Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Other Side of Soccer

The American media rarely mentions soccer except in relation to fan violence. Constant references to "hooligans" and "soccer riots" have led many in this country to believe that almost every match results in public disorder. This is most certainly not the case.

As the world's most popular sport, the level of emotional investment in soccer is frequently overwhelming. This has certainly produced some tragic incidents. Yet the passion surrounding the sport also allows it to be a force for positive change. Here are two examples:

-Real Madrid and Brazil striker Ronaldo recently visited the Palestinian Authority and Israel. The reigning World Cup Golden Boot winner offered encouragement to the peace process and was greeted enthusiastically by both Israelis and Palestinians.

-Michael, a soldier blogging from Iraq, has some thoughts on one way in which Americans can reach out to Iraqis:

What are the Iraqi people in general, and the Iraqi children in particular, passionate about? In a word, soccer. Actually it’s football to them, but we know it as soccer. They have more passion for the game of soccer than we ever thought of having for football or baseball. I’ve yet to meet a child, or an adult for that matter, who doesn’t have at least some interest in the game of soccer. Forget bowl season, the World Series, March Madness, and the Super Bowl, they don’t care. Their ‘Field of Dreams’ isn’t a baseball field in the middle of an Iowa cornfield. Their ‘Field of Dreams’ is a soccer field in any open area of Iraq. Streets, fields, farms, the dusty ground off the side of the road, or the lush green land of a farm. On sand or on pavement, no place is safe from the stampeding feet of Iraqis chasing a soccer ball. In every mission I’ve been on, I’ve never once failed to witness a game of soccer.

On one overcast evening, before the sun had fully set, I saw a group of men divided into teams, each wearing bright pastel jerseys. These jerseys contrasted beautifully against the tall green grass and the light gray color of the cloud filled sky. There was something electric about the whole scene, reminding me of Saturday night football games on a college campus in America during the fall. I’ve seen this same scene through the thermal sights of my Bradley, each player a bright red figure, indicating the heat radiating from their body as they chase the precious ball. More often the scene is of children in rags playing on the dry hard packed dirt of a schoolyard. They’re all passionately chasing that elusive soccer ball.

If they don’t have a soccer ball they’ll use anything as a substitute. I’ve seen kids kicking around a rock with as much passion and glee than if they were playing in the World Championship. They need soccer balls, and I want to give them one. What a better way to convey the goodwill of America and American soldiers than by giving them the soccer balls that they so desperately desire. You want to continue to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis, give them the tool that will enable them to do something they love. Besides guns and ammo, every humvee, tank, truck, Bradley, Stryker, and helicopter should come armed with soccer balls as well. How I would love to be standing out the top of my humvee, having the guys below feed soccer balls up to me, so I could then throw them to any children I pass. Why not airplanes too? I can picture C130's flying over cities and towns throughout Iraq, dropping soccer balls from its cargo hold with little parachutes attached to each one. It’s doable. Crazier things have happened. Or have helicopters hover over a school during recess and drop a bunch of soccer balls to the delight of the kids below. We can rain down hellfire on the heads of terrorists, turn around, and shower the good people of Iraq with peace in the form of a soccer ball. The love of sports, in this case soccer, can be an instrument of peace and a bond that is common to us all. It will transcend our cultural differences and our languages. It will also mitigate the feelings of some Iraqis that see our presence in their land as aggravating.

Link courtesy of Mudville Gazette, who has information on how to help with this effort.


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