Sunday, 4 February. Sparta – Willem II, premier division. The kick-off is in just under an hour’s time. The restaurant of ‘Het Kasteel’ is packed with boisterous children who have just finished a general quiz about Sparta. The winners will be able to play a football game in a special room. The rest will be heading outside into the freezing cold, along with a life-size mascot that loves a cuddle. The next highlight: launching the wish balloons.

Not very well

Gilberto. Image credit: Sanne van der Most

In the middle of the group is Gilberto (15). His balloon wish? “That Sparta will win, of course.” He’s delighted that he could come today. “My father’s not very well. He’s getting a bit better, but it’s still worrying. I never knew my mother. She died a few days after I was born. My father remarried, but sometimes I miss it, you know, a real mother. Whenever times are tough or if things aren’t going well at school. But anyway, today’s going to be great.”

Laten lachen

Giving back to the city. That’s the idea behind the fund set up by former SSR members. Wolter Brinks is one of them. Together with students Sanne Smidt and Daan Verpalen, he launched the Sparta project.

“It’s obviously amazing for a student to be able to do something like this for this group of children,” says Verpalen. “In Rotterdam-West, which is also where our association is based, there are lots of families who don’t have things easy. There often isn’t the money or time to go to a football match. I hope that today will take their minds off their problems for a while.”

Life in a bubble

Making students aware of what’s going on in Rotterdam. That’s another thing SSR-R feels is important. And for Sanne Smidt it’s an important reason for starting the Sparta project too. “Many students live in a bubble. Our parents have been able to give us lots of opportunities and we often don’t realise that life is very different for lots of children.”

Iguain (7) watches his balloon. He’s been asked along because he plays in a Sparta youth team. His dream is to play for Real Madrid one day. You have to start somewhere. ‘That Sparta wins’ was therefore his balloon wish. “I’m sure they will, though. I think it’ll be 4-1. But I actually support Feyenoord, you know,” he says conspiratorially.

More for the boys

Yasmina. Image credit: Sanne van der Most

Yasmina (10) came to Sparta with a group of girls from her class. They’re huddling together in the stands, trying to keep warm. Although they’re not real football fans – ‘that’s more for the boys’ – they’re ‘super happy’ that they could come along today. “Hopefully they’ll win. That was my balloon wish too. And something else. But I can’t say, otherwise it won’t come true.”

All those happy faces

Rick Slappendel is president of the Students4Society, the SSR-R charity club. He was responsible for organising the volunteers today. “There was huge interest. A good forty SSR members wanted to help, but there was only room for twenty. A fantastic response, though!”

And rightly so, says Slappendel. “As a student, you can really be a role model. That’s one of the reasons I’m here today. Often these children get stuck in their own home and school environment. They don’t come into much contact with students and the university. By taking part in something like this, you can show them that there’s so much more. And I love to see them enjoying themselves. All those happy faces. That’s why I do it.”