THE GAMES THAT UNITE US
When my family was living in West Africa, we became accustomed to seeing almost anything that had been thoroughly exhausted as a source of food or fuel get kicked toward a goal. Bottle caps, tin cans that could no longer be reused as containers, rotted cashew shells, abundant unripe mangoes—all got kicked around on the dusty streets and trails during the dry season to mimic a soccer game. An organized soccer game (called “football” everywhere except the United States) between rival neighborhoods at the sandy open field of the local elementary school on a Friday afternoon (after the noonday prayer, marking the start of the weekend) would draw hundreds of people of varying ages to cheer on their teams. Many of the excellent players had no shoes to wear, let alone fancy shin guards or matching jerseys. My girls saw that determination was all it took to get the game going.
As we drove through different neighborhoods of Banjul and its environs, we would watch for chalkboards displayed by enterprising TV owners who wrote the schedule of upcoming professional football games on the boards they’d prop against their mud and tin homes or storefronts so that anyone could pay a small fee to come watch Manchester United play Barcelona or Nigeria versus Zambia on their eighteen-inch, Taiwanese TV screen. These cottage industries form a vital connection between people who are too poor to own a TV or have electricity in their homes, and the international sports superstars, advertising sponsors, and the passion that revolves around the sport worldwide. As a result, children who are considered the “poorest of the poor” have heroes from Brazil or France or Nigeria who they aspire to be like, and thanks to thriving used-clothing markets, they proudly wear the team jerseys of their favorite athletes.
We witnessed how the same game that parents in our U.S. home community rush their kids around for on Saturdays is passionately played where people can’t imagine owning a car. It’s the game we have in common. There is much more that we share, but the game serves as a starting point. When we wanted to buy a departing gift for the kids we got to know at our Gambian Sunday School class, the only thing they asked for was a decent soccer ball—they had just one that had to be shared by about fifty kids.
TEN WAYS SOCCER CAN HELP YOU GROW UP GLOBAL
A quick search on amazon.com reveals there is a whole genre dedicated to exploring how soccer explains the world, or “soccer sociology.” In many ways, soccer acts like the universal language. Tuning in with your children to the worldwide devotion to soccer provides an excellent springboard for learning about other cultures and worldviews. Use soccer to grow up global.
Here are a few ways to begin:
- Tap in to the global game through FIFA (pronounced “FEE-fa”), the International Football Association, which sponsors the World Cup games (see www.fifa.com). FIFA is the world’s largest sports association. Navigate this website for a great window to the world. In addition to seeing game highlights and scores, kids can learn about developments in the sport, about what fans in the various countries are concerned about, about how soccer teams and players are giving back in their respective countries, and even learn about the countries themselves. In 2007, the year we were in The Gambia, there was no professional World Cup contest (it’s held once every four years), but the Under-20s age group (U-20s) had their own World Cup and the Gambian U-20 team (almost miraculously) made it to the final sixteen round. The whole nation rallied around fundraising to get the boys to the matches in Toronto. Once we were back in the states, my family followed the team’s performance on the FIFA site and watched their bittersweet return home.
- Start to follow a few international teams. Pick favorites. You can start narrowing down which teams to pick based on your favorite countries (choose these based on your heritage, your friend’s, your favorite type of food, the language you want to learn to speak, your favorite jersey, or hundreds of other reasons—get creative!). The FIFA site includes an interactive world map. Hitting the Teams tab brings up a map of the world with country abbreviations and flags for all those teams playing. Click on the flag and learn about the team.
- Learn about the lives of your favorite players. “Football” players abroad are the biggest celebrities in many countries. Some of the top players came up through hard circumstances, possibly playing the game in the streets of their tough neighborhoods. For school biography projects, or just for general interest, kids can choose an international player to learn about.
- Cheer for the U.S.A. There’s no reason you can’t be a patriot and still grow up global. Track the travels of the U.S. team. Look for links with the local immigrant population (e.g., Polish and Eastern European influence on the Chicago pro team, or Central Americans on DC United). Where are your favorite U.S. players and coaches from? Join the fans at a pro soccer game near you.
- How are the women and girls doing? Which countries have professional women players? Does the foreign country you chose to follow have a women’s team? Are their teams supported by the public at large? What might be some of the obstacles faced by the girls in other countries as they get serious about sports? Did you know the world’s number one team of women has long come from the United States but our men’s team struggles to make qualifying rounds? Why might this be? Proudly wear a jersey of a women’s team. Tickets to the games usually cost less than the men’s, so invite a small group to join you in cheering on a women’s team, or celebrate a birthday with friends by going to a women’s game.
- Get to know players or their parents with a different worldview. In communities all across America, the children of immigrants are more likely to join a soccer team than any other sport. And those parents might make the best coaches— some have known and loved the sport with a level of intensity that simply didn’t exist when we were growing up in the United States. For lots of kids, playing on a team is largely a social experience, so it can open a door to meeting families from different cultures. Among parents, conversations start spontaneously in between cheering on the sidelines. I recall learning tips for staying warm at my daughter’s games one blustery November from Canadian parents. The following week a family from India brewed a spicy chai tea and transported it in a large carafe to share with us, providing a much-needed change of pace early on a Saturday morning. The act of serving us hot paper cups of tea at the game created a simple but lasting connection—a memorable “icebreaker.”
- Adults can play, too. If you’re an adult and want to play, find one of the numerous leagues in towns across America. These are largely made up of international residents, who grew up with “football,” and a few enthusiastic Americans. When my cousin Ramin, who grew up in Iran and Australia, started working on Wall Street, he found a league nearby in Chinatown, organized by a Chinese restaurant owner. Now he plays on a northern New Jersey men’s league at least twice a week with friends from Nigeria, South Africa, Brazil, Central America, Turkey, and more. His teammates might be cab drivers, doctors, or CEOs, but those distinctions fade away on the turf. Over the years, these are among his best “American” friends.
- If you get to travel abroad, try to attend a local football/soccer game. There are few events that will demonstrate local culture and passions more than a football match. You don’t have to attend a professional game; a youth league will provide plenty of entertainment. If you don’t know where to begin to find a game, ask someone at your hotel—they might even invite you to join their family at a game.
- Watch a soccer movie. Bend It Like Beckham has become the classic soccer movie. It provides both a lens into a girl’s struggle as well as a look at life in an Indian household in England, with the clash of cultures taking place between generations of an immigrant family. The American film Gracie follows the classic sports movie formula, of overcoming a tragedy and the odds, but delivers a good soccer flick and family drama. Like Bend It, this also got a PG-13 rating; unfortunately, it’s not suitable for kids just starting soccer in elementary school. The predicament of women in Iran who must dress like men to get into the World Cup qualifying match is portrayed in Offside. Ages thirteen and up can see how the absurdities of barring women from watching sports matches are circumvented by young fans. The Cup, from Burma, follows younger Tibetan monks who try to watch the World Cup final from their monastery in exile. The devotion to the sport of fans from actual, remote tribal villages in Mongolia, Niger, and Brazil plays out in their quest to get TV reception for the 2002 World Cup final in The Great Match, made by a crew from Spain. Soccer documentaries The Boys from Brazil and The History of Soccer (a seven-DVD set) also show the passion of the game outside the United States.
- Help all kids access soccer and sports. Organizations like the U.S. Soccer Foundation, BallforAll, Velletri Soccer Group, Grassroot Soccer, UNICEF, in partnership with FIFA at unicef.org/football, and many more can connect your family with global soccer programs that positively impact struggling local communities. These charities work through organized sports to help advance kids’ academics, their community’s development, and keep them healthy and out of trouble. America SCORES, the U.S. Soccer Foundation, and organizations within various metropolitan areas (like DC United and Dallas Scores) all support opportunities for disadvantaged kids in the United States to pursue the sport as a door to other opportunities.
For more ideas – read the book! And please share your experiences, here and on my Facebook page!