NCMEC (National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children) told us that many brands are scared off by this subject but that only made us more determined to do what we could to help them," continued Rogers.

The Roman club are now trying to convince other big names in European football to join them for a joint initiative on May 25, International Missing Children's Day.

"With the help of clubs like Real Madrid, Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund and Marseille, we can help reunite some families," added Rogers.