When A Game Is More Than A Game

6 Oct
Aerial

CETS stops ACE defender at Worcester World Cup 2017.

On a sunny Saturday in August, I find myself totally absorbed as Togo wins a thrilling soccer – OK, real football ­– match over Myanmar on the second day of an international competition featuring teams from five continents. Only this showdown isn’t the World Cup most of us know, but the Worcester World Cup, now in its 12th year. And as clichéd as it sounds, the winners won’t be limited to Togo, or eventual champion Italy – victory at Foley Stadium could be found even in the youth exhibition game.

Which, in fact, is what I’ve come to see. African Community Education, where I’ve often volunteered, was playing the kids from Cultural Exchange Through Soccer – which, in the spirit of Cultural Exchange, also featured some ACE kids. Therence, my friend and mentoring partner at ACE, is defending for CETS, while Jemal, the adoptive son of my friends Joanne and Chris, is his normal fleet self at the opposite end of the field, putting pressure on the ACE defenders.

One of the hidden victories, of course, was that they are there at all. As refugees, they have seen their share of impoverishment and danger in Africa, as well as all the hurdles of adapting to life in a new country. Much of the work of their young lives lies simply in closing the gap between themselves and native English speakers. Often kids I meet at ACE came to the U.S. knowing more languages than I ­– who didn’t even take a foreign language course until I was 36 years old – and many a day I feel linguistically inadequate by comparison with the students I’m supposedly helping. But English isn’t one of the languages most of the ACE kids happened to know before they arrive here. Every day offers challenges in both doing written work and in decoding the language and culture swirling around them.

Therence stop

Terence thwarts a shot on goal.

But this is soccer, a physical language they know by reflex regardless of whether they speak the verbal languages of their opponents – a poetry of physicality offering its own richness of rhythm and rhyme. Here their actions are fluid and easy as they work the ball back and forth toward a common goal.

Which is a lot like Cultural Exchange Through Soccer itself – an organization that, from the beginning, was about much more than a sport.

“The original CETS vision was to unite neighbors in a diverse and seemingly divided neighborhood,” one of the organizers, Laura Suroviak, will tell me later via email. “Soccer came first for some of us. Community organizing/building for others. We found the perfect balance.”

Over the years, the program has evolved in surprising ways, with plenty of success stories along the way, according to Suroviak. One surprise was the emergence of a youth program to go along with the adult competition.

“CETS has become a successful youth leadership development organization over the years, without that having been an original intention. Our evolution has been very organic, which makes it successful to the core.

“Every time a young person who had joined simply to belong or to play soccer takes on a leadership role in our organization, it’s a success in the eyes of CETS. The success stories are innumerable.”

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If success stories ­are measured by lives changed for the better, they extend beyond all of the immigrants on the field  to the fans in the stands. I’m a mere mentor to Therence, a strong and confident student who is blessed to have both parents and all his siblings with him here in Worcester, but when he shuts out the opposition for his entire half as a goalie, I still feel a surge of pride and joy as I click away with the camera on the sidelines. I can’t help but feel blessed – as if undeservingly invited to be part of a community, and a world, so much larger than myself.

Meanwhile, I’m lucky enough to be sitting with Joanne and Chris when Jemal, nimble and intuitive, take a shot from the side.

Sitting almost directly behind him, we follow the seemingly impossible arc of the ball he kicks – looping by first a clump of defenders, then the desperately reaching goalie twice Jemal’s size, before curling into the far top corner of the goal. We exclaim our disbelief over the sheer physics of the shot while teammates congratulate Jemal – who flashes his quick smile, then immerses himself again in the flow of the game, patrolling the field where he is, as much as any soccer player, a master of his own destiny.

Jemal kick

Playing for CETS against his ACE friends, Jemal takes a shot.

The African Community Education Fall Fundraiser is coming up Thursday, October 12th; learn more at ace.children.org. (Or consider volunteering at either ACE or any of the other wide range of non-profits working with immigrant populations in the diverse community that is Worcester, among them Ascentria, Southeast Asian Coalition, Worcester Refugee Assistance Project, Training Resources of America, and more. To learn more about CETS, including a list of high school matches involving athletes in the program, click here.

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