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Delivering a game-changing event to 200 countries

Robert Shepherd talks to Lester Holcombe about Game4Ukraine, a ground-breaking global event fusing live football, music performances and cutting-edge technology for a noble cause

Since the turn of the millennium, football matches for charity have emerged as potent platforms, garnering widespread support for noble causes. Notably, the annual Soccer Aid match broadcast on ITV unites sporting icons, celebrities and fans fuelled by football’s universal appeal, in support of UNICEF UK.

Beyond fundraising, these matches serve as potent catalysts for raising awareness about various national and social issues. The next significant event on British soil promises to be a truly international occasion.

Supporting the United24 initiative, Game4Ukraine will be held at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge on August 5th. The event aims to raise donations for rebuilding Ukraine’s infrastructure and facilities post the invasion and ongoing war with Russia.

The match is spearheaded by Lester Holcombe, MD of Legends Soccer Group, organiser of Game4Grenfell (2017), which helped those affected by the Grenfell Tower Fire. He says the scale of this latest event will acknowledge the far-reaching impact of the war.

“When we first looked at doing this project we thought it can’t just be an event in the UK for a UK audience,” explains Holcombe. “It had to include the people of Ukraine as an absolute must – we are producing this match and concert for and with (former Ukraine striker and manager Andriy Shevchenko) and Arsenal’s Oleksandr Zinchenko and with the blessing and support of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. So, it had to be the UK and Ukraine but really it needed to be a global event, watched on as many broadcasters and streaming platforms as possible.”

It’s mission accomplished in that sense, with Game4Ukraine set to be screened live in over 200 countries. However, what Holcombe and his team “hadn’t factored in was the enormous number of barriers to achieving a global broadcast” for a fundraiser of this scale. 

Images courtesy Legends Soccer Group

He says this ranged from different rules and laws about on-screen donation appeals to the differing Ts and Cs in each territory to the clearance of music in each country. “We spoke recently with the guys who worked with Bob Geldof and they said there is a reason that live events like this don’t happen very often,” Holcombe adds. “I think from a livestream perspective also, when (multi-venue benefit concert) Live Aid happened in 1985, there was only terrestrial TV. Now we have the likes of DAZN and One Football, the various FAST networks and a host of multi-territory streaming and influencer-led platforms which ultimately reach wider audiences but pose plenty of new challenges.” 

However, don’t expect Game4Ukraine to be limited to football. The event boasts big names from the music industry, a specially built stage at the Shed End in Stamford Bridge, with spider cams capturing the performances.

“One of the challenges other than Chelsea’s stadium not being built to host live music is how we set up to film a live stadium football match but also set up to film a series of live music performances during an extended halftime and then after the match,” Holcombe says.

Audiences will be treated to comic Tom Walker, Pete Doherty (performing a poignant version of Dirty Old Town in Ukrainian) Melanie C, two big Ukrainian bands, Tom Grennan and The Pretenders all performing live. Getting this right for broadcast meant bringing in a second unit to focus on this element. “The use of drones for this show is essential in the big set up shots we need to set the tone, where we are right now and to give the scale,” adds Holcombe. “Only drone shots can get you those setups.”

If the names listed above aren’t big enough, there are plans afoot to welcome Zelenskyy to the event one way or another.

“We have several plans from getting him there (that would be a game changer and create a different level of security) on the day, to live video link, pre-recorded messaging and VT with a live hologram with him on the pitch or in the studio,” Holcombe says. “He did a similar thing in 2022 when addressing the UN. We are looking at all possible options around the tech. I’d love to have him there with the world watching. But if not, a live hologram would be incredible.”

Of course, marrying up the live football and the live music as well as all of the studio elements and on screen appeals and the studio is no mean feat. 

“It’s a four-hour live TX going out to 200+ countries so lots of pressure around a very busy show,” Holcombe says.

To combat this, Holcombe has drafted in a crack team made up of two directors; multi-award winners Tim Van Someren and John Watts, whilst Holcombe is joined on the exec production side by Colin Hopkins and Clyde Holcroft, both veterans of Comic Relief and many big live charity shows. 

Holcombe worked with Watts and Holcroft on the Game4Grenfell which won several awards and raised a lot of money for the victims and their families. 

On the pitch, Game4Ukraine will feature a number of football legends, including former Chelsea and Italy star Gianfranco Zola and the recently retired Spain and Barcelona player, Gerard Piqué.

The match will be screened live on Sky Max in the UK, on DaZN in several territories and across numerous linear TV networks and streaming platforms globally. It will be repeated on YouTube the following day.

Find out more about the match, and donate to charity, here.