This past January, we each had the opportunity to go abroad to various countries to study. While one of us was in Tanzania, the other was traveling through Europe. As members of the Luther College women's soccer team, we both especially noticed the presence of soccer in these differing cultures. In sharing stories from our travels, we found that we experienced the extremes of soccer around the world, from practicing at national facilities to playing with kids in villages located far away from any city.
In Europe, I experienced that soccer is a religion and a way of life, where individuals are born into being fans of a certain club unless they dare to rebel against family tradition. Each person that our class talked to had a team that they supported. Cab and bus drivers took every opportunity to let us know the greatness of their club, no matter the club's current record.
During the month I was able to travel to stadiums and national training centers that I never thought I'd get to see. These are stadiums and fields where the best players spend their professional careers. In each location, it became evident that technology and money are being used to constantly create the best conditions for playing and spectating the sport.
From large video boards to the highest forms of medical treatment possible, the sport seems to have evolved from the simplicity of its roots. Soccer has become a business. Clubs like Manchester United have become global brands, dropping the F.C. (meaning football club) off of their names and logos. Though the sport is the foundation of the club, I couldn't help but wonder what changes might occur in soccer due to these companies.
The part I most clearly remember, though, was a training session we got to have at St. George's Park, home of the English national soccer teams. I was struck by the coaching philosophy of one of our guides and coaches for the visit, Chad, that came from his time as a local youth coach. He shared with us that his goal is always for the players to have fun and smile. It seemed so simple, and it still does today. But this reminded me that even if we were in a place of the highest caliber of soccer, we were still there to practice the sport we all loved. Chad helped us recall the joys of soccer and how we can pass on that feeling while we are coaching others too.
Another piece of Chad's philosophy was to create good citizens out of his players above all else. We were told that less than one percent of all the kids who play soccer will become professionals, but all of them will be members of society. This means caring for the development of players as people and understanding that most play because soccer is fun.
In the countries where soccer was born, it was often so easy to get wrapped up in the showy elements surrounding matches and idolizing players. But taking a moment to look around, I could easily see the passion that each fan has and the way that soccer creates identity. These were the moments that I remember the most because they reflect the core values of my love for the sport.
The Tanzania J-term program places students in an area and situations that are most likely incredibly different from most places students travel to. It's a third world country with people with different culture and social norms. It's what makes it so great.
I'm currently recovering from a torn ACL, so I brought a ball with me on the program for the sake of trying to keep somewhat in practice for spring season. I didn't know then how awesome it was that I brought it.
Soccer in Tanzania is not as well established as it is in Europe. They have a national team, however it's not very well known worldwide. There are many club teams there, with a premier league composed of 16 teams. Women's soccer teams are very rare. Children usually start playing in schools if they have the chance to go. Most everyone in Tanzania either follows the English Premier League or local clubs. It seems to be soccer or bust.
It was difficult connecting with many people in Tanzania due to the language barrier. The national language is Swahili, which not everyone speaks either. The students in our course had been taught basics like "hello" and "thank you," however we were pretty limited beyond this. We quickly found it was easy to play with little kids since they understood silly faces and clapping games. Elders were patient with us, and helped us to develop our tongues. It was very difficult to interact with peers close to our own age. My friend Jimmy Conway pointed out to me that young adults most likely don't want to play tag, or are willing to repeat how to say "hello" many times over again. They tended to be a lot more reserved.
One late afternoon I was sitting by the fire pit talking with others about the day's events, when Jimmy ran up and told me to grab my ball and come out to the field nearby. I followed his instructions. There I found that he and two others had found some kids playing soccer with a makeshift ball made of wrapped up plastic. They made a field with goals using sweatshirts, and we started to play.
It wasn't the prettiest of soccer. It was four of us against hordes of children. We were barefoot. I stepped on the jawbone of some long-eaten goat. Scoring was nearly impossible, since they would just amass around the goal, forming a human wall. But it was fun. Some of the older children, high school-agers, were very good and gave us a run for our money.
We did end up scoring at one point, which is when Jimmy ran over celebrating and high fived some of the older boys on the side watching. They were smiling, and one even joined in with us.
At the end of the game (score was probably 20-4, Tanzanians), we spent some time just walking around shaking hands and saying thank you for playing. It was the most smiling I did the entire month of January. They taught us words for goal and complemented us on our playing.
Now that I'm back at home, I look back on this memory as one of the most important to me on the program. The game of soccer (or football) is more than just a game. It allowed me to connect with people that I had no way of connecting with before. Sulky teenagers and shy adults turned into our opponents on the field, and friends when we were done. Such a simple match-up, however it showed each side how similar our two cultures are.
For us soccer has always been an opportunity to be part of something greater and just have fun. At its simplest, soccer is not about the highest quality gear or stadiums but about the relationships formed with others over a love of the game.