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How Soccer Builds Bridges

How Soccer Builds Bridges

Alex Botwin
September 21, 2013

Soccer, the sport I play and love, is the only sport that is played in every country in the world. Soccer, through tournaments like the World Cup, brings people together, exposes them to different cultures and promotes tolerance among countries (by the way the next World Cup is in 2014 and Brazil is hosting – Go Argentina!). Players are treated like “Demigods” by their very dedicated and loyal fans. They root for teams and players that are half a world away.

The greatest player in the world in 2012 was Lionel Messi from Argentina, who plays for the Barcelona Football Club. He scored more goals than any player in the history of soccer in one calendar year. He is so popular that when he broke the record it was on the news in the United States, where soccer is still not very popular. There are more kids in the world wearing a Messi jersey than Derek Jeter, Lebron James or Tony Romo jerseys combined. The sport is so popular that countries that dislike each other can still compete against each other on the soccer field. Where else in the world can you see an Israeli team compete in a non-violent way with a Palestinian one?

When I first started this project I was not sure where this topic would lead me. It began when Rabbi Peter first gave me an article to read about a boy my age who lives in Israel, who was the only Jewish player on a Palestinian/Israeli team. I found that interesting for two reasons: one because I am the only Jewish player on an all-Spanish team and two because I did not know anything about Israel except that it was a Jewish country in the Middle East. The boy’s name is Lior and after talking to Rabbi Peter we decided that he would talk to Lior’s father and if they both agreed, I could email him and see what happened.
When I first emailed Lior I asked him questions about his life. He told me that he grew up in a little town in the mountains named Tuval in the northern Galilee. He told me about his family; he has a twin sister, Talia, and an older sister, Galit, who is currently in the army, and he also has an older brother named Eitan. When I asked him why both his sister and his brother were in the army, he told me every citizen of Israel has to serve in the army for three years when they turn eighteen. This is very different than what happens here in America; when you turn eighteen you are required to sign up with the Selective Service. Since the US Army is made up of all volunteers there is no mandatory service. I don’t think I would like to have to go into the army after high school because I would be scared that I might be sent to fight a war.

Lior has family in both England and the US. His family has a house in Bantam Lake, Connecticut and it is his favorite place in the world. We told each other about our soccer teams and about what our favorite subjects are in school. Mine are math and science; his are history, biology, and citizenship. When I asked him what citizenship was he told me it was learning about human rights, about the Israeli Knesset (the congress in Israel) and also about the history of Israel.

Lior also told me that at his school you only can pick one sport as an after school activity, and you have games every week. I found that interesting because I play many after school sports depending on the season. This past year I not only played soccer, but also basketball and baseball, and I’m currently playing football. He plays the Midfielder position in soccer, which means he does a lot of running during the games. The midfielder plays both offence and defense. I prefer playing defense because you don’t have to run as much. I asked him about his favorite soccer player and he said that he liked both Cristiano Renaldo, who plays for the Real Madrid soccer club in Spain and Lionel Messi, who plays for the Barcelona Football club. My favorite player is also Messi. Isn’t it funny how two Jewish boys from opposite ends of the world both like the same Argentinean soccer player, who plays on a Spanish soccer team? If this doesn’t prove that soccer is universal, then nothing else will. We also talked about what it’s like for him to be the only Jewish player on an all-Palestinian/Israeli team and I told him what it was like being the only non-Latino player on an all-Spanish team. He mentioned that his teammates were a little uneasy at first but they accepted him after they got to know him and realized that he could help the team win. Lior also told me that he knows Arabic, which he leaned in school, so it is easy for him to communicate with the other players and coaches.
My soccer team is called the Buena Vista Football Club and I play left defensive back. It is a Spanish team that plays in an all-Spanish league. It is very different from the teams I played on before. When I first started playing for the team I wasn’t sure what it was going to be like. I only knew one person on the team, David, whom I knew from playing with a different soccer club a few years before. At the first practice we had, I was worried whether they would they accept me as part of the team. David vouched for me with the other players and after that first practice they accepted me as part of the team.

What I find both interesting and occasionally frustrating about this team is that sometimes the coaches speak to me in Spanish, so I don’t always understand them; I have to ask them to say it again in English because my Spanish isn’t that good yet. We play games all year long, but during the winter months we play indoor games at different school gyms around Brooklyn. These games are very interesting because they are played on a small basketball court. Many families, some with very young children, come to watch the games, and sometimes these little kids run across the field during the games, so you have to watch out for more than just the ball. There is always Spanish music playing during the games and there is always food available before, during and after the games. They don’t only serve what you would normally expect like water, Gatorade, and candy. They serve fresh homemade tacos, burritos, and cup a’ soup. With all the different kinds of food served, it feels more like a fiesta than a soccer game.

What I’ve learned from this experience is that soccer helps promote friendships and an understanding of different cultures and backgrounds. It was interesting and fun learning about Lior and his family. It’s interesting how two people from different parts of the world, who both love soccer, can get to know each other. I learned a lot about Lior and his family through this process. Not only does he love soccer and his family, he likes to spend most of his time outside in the beautiful mountains of Tuval. This also could be the reason that he does not like playing video games.

I also did some research and I found out a few things about Israel: it is about the size of New Jersey, and its population is 7.7 million people, which is smaller than the population of NYC, which is 8.3 million. Israel also has a Premier Soccer League, with 14 teams that compete against each other. When doing my research about Israel I came upon an article about a youth soccer team in the northern part of Israel up near the Golan Heights that is made up of both Jews and Arabs from local towns. They arranged a soccer game with Druze Arabs, who live on the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. This is part of a movement to have soccer build bridges between religions and countries. The kids played their game and when they were done, both teams shook hands and congratulated each other on a great game. I think that is pretty amazing. With more games like that between countries and religions soccer can truly build bridges between people.

What is great about a project like this is that you get to learn new things about other people and other countries. I really enjoyed getting to know Lior and his country. I now have a better understanding of what it’s like to be a teenager living in Israel. It was interesting to learn that even though we live very far apart and in different countries we have many things in common. Now when Lior talks about the little town in the mountains called Tuval, in the northern Galilee, I can look at a map and say that is where my friend Lior lives. I do also hope to be able to meet Lior one day either when he comes to visit his family in Connecticut or if my “wonderful” parents decide to t