Midnight Street Soccer is a community football project for young people aged 14 to 17 that was developed by the North Belfast Play Forum in 2005.
Initially established to prevent sectarian youth-led violence in flashpoint areas of North Belfast, the project reached new heights in 2006, and this year looks set to even bigger and better according to project manager, Diarmaid McAuley.
"When we decided to provide a late night football league in North Belfast, we weren't sure of the impact that the project would make," he said.
"But thanks to the funding that has been provided, the partnerships that have been created, and the hard work of volunteers and young people, we have well exceeded our initial expectations."
The project initially received funding from the Sports Council for Northern Ireland, Big Lottery Fund and the Youth Justice Agency. Within the last year, Sport Relief have provided £350,000 to expand the project over the next five years.
Midnight Street Soccer Leagues have now been organised in 9 areas of Northern Ireland - Castlereagh, Craigavon, Lisburn, Derry, Newtownabbey and four in Belfast. Over 1,000 young people compete in the locally based leagues in an attempt to qualify for the prestigious Midnight Street Soccer Finals held at the state of the art JJB Soccer Dome in Dundalk. For many of the young people taking part, the experience is about much more than simply playing football.
"Midnight Street Soccer uses football to address the lack of youth provision in communities and it is an alternative for young people, as opposed to hanging around streets with nothing to do," added Dairmaid. " Many of those taking part are focused on competing against other local teams and progressing to the Midnight Street Soccer Finals.
"And rightly so, as the finals provide a great opportunity for the teams to play against peers from all over Northern Ireland at a world class venue. But for many more of the young people, the project provides an opportunity for them to build new friendships and to meet new people.
"Accordingly, we have seen the development of friendships between young people, leaders, community and youth organisations, and entire communities".
Encouraging the development of friendships and challenging sectarian and racist stereotypes is a major focus of the project. Huge banners supporting these messages are present at all the facilities, and many of the events create opportunities for young people from diverse backgrounds to come together through sport. At present, a workshop is being piloted that will highlight relevant issues to participants.
Midnight Street Soccer was voted as National Lottery Project of the Year 2006, and interest has been generated in communities throughout NI and the UK.
In addition to the football leagues, the project also provides opportunities for leaders and young people to take part in accredited coaching qualifications, supporting the development of coaching and skills in local communities.
* Beginning on Saturday March 3, and running from 9pm to midnight, Midnight Street Soccer Leagues will be held at the following venues: Waterworks Sports Facility North Belfast, Paisley Park West Belfast, Avoniel Leisure Centre East Belfast, Olympia Leisure Centre South Belfast, Brooke Activity Centre Lisburn, Cregagh Community Centre Castlereagh, Valley Leisure Centre Newtownabbey, Craigavon Leisure Centre Craigavon, Shantallow MUGA Derry
To enter a team at your local facility call Diarmaid on 079 6198 0494 or check out the website at www.midnightstreetsoccer.com