Soccer for the People
I want to start off by making a claim that I don’t think is very bold, but I would be happy to hear a counter argument to: Soccer has done more societal good in the world than any other sport, and it’s not even close. This topic kept coming up in my head this past week as our own FC Cincinnati is trying to figure out which neighborhood it will best fit in. The connection between a soccer team and its community is something that a lot of people don’t understand, but it is key to understanding the sport. Soccer teams are extensions of their communities, they are defined by their fans. All over the globe clubs have reputations, good or bad, earned or unearned, based on their fans, the community, and what the club claims to represent. As our own club is in the midst of figuring out exactly how it will represent Cincinnati, and where it will represent Cincinnati from, I thought it would be a great time to look at how powerful a soccer team can be for its community.
Soccer allows for interesting, compelling, and long storylines to playout on regional, national, and international stages. And as you might imagine, this comes with stories of social and societal uplift. When talking about the good that soccer can do in a community, it is difficult to think of a better story to lead off with than the Ivory Coast national soccer team helping end a civil war. Led by the indomitable, and current part owner of USL’s Phoenix Rising, Didier Drogba the Ivorian national team helped bridge the gap between the Christian and Muslim factions on each side of the country’s brutal five year long conflict. Following their qualification for the 2006 World Cup, Drogba took the microphone from a journalist in the locker room after the match and addressed his nation:
The elections he mentions in that video did take place, no violence accompanied them, and by the time the team kicked off in the 2006 World Cup, the civil war had ended. An international soccer tournament was able to capture the attention, and the hearts, of an entire country and bring about an end to a bloody conflict. Even if you hate soccer, you have to recognize the power soccer can carry in a community.
But sometimes the good soccer does in a community is not as obvious as ending a civil war. Sometimes something as small as a nickname can tell you a lot about a club and its community. Just about everyone on earth has heard of Lionel Messi, the undisputed best player in the world (Ahh, sorry, I don’t know the name of any wingers at Real Madrid). Messi’s career began in his home country, Argentina, with a club called Newell's Old Boys. While an odd name for a club, named after the fact that its first players were the graduates of Newell’s school, it’s their nickname that is particularly strange: The Lepers. While not the most inspiring name, it comes from the fact that in the 1920’s the club agreed to play a charity match to raise money for lepers. Their cross town rivals, Rosario Central, turned down the invitation. Newell’s Old Boys took up their nickname as a source of pride, what they did to help their community reflected, and continues to reflect, in the team’s identity. As for Rosario Central? Their nickname comes from the same incident, fittingly, The Scoundrels.
Other nicknames found in the world of soccer includes the club I follow in Europe, Everton. They have a few nicknames: The Toffees, The School of Science, but my favorite is The People’s Club. Born out of the fact that Everton does so much in the community, donates a tremendous amount of money, time, and access to the community. When looking at a list of teams who pay a living wage, it’s unsurprising to find Everton there with only two or three other Premier League teams. Their charitable work has them supporting over 2000 charities, working with the local businesses to ensure responsible development, and always finding new ways to give back to the community. This is an example that I would love to see FC Cincinnati follow. There is at least one connection between Everton and FC Cincinnati, both have hired the same architecture firm to work on their respective stadiums. Not that FC Cincinnati does not give back to the community already, but Everton provides a fantastic road-map that I would love to see FC Cincinnati emulate.
The beautiful thing about soccer is that it is a simple game. It requires the least amount of equipment of any sport that might require any, can be played in any climate, any surface, and with a variety of team sizes. With very minimal modifications it can be open to people with all ranges of disabilities. Countries like Iceland, Costa Rica, Gabon, Syria, Mexico, and Algeria are as relevant on the world stage as traditionally powerful countries like Germany, England, and The United States. It is the great equalizer in the world. And unlike the Olympics where that happen every four years in sports you only care about every four years, soccer is ongoing. International tournaments happen every year. There is no off-season in soccer. As far as accessibility goes, it is as accessible as it can be. And should be. Something that the new USSF president, Carlos Cordeiro, will have to contend with is the diversification of the soccer in the United State and making sure every community has access to the highest levels of the sport, structurally. Something that gets a lot easier if a community has a top division (read: MLS) team. FC Cincinnati can be a focal point of outreach and engagement that connects different communities, a positive step in the right direction in any context.
Perhaps there is no better story of community and making the game open to everyone in the United States quite like the story of Junior Lone Star. Junior Lone Star is a team that was in the US Open Cup last year. Yes, that tournament that FC Cincinnati made it to the final four of. Junior Lone Star, based in Philadelphia, is a team mostly made up of African refugees and other people found in the south western parts of Philadelphia. This is a team that brings together people from all different countries, all different backgrounds, and puts them on a team competing in a national tournament that includes USL, NASL, and MLS teams. Something like this is not possible in other sports here in the US. We do not get these stories anywhere else. The connection soccer has to the world is simply not found anywhere else in sports.
So as FC Cincinnati continues its search for its physical home in our city, I hope people realize what role it can, and has, played in our community. FC Cincinnati has taken to building futsal courts in collaboration with Cincinnati Public Schools. They offer money to youth programs looking to fund-raise. They are generous with organizations looking to partner with ticket sales. And these are fantastic first steps for the club. A club that I think we often forget is a minor league soccer club. And they already have made a positive mark in the community. But it cannot stop here. And it will not stop here.
I should probably just write a book about some of the other fantastic stories found in soccer, but I cannot get to all of them in this blog. Maradona’s single handed (ha!) dispatching of England in the 1986 World Cup, uplifting his home country after having just suffered a military defeat to England in the Falklands War. Or the German side St. Pauli and their role as a fiercely anti-fascist club known for their political moves against neo-Nazi groups in Germany as well as their hospitality for refugees in their home town of Hamburg which spread to a small town in England. Or the story of how a small child, Bradley Lowery, warmed hearts and brought all of England together to fight a rare cancer that eventually took Bradley’s life. Or the role of Egyptian supporter groups played in the country’s ouster of dictator Hosni Mubarak. Or even in that realm, the role Syrian supporters have played in rebuilding Syrian society in the midst of their civil war. There are simply too many stories to tell.
This is the tradition that soccer has with its community. It is a bulwark of the community. It is the representative. This is why I am proud to be a soccer fan and why I support FC Cincinnati. Soccer as a force for good is in the DNA of the sport. And I want that to thrive here in Cincinnati, as I know it can. So if the team ends up in Newport, Oakley, or the West End, I look forward to soccer bringing the city, the region, and our community together.