Tuesday, November 27, 2007

HOW SOCCER CONNECTS THE WORLD

In January of 2006, while flying to Zambia with my soccer team of current and former players, I read a fascinating book called How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization by Franklin Foer.

It was a brilliant read as it showed how soccer has provided a framework for how much of the world thinks and expresses itself through its passion and participation in this game that all the world loves...(OK, except in this place almost all of us call home)

I grew up playing soccer from an early age all the way thru my senior year in college...in many ways, lots of the people who were central in shaping my life and offered me the most significant relationships are the ones who I have stood with on a grass field (dirt or turf in some cases) and tried to kick a ball into a seemingly too small goal...

After college, I moved quickly away from playing and into the coaching ranks...I helped coach a few club teams and assisted a couple high school teams before settling into a long term coaching role at Wheaton Academy in the western suburbs of Chicago...I spent a dozen years coaching high school soccer and we competed against some of the best players and teams in the state of Illinois and the USA...I invested literally thousands and thousands of hours into practices, scouting, scheming, game management, and off-season workouts as we together as a program enjoyed the opportunity of falling in love with the magic of the game that so many others around the globe loved right along with us...I coached many outstanding players and we were a respected and successful team that found ourselves often scoring more goals than our opponents, even those who were sometimes bigger than us...and I am currently transitioning into coaching my own kids as they begin to play soccer for the first time...

And yet, for me, soccer was never really just about the goals and the final score...it was and always will be about the bonds that are created between those who play and embrace the game...I've always loved getting to know people, and networking is actually one of my strongest professional strengths as a high school teacher/administrator...and as I stepped away from my coaching position last February and moved onto a life without the excitement and frustration of matches every fall, I have had many moments to reflect on the remarkable way that soccer has connected me to students, reporters, coaches, mentors, fans, parents, and new friends from other cultures and places around the globe and in my own community...

You see, for me, soccer doesn't always perfectly explain my world...I've had too many unexplainable injuries and unjust results and amazing surprises and wacky experiences to use soccer as a vehicle to always make sense of my life...but the one thing that soccer has always done and continues to do is to connect me to the world in ways and at levels that continue to bless and blow me away...

Here's a few of the clearest examples of these connections that this beautiful game has provided for my life...

*Last summer, I was struggling big time over not being able to coach anymore when some of my former players called and said we are getting a bunch of guys to come back for an alumni game at next year's team's summer camp...and they said, you are playing with us against them...many guys that I loved and who were some of my most outstanding players came back and put on an offensive clinic that night as I stood on the sidelines for one more game...at the beginning of the second half, they called me out onto the field and a few college studs set me up to score a goal after being on the field for just a few minutes...I ran directly off the field (not wanting to continue to risk getting injured while trying to play at a high level) and back to my coach's seat with a huge smile on my face as I looked out at the group of guys laughing and whooping it up after seeing their old coach put one in the back of the net...that laughter and joy communicated something much deeper, as we celebrated the bond between coach and player that is truly a unique one...

*Two of my closest friends in the world are soccer players, guys who grew up playing the game in Brazil and the western suburbs of Chicago...neither of them are my contemporaries, but rather former students who were in my youth ministry and classroom...I've had the incredible privilege of watching them play, coaching them on the field, and seeing them excel at the collegiate level all while serving as a mentor in their lives of sorts...and then they got into coaching and we can commiserate over the struggle of having our teams do what we think they are capable of doing...but to be honest, our friendships extend way beyond the soccer pitch and go deep into the worlds of leadership, faith, global needs, family, and living with impact and purpose in this generation...and when you look at something that drew us together and continues to be a bond that is not broken, the game of soccer created a venue for truly becoming brothers and life friends that means everything to me and to them...

*For the last half decade, much of my life has been focused on responding to the global AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa...I have led a student response in my high school that has served to provide education, medicines and treatments, AIDS testing, food security, housing, clean water, school supplies, Bibles, church ministry centers, and economic opportunity to a community in Zambia where AIDS has devastated families and the lives of children...and we have also given out hundreds and hundreds of soccer balls, jerseys, boots, shin guards, socks, and hand pumps to a host of soccer players in Africa...these gifts were given by dozens of Chicago-area teams and clubs before being delivered by my students and players...bringing together folks from one of the richest places and one of the poorest spots on the planet can be a rather daunting task...but soccer connected us immediately...the Zambian crowd rushed onto the field after their team scored against us, but also cheered our school name after we won a tense penalty kick shootout before a crowd of thousands in a rural Zambian village...the Kakolo Village community loves the game of football and so do many players from Wheaton Academy...and even now we look forward to going back "home" to play on a field built with tremendous African skill and care that was dedicated to this former coach who fell in love with the Zambian people and counts meeting their needs and playting soccer with them one of his greatest joys and privileges this side of heaven...

*Even last weekend, I found myself in the very town I have lived in for the last 12 years meeting people not like me once again...they spoke a different language, made different amounts of money, shopped at different stores, and lived in a different world despite being in the same mid-sized community as me...and as I played indoor soccer in a wrestling room at a local middle school with a bunch of kids and a few other adults on a cold Friday night, all of a sudden I was more a part of West Chicago than I had ever been before in many ways and knew more people in our city than previously...the beautiful game had once again connected people who needed to and should have met before, but never had...


You see, for me, I am passionate about caring for and connecting to people above all else in this life...I want them to know and experience the love of a God who created them and designed His people to be in community with Him and one another...and as I look back on almost 40 years of my life, I am amazed at how soccer has connected me to people of all types and in all places in our world...whether it is with my two kids I love so much, some of my closest friends, the students I see in the hallways every day, fellow West Chicago residents, or the beautiful people of Africa...I can't imagine seeking to chase my calling in life without the game played by more people than any other on this planet somehow allowing me to go places I'd never go without it pushing me there...

I can't wait to see the connections it will provide in the next 40 years...because from where I sit I see clearly how soccer connects the world...

8 comments:

Luke said...

Spot on, Coach.

Ryan said...

Wow, quite a beautiful reflection of just that, the beautiful game. As I have been able to be a part of several of those experiences, as well as some of my own, a few thoughts come to mind.

First and foremost, I am drawn to the beginning of summer in 2006. I am not sure whether everyone was able to see these, but ESPN ran a series of television commercials targeting 'world cup consumers' There were two commercials that stood out to me more than the others. First, a familiar voice chimes in with "It's a simple thing. A ball and a goal." you quickly realize it's Bono (coincidence? yeah right.) and you quickly realize everything he is saying is exactly right. It closes the schools, stops a war, does more than politicians could ever dream. Everywhere in the world, and maybe even someday here in America, the game of soccer 'fuels the passion and pride of nations.' The second commercial speaks of the Ivory Coast and how, in short stopped a war because for the first time, the National team qualified for the World Cup finals. A nation united makes for better fans than one apart. How right they are.

Secondly, if anyone chooses not to believe it, take a look at the stats. Currently, there are 192 members of the UN. FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) the governing body of international soccer boasts of 208 members! That's 16 more than the UN! Soccer truly has a larger voice than our politicians could dream.

Thirdly, simply to provide backup soccer opens doors around the world, as well as in local communities like nothing else ever could. It functions as its own language. There is no different in 3 point line. No uprights and different distances. Simply a ball and some goals. Put it down and play. No rules meetings, no language problem, and certainly no social class barrier. The game is the measuring stick. In money, politics, religion, and everywhere else it may be sweet lips, but here, the feet do the talking. In my limited experience overseas, my ability to play (albeit minimally) and talk the great game of football has been far more powerful than being American or from a suburb.

And finally, to piggyback off of that last thought, with in a Christian context, I am continually perplexed as to why the (C)hurch (If you don't understand the C v. c) read earlier in this blog) simply cannot model its own game after the beautiful one. I am currently working for a professional soccer team and I was fortunate enough to be able to help represent us at our league meetings a few weeks ago. What amazed me, above all else, was how little we all had in common. We all had different budgets, plans, schemes, schedules, and visions. Don't forget the fact that we were all from competing teams! With all that said, simply the game of soccer was enough to have a wonderful conversation over a meal or in between sessions. Why then, can't we do this in the Church? In a group where everyone is competing can get along and show true Phileo love, why on earth cannot we do it as the existing Body of Christ!? We argue and debate, cut down and cheap shot. isn't the world, so many of whom are involved in sport and soccer, supposed to know that we are Christians by how we love each other and obey the Father? It seems things have somehow been turned around!

I have no idea who will be reading this, but if you have made your way to the bottom I would immensely encourage you to understand the world's game. I would also encourage you to try and take some of its lessons to the streets. And Heaven forbid, we might even be able to link the two in order to forcefully advance both the game, and the Kingdom.

Chip Huber said...

Souds...love your words...thanks for taking my thoughts another step forward...

Steiny said...

Chip, thanks for your words. To be honest Chip I never really enjoyed soccer - I guess I have always grown up with football and baseball. I had nothing against it, but it just wasn't exciting for me. But after watching a game in Kakolo, I have completely changed my take on it. They play 90 minute halves! They don't stop, and it is the most beautiful thing in the world. I could watch them play all day. As cliche as it sounds I think you and Souds are mixing the lines between for the love of the game and for the love of the people in this world. I hope those lines keep getting crossed.

Ingrid said...

Hon,
That's the best thing you've ever written. I love you!

lutefisklover13 said...

Excellent work #11! I concur. My time playing soccer has put me in contact with some of the friendships I value most. In fact, just like Chip, I got a brother-in-law and nieces and nephews because of my relationships through soccer.

Through my experiences playing overseas I found out that soccer truly is the international language.

On a spiritual level there is always an analogy that can be drawn between a team and to the Church (i.e. 1 Corinthians 12-14.)

spideywebb0 said...

The longer I coach and the more places I travel with soccer as a means of spreading the gospel, the more and more convinced I am that there is so much more to the game than just the game itself. If any sport is God ordained (and I will get myself in trouble here with my basketball/baseball friends) it has to be soccer.

Because of the culture that is created via the game (I also read the book - excellent read) there is instant comaradery for those who enjoy playing (at any level). This allows for the sharing of Jesus Christ through the relationships that are formed via the game.

We invite our opponents to pray with us after every game we play at Houghton. Occasionally a team declines to join us, but usually they do. Where else would you be able to see a group of 40-50 guys gather together for prayer? It may be a small thing (to expose our opponents to prayer) but I believe it is powerful. There are some teams, now that simply join us at midfield for prayer before we even invite them. They know we will be praying, and because of the relationships we have with them they want to join us.

I love the game, but I love even more the bonds that are created that have eternal implications. I can't think of a better way of telling others about the God I love than through the game I love.

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