The Powerful and Remarkable Language of Soccer

I am always absolutely amazed when the winner of a PGA tour event is being interviewed on TV after a round of golf and they can remember the second shot on 7, or the drive they hit on15. I rarely remembered details from my games when I was playing (a long time ago).

However, I remember so many details of the first game I played as a freshman at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. I have no idea who we were playing, what the score was, if I made any saves – nothing about that.

What I remember is the exhilarating sounds and palpable excitement coming from the stands as a seemingly misfit band of older men with their drums and noisemakers and chants and cheers lived vicariously through every pass, tackle, shot and save we made – the intensity of their cheers ebbing and flowing with the game.

I could see their smiles and watch them lean on each other in laughter as I stole glimpses of them throughout the game.

The group, many of whom soon became my friends, was made up of International graduate students and local families from Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Senegal, Ghana, England and other countries. Together, these men all spoke the language of soccer.

Over the years, I have learned that while we may not speak the same language as people – the ball proves, time and time again, to be the translator. There is a thrill in bringing a soccer ball on a plane as carry on luggage and juggling between flights in an airport. People start watching – then ask to join in…and before you know it you have business men taking off their polished shoes and people you would never expect to talk with playing and laughing with you.

I was a 16 year old in Europe staying at a youth hostel in Italy with my soccer team and, among other guests, another group of athletes from Sweden there for a tennis tournament. We saw them at breakfast each morning but never really struck up a conversation – just a smile was exchanged here or there. All it took was a soccer ball to bring us together. Their English was basic and our Swedish was clearly lacking – but we would laugh and mime our conversations – as we juggled the ball together in the Italian courtyard.

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I was reminded of these juggling experiences and the enriching soccer-loving University of Massachusetts men when I spoke last week to Chris Kaimmer with Woza Soccer.

Woza Soccer is a teen summer experience that combines service, travel and soccer. Mind you, it’s expensive – their trips to Africa, Costa Rica or Peru, some of them 3 weeks long, cost upwards of $4000 plus flights, so it’s certainly not for everyone (They do offer scholarships to deserving young players). I wanted to write about Woza on to ensure parents were aware of these soccer-service programs that are starting to pop up. (I have no benefit from writing about Woza – I earnestly just want to be sure parents are aware of these unique service opportunities for their children.)

The founder, Chris, was a high school soccer player who never stopped loving the game despite not playing in college. Self described as “not good enough” to make the college team, he opted instead for the club team at Yale. After and during college, Chris began working for youth travel programs and Grassroot Soccer – a NGO working to combat AIDS in South Africa by empowering people through soccer.

He launched Woza Soccer a couple of years ago by combining his experience working as a youth travel guide with his experiences at Grassroot Soccer.

At Woza Soccer kids spend their mornings doing service work such as coaching local disadvantaged youth players, working with Grassroot Soccer, or learning about the work the Woza partner organizations are doing to positively impact the area. In the afternoons, they spend their time – boys and girls mixing in with local teams of players – playing in actual games with (not against) kids their age. Rounding out the trips are travel adventures such as safaris, Machu Picchu hikes, adventuring….What a way for kids to experience the world through the universal language of soccer!

Experiences like this are something soccer, unlike any other sport our children play, uniquely provides because of it’s global nature.

In the documentary movie Pelada (the Brazilian world for “pick up soccer”) – two recent college soccer playing graduates – Rebekah Fergusson and Luke Boughen – demonstrate the universal language of soccer. They discover, outside of the big lights and stadiums, the impact the game has on people and entire cultures. Simply traveling with a ball in tow and looking for a pick up game provides them with a fast-track connection to people.

Check out the trailer to the movie here:

After my freshman year at UMass, our cheering section of international men invited me, a female goalkeeper, to play on their summer league team. I was the only woman in the entire league and while they protected me ferociously (there was probably an extra scuffle or two during the season based on opponents running into me), they also welcomed me as a soccer equal.

After our home games they and their families would open their coolers full of food and drink and we would spread out the blankets and take part in an international food festival while playing with the kids and laughing …SO…MUCH…LAUGHING.

These were, by far, my best soccer memories in Amherst.

These misfit men taught me, just as the movie PELADA demonstrates, that the language of soccer runs deep and is a uniquely strong connector.

The idea of high school students being able to have a glimpse into these connections and to being able to understand the world more clearly exhilarates me.

I was on the edge of my seat when talking to Chris from Woza and learning about the experiences of these high school students described this way by a Woza player:

The Woza experience had a greater impact on me than anything I’ve ever done. To fly halfway across the world and immerse yourself in a completely different culture and be able to connect with people through something as simple as soccer was an amazing feeling. It allowed us to share some really special moments with people we might otherwise never have gotten the chance to meet.”

There are similar groups to Woza Soccer and others with different models such as Goals for Girls.

Goals for Girls is an international initiative of girls helping girls through the game of soccer. Goals for Girls sends teams of girls from the United States to various countries (this year to India) where girls connect in a forum that addresses social and health challenges through cultural exchange, service and soccer. In the Goals for Girls program, the girls from the United States do fundraising to support their trip and their partner programs in the different countries, and, through these fundraising efforts, also learn important leadership lessons.

I believe that these types of soccer-service programs foster the ability to help our children find their place in the world. I love this quote from a Woza parent, using the metaphor of an adhesive:

Woza is unique among the plethora of student travel abroad programs; it provides your child with the chance to authentically engage with a foreign culture – not just travel through it -harnessing the world’s most popular sport, soccer, as an adhesive.”

That’s just what soccer has been for me – an adhesive. It has been the glue that has combined experiences and friendships and jobs, and I hope it will be for my children as well – regardless of their abilities.

Yes, there are camps and games and even recruiting and possible scholarships.

There is the mastering of skills and lessons in teamwork and resilience.

These are all important.

However, not every child will be able to or will want to play soccer in college. More than anything – the big picture in all of this – and something our children will always take with them from this sport that is played all over the globe…is the ability to use the skills they are learning now to connect with the world they live in.

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Skye Eddy

Skye is a former All-American goalkeeper, professional player and collegiate coach. She holds her USSF "B" License and USSF National Goalkeeper License and is an active youth coach, soccer parent and coach educator.

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