FIFA World Cup soccer (or football as most of the world calls it) is one of my favorite events and I look forward to it every four years. This year, while I was telling my five-year old nephew about it, I pulled out an old atlas and found a map of the world. I showed him where all the countries were that were playing that day, and that they were coming from Australia and Peru, which were on opposite side of this particular map, and meeting in Russia which was kind of in the upper middle of the map, and then I pointed to all the other countries from Senegal to Iceland to Saudi Arabia and South Korea. We talked about how amazing it was that people from all over the world, who speak different languages and have different cultures and customs come together in one place, just to play soccer together! Our conversation got me even more excited about the whole event, and I felt a bit of child-like wonder that it could happen at all, especially in today’s climate where some of the countries don’t always play well together when it comes to politics.
The idea that soccer can be an equalizer and even community builder, and that people who speak different languages can come together to play reminded me of a few times when I’ve used soccer as a way to connect with others who I couldn’t otherwise communicate with, particularly children. One example was when I was working in a refugee camp in Thailand for refugees from Burma. I was in an area of the camp where many children stayed alone because their parents were either still in Burma, in Thailand trying to find work, or who had died in the conflict. Most of the children spoke little or no English.
Often, the boys would come together on a soccer pitch, that was really a patch of rocky dirt, put a couple of markers down on either end for goals – sometimes a sandal, other times a shirt – and just play. A few lucky ones had gotten cleats or boots from an aid worker or volunteer, but most played barefoot. Having played soccer in the past, I decided to join them. Since I didn’t have anything but sandals, I too played barefoot. Initially I was not totally accepted, but after I got the ball once or twice and was able to make a few plays, they let me join in anytime. I enjoyed playing with them often. We couldn’t communicate through words but we had soccer.
I found this to be a useful tool again when I was in a remote village in the dry dusty plains of the Western Province of Zambia. During a field visit to this part of the country, I had the opportunity to spend the night in the village. There was a translator on the trip because no one from this area spoke English. There were many children around, and it appeared they did not get too many visitors that looked like me. Some were curious, others seemed a bit nervous. One had a “ball” made of bunched up plastic grocery bags bound with string and was showing off his juggling skills bouncing it from one knee to the other. Once when he dropped it and it rolled my way. Much to his amazement, I scooped it up with my foot, juggled it a few times and then kicked it back to him. From there, he and I and several other children spent the next hour running around playing soccer. There was plenty of laughter and comradery.
What makes these experiences meaningful, was not the game, but the love and joy and kinship and laughter that was shared. It was this love that spoke to each other, connecting us heart-to-heart, when words were meaningless. Though it was challenging conditions, and I was surrounded by seeming lack, loss and suffering at times, it was in this remote dusty village and that isolated camp in the mountainous jungle, where I saw that the power of love can break through any barrier even that of language. Perhaps it was the love of the game, the sheer childlike joy and love of play, the shared laughter, but I think these are expressions of a larger more encompassing Divine Love that is embracing each and every one of us each moment.