Friday, June 11, 2010

"Beautiful Game"

A few weeks ago, after we'd been talking about fundraising for orphans in Africa, a friend pointed out the cover of the May 24 issue of Sports Illustrated, which featured a group of boys playing soccer in the streets of Angola. Inside were photos of children playing soccer in various other nations, and a series of articles previewing the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament, which starts today. I smiled at the happy faces of schoolgirls running on a field in Bhutan, and enjoyed reading about Didier Drogba from Ivory Coast, whose immense popularity has afforded him some positive political influence in Africa as well. My favorite image was a photo of three little boys squatting curbside in the sprawling slums outside Nairobi, Kenya; one looked friendly, one looked fierce, the third appeared to be sizing up the photographer... but what really grabbed my heart was their homemade soccer ball: just a bunch of colored rags tied up with string.

It reminded me of hearing a report by our church's first mission team to Peru: one of the men on the team mentioned seeing two boys kicking an empty plastic coke bottle around a hillside, because they were so poor they didn't own a soccer ball. Something in my comfortable North American heart wasn't so comfortable with that idea, and i made sure to send a couple of soccer balls and a pump back to that village the next time we sent a team down to Peru.

I remembered another story i heard on my second mission trip to Guatemala in 2007: Tom, a tax attorney whose clients' net worth starts at a million dollars, told us he spent a few hours kicking a soccer ball around with some schoolboys in the Guatemalan village of Cruz Blanca, while the medical team was packing up to leave one afternoon in 2006. When our team arrived in Cruz Blanca to set up the clinic in 2007, one of those boys came running toward our bus, yelling as loud as he could, "Tomas! Tomas!" Tom had us all in tears as he pointed out that a relatively short amount of time spent playing a simple game made such a difference to that boy that he remembered Tom's name a whole year later.

There is a chapter in Austin Gutwein's book Take Your Best Shot called "One Pink Soccer Ball," in which Austin tells how he almost didn't pack the old soccer ball - back home in the U.S., he might have thrown it away - but after playing for a while with a group of boys in Zambia, he decided to give the ball to one of them at the end of the day. The next day, George's mother walked 12 miles in the African heat to give Austin a handwritten Thank You note from her son for that soccer ball. Austin writes, "George truly taught me what I thought I already knew...when we trust God to do something bigger than ourselves, it really does matter... You don't have to change the world; you change it for one person. Somewhere in the process, it changes you too."

This week's (June 14) issue of Time magazine features another set of soccer articles, calling the World Cup "a celebration of soccer as the great equalizer." The caption over a photo of children playing in the streets of Cameroon explains "why soccer is so well loved around the world: anyone can play - anywhere, anytime." It's a game that crosses cultural barriers, is not restricted to any one body type or social status, and requires almost no equipment except a "ball" (which, apparently, can be made out of just about anything). As i read my own "soccer stories," it seems like the common theme is really how little effort it takes to do something that makes a difference in the world. Anyone can do it... and what seems like a little thing to us may mean a lot to someone else.

"in this life we cannot do great things. we can only do small things with great love." -- mother teresa

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