Wednesday, July 15, 2015
First off, congratulations to the U.S. Women’s National Team for its World Cup Victory last Sunday. It was an historic win in an exciting competition. Carli Lloyd scored a hat trick, the first ever in a Women’s World Cup final. It also avenged the penalty kick loss four years ago to Japan with this year’s decisive 5-2 win. And the U.S. managed to score four goals before the 20-minute mark. Hope Solo only allowed three goals the entire tournament with 540 minutes between the first goal allowed in the first game against Australia and the second in the 27th minute of the World Cup final. Amazing! The team came to Canada to win and stayed focused on their goal. The defense shone throughout the month. The real test was supposed to be Germany in the semis, but after a foul in the box, the U.S. scored the PK and never looked back. Even England rallied against Germany in the 119th minute of overtime to score and beat the Germans in the consolation game. The tournament awarded fans with spectacular play, a couple major upsets such as Australia beating Brazil 1-0, and examples of true determination. We have to wait another four years for the next Women’s World Cup in France, but there are plenty of opportunities to watch the women of the world play again, especially in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
World-class soccer gives our youth players not only something to strive toward but an important validation of their own choices. As more and more U.S. broadcast channels, announcers, and fans embrace soccer, players can take great pride in being a part of that movement. They also realize they play a sport which dominates the world stage in a way no other American sport does. Just for fun I entered the word “soccer” on my TV provider’s search engine and for the next week there are 279 opportunities to watch soccer games, and this is a slow soccer month. Once September arrives there are a myriad of international games that can be viewed, not to mention the beginning of men’s and women’s college soccer and the last third of the MLS season and then their championship playoffs. The broad spectrum of channels carrying matches mirrors the international nature of the sport: Bein (Middle East), GOL (Spanish Language), Telemundo and Univision (Mexico), Sky Sport (Europe), Setanta (Italy), and U.S. national and local sports stations such as ESPN and Fox Sports. Fans can watch English, Scottish, Italian, French, German, Japanese, Argentine, Columbian, Mexican, and Canadian soccer matches regularly along with our American matches including MLS, college, and even local high school. Youth players can and should be part of this international community because it opens up the competition to aspects greater than wins and losses such as the politics and culture of the nations involved.
Despite the recent problems facing FIFA, there is one area where the organization has truly benefitted the sport. FIFA established rules for soccer that cross all boundaries and equalize all playing options. The penalties our players get disciplined for are the same ones a child in Ghana or South Korea would receive. By standardizing the rules for the entire globe, FIFA has insured that soccer can be played anywhere by anyone in the same format and fair play. Further, by governing the sport since 1904 FIFA provides an impartial and regulated arena to air and resolve disputes. Players and teams who want to play internationally need to adhere to these rules and this oversight. It may seem constricting, but it is no more so than that of the NFL, NBA, or MLB. The framework provides an even playing field all around the world. Countries who can’t agree politically or religiously, all adhere to the FIFA model. It’s gratifying to see 209 nations (60 of whom were added between 1975 and 2002) all agreeing to a single set of rules and a single court of resolution. Countries actually clamor to be a part of FIFA, giving the organization tremendous power to require compliance and to do good. The only major international item unresolved is the inclusion of Israel in the Middle East confederation. Due to the internal restriction of Israel and other Arab nations which don’t allow Israel to play in Arab countries and vice versa, FIFA moved Israel to the European conference. Even that decision shows that the organization can resolve conflicts and maintain peace across the borders. FIFA even attempts to handle issues such as racism and poverty, not always in the most powerful ways, but they recognize that they can bring a universal message and use soccer to promote that message.
Since soccer is played world-wide, kids have the opportunity to travel anywhere to play. Soccer is a conduit to discovering new cultures, spectacular architecture, and political differences. There are a variety of organizations that offer various tours based on soccer but not necessarily exclusively for just training in or playing soccer. The exciting part of going anywhere in the world is that soccer becomes a universal language. One of my favorite documentaries which has a companion book is Pelada which chronicles the journeys of four 20-something soccer players. They brought their play to different countries across a wide spectrum of socio-economic conditions. The film details how quickly kicking a ball around on a patch of grass or a city center fountain square could draw a group of players. Although the four travelers often didn’t speak a word of the country’s language, they communicated with the citizens through a shared love of soccer. In Jerusalem they organized a game among Arabs and Jews that transcended politics and resulted in a joyous afternoon of laughter and happy competition. They played in the slums of Nairobi where the same exuberance emanated on the pitch as was seen in the wealthiest suburbs of Dubai. Youth players, if they can, should venture out into the wide soccer world to test their abilities, to learn the various tactics played in different nations, and to share a passion with strangers who become friends.
Recognizing the extensive net soccer casts in the world gives young players a wider perspective on the power of the sport. Dozens of international and continental competitions are played out every year with the granddaddies being the Men’s and Women’s World Cups and the Olympics. Right now through July 26 the CONCACAF Men’s Gold Cup is being played in the United States. This competition brings together national teams from North America and the Caribbean. With three years to go before the 2018 Men’s World Cup in Russia teams are jockeying for bids. The Gold Cup performances will factor into who earns enough points to make the World Cup list. Therefore these games will be hotly contested with the best players each nation can bring to the pitch and thus a great representation of international soccer. CONMEBOL, the South American confederation, recently completed their continental competition which had many of the games televised in the United States. On August 2nd, Arsenal will meet Chelsea in the FA Community Shield game which is held annually between the winner of the FA Cup (Arsenal) and the first place team in the Premier League for the previous year (Chelsea). This is akin to our Super Bowl and will be broadcast in America on Fox Soccer 1.
Letting youth players step onto the large international stage that defines soccer gives them not only some goals to shoot for but also an entry to the global community. Soccer can encourage players to learn other languages, travel to exotic locations, or study up on the history of a country. Often during international games, the commentators will highlight some of the struggles of the individual players or the team’s country which might inspire kids to research more of the details. Understanding that soccer crosses borders means understanding that borders don’t need to limit us. Kids can celebrate their athletic choice anywhere in the world and know that they will be joined by scores of other youth players. The soccer community can be very small and personal when kids play with their friends but can expand to include us in a larger world. We can be included by watching international competitions or by actually traveling to another country to play. When Robbie went to Kenya for a study abroad program he engaged groups of kids, most of them orphans suffering from extreme poverty, in games of soccer. The fields were rocky, overgrown, and without lines or goals. Yet he could connect with them through the sport and ultimately help to educate them about public health issues once they trusted him as a fellow player. That’s the power of soccer – to bring us together transcending borders.