Monday, July 25, 2011

Equal Access, Equal Opportunity: Soccer in Japan & on Our Streets

The vast majority of publicity that has surrounded the Japanese women’s World Cup victory has been centered on their inspirational, spirited and emotional victory. And it should; it was. All tournament long the teammates poignantly reminded the world they were playing for their battered country, still reeling from the devastation of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.What’s interesting to me however is what little attention was made about how exceptional their feat was. They entered the tournament as underdogs. They beat the host country in the quarterfinals. Most thought that Germany had every advantage, not to mention home field! But what is even more impressive to me is that soccer in Japan, particularly for women, is limited to the elite. Japanese Culture and Daily Life reports that “Approximately 25,000 girls and women play soccer in Japan. Though these numbers have been increasing steadily in recent years, it is far from the 8 million who play in the United States. Girls who play soccer in elementary school often have to give up once they go to junior high or high school because there are no girls’ teams at that level.” The only girls that remain competitive and active in the sport are those who either have access to a club team or attend schools that can afford to support and manage a team. The Japanese national team draws from an exceptionally small pool.

This is an unfortunate reality because if any sport is both accessible and universal, it’s soccer/football. Unlike some sports such as rowing, lacrosse and golf that require expensive equipment, technical instruction or specialized facilities, soccer simply requires a ball. In El Salvador, I watched people play without shoes, in Mexico we simply used logs to mark the goal and even in the inner-city of East LA, I saw young people use a basketball court as their field. Soccer is in no way defined by gender, race or class. I believe the only sport that might be more egalitarian is running. Thoughts?

To prove my point, consider an exciting and interesting opportunity that is taking place in San Francisco as well as many other cities in the US—street soccer. The players and the coach are homeless men and women. In his article, Soccer team helps homeless men move toward goals Kevin Fagan reports "Street Soccer is not just about sports. The idea is to enlist homeless people into soccer teams so they learn teamwork and feel the joy of doing sports with others in the same straits, all while being counseled to map out plans for improving their lives. Essentially, playing soccer is their path to overcoming homelessness."I learned about this program through the St. Vincent de Paul Society of San Francisco’s e-newsletter. “Sponsored by the St. Vincent de Paul Society of San Francisco, the Team practices regularly on a field near AT&T Park. The concept of street soccer is to enlist homeless people into soccer teams so they learn teamwork and feel the joy of doing something positive and fun with others in the same straits, all while being counseled to make plans for improving their lives.”

Whether is be bringing a little joy to a country that has endured so much sorrow and tragedy or healing the individual lives of men and women on our streets, soccer and many other sports has the power to transform lives, communities and the common good. Let’s keep sports accessible; the life lessons, physical activity and joy of the game(s) are too valuable.

Photo Credits
Street Soccer
Japanese Women Win
Equal Access, Equal Opportunity

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