It’s June 2010 and World Cup fever has arrived. Americans, largely indifferent at best to the world’s most popular sport, are coming out of the woodwork to cheer on the US national team. Names like Donovan, Dempsy, Howard, and Altidore are thrown around like Manning, Jeter, Bryant and Woods on any other day.
However, for the other 6.4 billion people on Earth, the World Cup is as big as it gets. Bars are packed at all hours of the night for live match broadcasts, town squares are crowded with locals jammed around one large screen to share the action, and national heroes are waiting to be made.
Perhaps most importantly, with this World Cup, Africa has the chance to prove its ability to organize and host international events of the greatest scale. This is a moment of pride for the whole continent.
But the World Cup action doesn’t end in South Africa. Grassroots soccer organizations all over the globe hold their own World Cup tournaments from time to time and celebrate life and sport without thousands of cameras, multi-million dollar bonuses, revolutionary light-weight cleats, or Shakira there to cheer them on. Here are just a few:
Refugee World Cup
Nine teams of refugees from conflict-addled countries including Bhutan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq and Myanmar (formerly Burma) duked it out in the common language of soccer in a land newly their own.
Ali Kareem, the captain of the Iraqi team who came to the US after being injured in a bomb blast and exiled to Jordan, explained in a KQED radio interview the significance of the games. “For refugees, when they came here there are so many challenges like the language, finding a job, and soccer is the only thing they really manage and they know how to do. So they really want to play to prove themselves to prove that they are really good enough. So soccer, it’s like their thing.”
Homeless World Cup
The Homeless World Cup takes place annually to bring attention to the problem of homelessness in effort to end it. Additionally, it provides players an opportunity to build confidence and pride while representing their country and working toward something inspiring and meaningful in their lives. According to the organization’s website,
“The impact is consistently significant year on year with 73% of players changing their lives for the better by coming off drugs and alcohol, moving into jobs, education, homes, training, reuniting with families, and even going on to become players and coaches for pro or semi-pro football teams.”
True to the nature of homelessness, which cuts across nationalities, races, genders and ages, players can join men’s, women’s and co-ed teams as long as they’re over 16 and have been homeless some time in the last year.
This year’s Homeless World Cup will unite 56 nations and take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil this September. Check out the footage from the 2009 finals in Milan, Italy here.
Amputee Football World Cup
This year’s Amputee Football World Cup (organized by World Amputee Football) will be played in Crespo, Argentina in October. Teams attending the tournament each tend to change with the availability of funding; however, the USA, France, England, Brazil, Argentina, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Turkey, and Uzbekistan should be expected to field sides.
Amputee soccer started in the 1980’s as a rehabilitation and strengthening exercise for single leg amputees, but it quickly grew into a competitive disabled sport. The game has a few simple adaptations. Field players on crutches dribble and kick the ball with their functional limb, but cannot control or block the ball with the crutches. Use of a partial limb or crutches to intentionally control the ball is treated as a hand ball. Goalies have two functional legs, but only one functional hand and arm. After that, have at it.
Amputee soccer first came to my attention in 2007 when I visited Uganda. News reports discussed the Ugandan team preparing for the All-African Amputee Football Championship and Amputee African Nations Cup. On a continent where medical care is scarce and war has ravaged populations for decades, amputation is not entirely rare and soccer not entirely forgotten.
Countries that have emerged from merciless civil wars like Sierra Leone and Liberia have a lot of healing left to do. Amputees on the streets symbolize their past horrors. While many of these amputees are victims of the bloodshed, most are former combatants now shunned from society. Few have the opportunity to work, so almost all survive on panhandling. For these people, amputee soccer provides a seed of hope for a world of acceptance, peace, and normality. There are compelling videos about players in Liberia and Sierra Leone here and here. Check out a professional conflict photographer’s photos of the Liberian team here.