Monday, October 12, 2015
Soccer is called the beautiful game, but sometimes it fails to like up to this moniker. Take the recent ban of two of the highest FIFA officials: FIFA president Sepp Blatter and UEFA president Michel Platini. The two men were sanctioned by FIFA’s ethics committee and banned from representing FIFA or any of its affiliated organizations for 90 days; a ban that can be extended another 45 days. This comes on the heels of Blatter being named in a Swiss investigation for arranging a TV rights deal between FIFA and Jack Warner, former president of CONCACAF, which involved substantial pay-outs. Platini was expected to take over as head of FIFA when Blatter resigned in February, but his own ban puts those plans on hold. Another likely candidate, South Korean Chung Mong-joon, was recently banned for six years. Therefore the role of interim FIFA president has fallen to Issa Hayatou, the head of the Confederation of African Football. Ironically, Hayatou was sanctioned in 2011 by the International Olympic Committee for taking bribes from a sports marketing firm. It seems there is no one with clean hands who can take over FIFA, at least not from the present board. Rumors have long swirled around the organization that members of the board took bribes to give the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. Most fans of the game especially questioned the 2022 award to a country that has summer temperatures of 120 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. The World Cup is played in the month of July. Just two weeks ago, FIFA conceded the point by rescheduling the 2022 World Cup for the balmy 104 degree days of November – a move that has far-ranging effects on scheduling for national and international leagues and tournaments. It’s been an ugly year for FIFA.
Despite these dark incidents, soccer still has the power to inspire. My faith that soccer, in particular youth soccer, can survive the machinations of some powerful, corrupt leaders comes from the joy I see at every youth game I attend. In the last few weeks I’ve come across three truly amazing stories in which soccer plays an important and inspirational role. These few vignettes I think are far more indicative of what soccer has to offer our kids and our families than the sordid backroom dealings of some men who don’t really see soccer for what it is – a beautiful game played for enjoyment.
In Thailand, there are large communities of fishermen and their families who live on floating man-made islands off the coasts. Kids in these villages were limited to the sports they could pursue due to their restricted neighborhood. They raced boats and swam, but what many loved to do is watch soccer. In 1986, in one such village, Panyee, a group of kids decided to form a soccer team and build a floating pitch on which to play. This was uneven, undersized, and roughly constructed with tiny goals, but it provided some benefits as well. The small size meant that the players had to concentrate on footwork and the fact the pitch was floating in the middle of a sea meant it got wet and slippery, teaching the players how to handle adverse surfaces. They decided to enter the top Southern Thailand youth tournament called the Pancha Cup. They advanced to the semifinals despite a lack of training facilities and coaching. Behind by two goals at halftime, they managed to fight back and even the score in the second half, but lost on a last minute goal. Disappointed, they were nonetheless happy to have accomplished what they had, and the village was so proud of their efforts that they constructed a new pitch that was full-sized, smooth, and even. The kids continued to practice and to enter tournaments over the years, eventually rising to be one of the premier youth clubs in Southern Thailand becoming youth champions 2004 through 2010. They accomplished all of this without fancy equipment, expensive coaches and limited competition. Their story demonstrates the role of passion in development. Their love of soccer informed their desire to play even if it meant playing under the most unusual and adverse conditions.
Here in the United States, another island soccer program proves the significance of teamwork and passion. A 12-year-old player, Luc Gandarias, on Whidbey Island, northwest of Seattle, plays soccer despite being legally blind. Luc suffered from late on-set hydrocephalus when he was 7. This condition creates excessive fluid build-up in the brain, putting pressure on the organ leading to loss of functions and possibly even death. Luc ended up losing all sight in his right eye, can only see shadows out of his left eye, and lost 50% of his hearing in his right ear. But he was determined not to be defined by his disabilities. He fought to return to soccer, and his teammates were supportive. Because he has a shunt above his ear to release fluid from his brain he wears a head gear that looks a bit like a 1920s football leather helmet. He uses his hearing to find his way on the field counting on his teammates and occasionally his father to give him direction. His coach agrees that besides being an inspiration he has also provided his team with a reason to talk to one another on the pitch, a skill many players never fully learn. More importantly, Luc wants kids with disabilities not to dwell on them, but to push through and find ways to achieve whatever they want in life. "This is my way of showing everybody — all the blind kids out there — that they can do what they want,” he said. “If you set your mind to it and you put your best foot forward, it is all possible.”
In Pittsburgh, a high school player, who is still learning English, performs as goalkeeper — without legs. Emmanuel Hilton plays on the JV team and has excelled in the position. He was born without legs in the Congo, where his mother, appalled by his birth defect, threw him out into the middle of a busy highway. Luckily, a motorist stopped and rescued him before he was hit. He ended up in an orphanage where he lived until he was adopted by the Hilton family a year ago after seeing his smiling picture in a brochure. This story touches me particularly because I have two adopted sons who came to our home when they were 3 and 1-and-a-half years old. I know the traumas that abandonment and abuse can cause, and I also have seen the healing power of playing soccer. Both our sons have seen soccer as a form of salvation from their pasts, and I’m sure Emmanuel feels the same. He goes by the name “E-man” and has been fully accepted by his teammates. He had been reluctant at first to try out, but he exceeded all expectations, according to his coach, and gets the team motivated from the back. Likewise, he feels uplifted because he has a community of friends who support him and depend on him. As he says, “They like me, they’re happy, so I feel comfortable…” He energizes the team, which energizes him. “It (missing legs) doesn’t matter to me. I can do anything. I can do anything right now.”
We can get caught up in the “what’s next?” part of soccer, and forget to enjoy the beauty of our kids playing. Reading these stories, I understand that when we get so entranced by the glory, we forget the pure joy. The Panyee FC, Luc and Emmanuel have overcome some tremendous odds, so they provide inspiration. However, we need to also note that none of them feel they are extraordinary. Instead they are part of a team, enjoying and appreciating the efforts of others, and contributing to whatever roles their team asks. That’s something every kid can do. It’s a philosophy that the leaders of FIFA might better embrace.