By Jim Paglia
Through decades of highs and lows at the professional level in this country, one aspect of soccer has remained unquestionably robust - the pick-up game. Take the short cab ride from Reagan International Airport to Washington DC, and you will see scores of pick-up games in the parks. Frat house lawns and common areas at college campuses are sites of coed pick-up games across America. During their free time in Iraq, it is common to see U.S. soldiers in sandlot games with Iraqi schoolchildren. Visit any famous beach in the world, and you can expect to see a soccer pick-up game.
Pele was visiting Chicago for a fundraiser for World Cup 1994. After the event, he approached me, gave me a hug, and with his arms still around my shoulders, he said, "You and I, we work so hard for soccer -- this game we love. Someday soon, we should go watch a game together, or maybe kick a ball around."
As unlikely as his suggestion may seem to the casual sports fan, I knew exactly what he meant. Soccer is unique among sports in the world because pick-up games happen in every corner of the globe. Anyone, regardless of background or skill is generally welcome to play. A pick-up game can break out anywhere and anytime people gather.
On a crisp fall Saturday, almost 30 years ago, in Chicago's Lincoln Park, a number of soccer acquaintances started a co-ed pick-up game. As we knocked the ball around, a familiar sounding voice with a heavy Boston accent asked if he could join in. Although we had never met before, one look at the reddish hair and remarkably striking facial features, and I recognized a member of the Kennedy family. Chris Kennedy, a lifelong soccer enthusiast, and the son of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy wanted in on our pick-up game.
Chris joined us and he proved to be a competent player. As I recall, we had doctors, a public defender, a city electrician, an elementary schoolteacher, college students, and no fewer than seven foreign nationalities represented that day.
As the Beckham celebrity hype swirls around the country, a professional women's league is set to launch next year. Youth clubs of all stripes are growing and merging like big business. U.S. Soccer has launched its Academy program for elite players. Clearly, hope springs anew for organized soccer in this country. However, what of the simple game?
A group of filmmakers, who also happen to be accomplished soccer players, will travel the globe to document the phenomenon, and to explore the mystery of pick-up games. They will visit industrialized nations, and remote, little known places where roads hardly exist to film their documentary The Soccer Project.
Regardless of the path of organized soccer in this country, one fact remains -- pick-up games have flourished for generations. I view The Soccer Project as the counterpoint to those people who insist the growth of soccer in this country can only come through more organized play. The producers expect part of the film's commercial success to come from the interest of non-soccer enthusiasts who are intrigued by the human condition that contributes to pick-up soccer.
The Soccer Project is a well-conceived idea, organized by expert and accomplished individuals. With much of its funding already in place, filming will start in South America, move to Europe, and then other locations. I have begun to correspond with the principals of The Soccer Project, and intend to follow their progress right up until the film's release. If you would like to learn more, visit their web site, www.thesoccerproject.com.
Jim Paglia is a nationally recognized brand strategist who lives outside Chicago. He has an extensive background in soccer ranging from the NASL, to NCAA Division I, to World Cup 1994, and 30 years of club administration and coaching.