Why soccer and why soccer for social change?
Soccer gives us a unique window of opportunity to reach and develop children and families that would not normally have access to such academic and development opportunities. There are several reasons for this including;
Soccer is the most popular/universal sport/game in the world. There are six billion people on the planet, with thousands of things that separate us from knowing and understanding one another. Language, distance and cultural differences are just a few things that build walls and keep us from getting to know our fellow human beings. How are you supposed to forge relationships when you can’t even ask somebody how they’re doing that day?
Despite cultural and language barriers, there are many things that all people share, no matter where they are. Soccer is one of the ways that we can bridge the gaps between cultures. It’s the most popular sport in the world. According to the sport’s international governing body, FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association), there are 265 million male and female players, in addition to 5 million referees and officials, making a grand total of 270 million people – or four per cent of the world’s population – who are actively involved in the game of soccer. It is also estimated that there 3.5 billion soccer fans around the world.
Soccer is a game that connects all ethnicities despite the numerous differences that we have.
In the US, soccer hasn’t been utilized to its full potential. There is so much potential in a sport that has such universal appeal. Unfortunately, in the US soccer is seen as a recreational sport or a highly competitive one, with little bridging the two extremes.
The competitive side in the US really seems to be only about winning. We are desperate to find the best coaches, the most prestigious clubs, the biggest tournaments, and the best college recruiting companies.
We have failed to leverage soccer’s great potential in terms of youth development, race relations, economic opportunities and community development. This is especially true since so many ethnic and immigrant kids play this sport! In Europe there are programs, non-profit organizations, and educational campaigns all utilizing soccer as a means to address racism, school attendance, etc. In Africa, there are even more agencies and organizations using the vehicle of soccer to do great things like fight HIV/AIDS, promote literacy, form a school, mentor kids, etc.
We can do much better using soccer to its full personal and community development potential.
Soccer is the simplest team sport in the world. All you need is a ball, a playing surface, and a goal. Score more goals than the opposition and you win the game. In most of the world even a ball of tape on a patch of dirt and kicking the ball between two objects works.
This is not a game where so much equipment is needed that it restricts participants; not by age, size, race, creed, color or socioeconomic status. It is said that anyone can play soccer at anytime, anywhere.
Soccer is a passion for most Latino kids growing up in urban communities. By saying passion, we don’t mean it is just something they like to do. For many Latino families, ‘futbol’ is like a religion. They follow their favorite teams from home countries; the kids play it, the men play it, the entire family goes to all the games (and often practices too!), games are played most days of the week, but especially Saturday and Sunday, and games are played in every imaginable open space.
Sports in general, and soccer specifically, can be a powerful tool to bring the Hispanic and African-American communities together in these urban areas. With professional black soccer players like Cobi Jones, DeMarcus Beasley, Eddie Pope, and Oguchi “Ooch” Onyewu (who all played in the US and internationally as well) soccer among African-Americans is on the rise.
If we can connect with kids and families in their own context, we have a very powerful opportunity to build relationship and point them to Jesus.
United States in the only country in the world where soccer is a suburban sport. Everywhere else soccer/football/futbol is played, accessibility is not an issue. From the dirt fields of South America to the plains of Kenya, to the slums of Liverpool where the game was founded, the poor of society are “footballers.”
Here in America the sport of soccer caught on more in the suburbs than it did in the inner-city. This was caused by a variety of factors, but one factor has kept it a suburban sport; economics.
So what does this mean? It means kids in urban communities (even kids that have been playing soccer for years) are essentially locked out of the US Soccer system because they can’t afford to play club soccer. It is simply not accessible to them. The few that are scholarship or sponsored then have to play in an American middle to upper middle class structure that’s like entering a totally different world for them. Often these situations don’t work out and this further deepens the cultural rift.
However, this situation is ripe for change. As American soccer is beginning to catch on, the awareness of the need for the urban ethnic player is increasing. Not only the US Soccer Federation but also state associations have observed the need to draw in urban soccer players in a way that reaffirms and creates dignity.
Using sports for youth development is a new focus in the academic community. Some organizations have used sports in this manner for quite a while, however in the last five years a great deal of attention has been focused on it with major universities creating programs and departments to study and teach this discipline. These universities include Harvard, Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania.
We who are on the front lines of ministering to and developing youth can take advantage of the crest of interest and knowledge in terms of program efficiency, best practices, and also increased funding opportunities.
These six points are only a brief depiction of the power of using soccer for social change. As these ideas intersect, we see an unique alignment of organizations, institutions and communities; we must take advantage of these opportunities.
The time for urban soccer in the United States is now and if we do not capture this moment, we may lose an opportunity to reach and develop a whole generation of ethnic youth as well as the communities they are represented in.