From World Cup to World Cup: Soccer, Poverty, and Determination

Yesterday’s New York Times featured an article that caught my attention. It was about villagers in the Amazon and how they struggle to play soccer during the rainy season. The fields are often flooded and some games have to be played wearing life preservers, because retrieving the ball may involve jumping into the water. Undeterred by the slippery surfaces of makeshift fields or dangerous wildlife lurking in the Amazonian waters, o jogo bonito, The Beautiful Game, goes on, especially during this exciting year when the Soccer World Cup has come to their own home country.

I expect you could easily take a very similar picture in one of Sao Paolo’s favelas, but this one was taken in the township of Alexandra near Johannesburg in 2010.

Nothing, it seems, can keep a determined kid from kicking the ball around.

This reminds me very much of South Africa in 2010. In fact, there are many parallels between the two countries and the two consecutive World Cups:

Both Brazil and South Africa are saddled with extreme divisions between the poor and the rich.

Both countries have a large population of young people, a certain vibe, a passion for football, as it is called everywhere but the United States, a flair for music and dancing.

Both have faced a lot of skepticism about their ability to pull off the miracle of getting everything ready for the World Cup, of providing the infrastructure and security necessary for such a large-scale event. In fact, Brazil’s recent struggles made South Africa look positively professional in hindsight.

Both teams wear yellow jerseys that can easily be mistaken for one another.

And in both countries you see, again and again, people rising to the top of their game against all odds. Kids from the slums who have everything stacked against them – no facilities, no access to professional coaches, no transportation, often not enough food – manage to somehow excel in their sport, armed with pure determination and grit and perhaps a nothing-to-lose attitude.

South Africa never made it out of the group stage four years ago, so there is one glaring difference to Brazil, whose team is in the semi-finals with a good chance to take the trophy. (Although this writer here is hoping for them to lose their very next game.) But those kids near Manaus sliding around an old barge converted into a soccer field very much reminded me of my Alexandra Baseball team a few years back. One time I arrived in Alexandra (always a bit nervous on account of the high crime rate and the multiple warnings to never set foot there as a white person) with a trunkful of baseball equipment imported from the United States. We dumped it all out onto the red clay near the house – some would call it a shack – of one of the coaches. A few kids were there, hovering excitedly, eyes eagerly on the bonanza in front of them but patiently waiting their turn to touch a glove, try on a jersey. Before I knew it, a pickup game had started and balls were flying through the streets of Alexandra, right then and there, no field necessary.

I suppose broken windows aren’t a concern where many are already broken.

But more than that it was the pure joy of the game that fueled these kids.

The excitement of new (or rather sort of old, to be honest) equipment arriving in Alexandra; I love how everyone ambled over to check it out, even the dog.
The joy of the game, wherever you happen to be.

Another time we were walking through a township near Cape Town. A hike gone a little awry due to my poor planning. I was trailed by my four grumbling kids and two visiting boys from Germany, slightly less grumbling out of politeness but nonetheless not very happy to be walking when one could have driven instead, or better yet, been treated to another exciting bungy jumping adventure or some such thing. All around us were the local kids kicking a soccer ball, or what passed for one: A wadded-up clump of newspaper taped together into something resembling a ball. They’d probably never heard of a bungy jump or known anyone who owned a car, and yet they seemed so happy trailing along behind us, almost mocking us with their playfulness. And of course they were very good.

If you love what you do you can do great things. How many of our own privileged kids with every toy at their disposal can summon that same kind of love for simply throwing or kicking the ball? I do wonder if my own kids will ever develop that same kind of passion for anything in life. For their sake I hope that they do.

I hope that Africa has taught them that.

I’m now going to veer away from soccer even though that’s what I started out with. But if you love the spirit of the World Cup, if you love the game of baseball, or if you’d simply like to be involved in something very special, check out what we’ve done with Alexandra Baseball in South Africa. You can also Like their Facebook page here.

And if you feel like it, make a small donation below towards much-needed equipment and transport expenses. 98% of all donations (can’t get around the PayPal fee) go directly into a fund managed by Natalie and Andy Irwin, who so graciously and competently took over the Alexandra Baseball project after my departure.

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