Every four years, the World Cup shines a light on international soccer.
Players who left their homelands on one continent to play in another return to their national teams. Others, with only tenuous connections – via an absent parent or barely known relative – don the jersey of a country they barely known. Fans travel around the world, wearing scarves and waving flags in support of their nations.
But for millions of people around the globe, borders mean something much different. Facing pressures of politics or poverty, they leave the land of their birth for an uncertain future. The journey is especially wrenching for children. Arriving in a new place, they must learn a new language, make new friends, learn new customs.
Soccer can be a crucial bridge. The field is where they meet people, are active, and — perhaps for the first time in their lives – get to be kids.
Soccer Without Borders is an international organization that helps them do that. Established in 2006, and founded on Nelson Mandela’s belief that “sport has the power to change the world,” it has a direct, life-changing impact on thousands of refugees and their families.
With year-round programming at 42 sites in the USA and abroad – including 79 teams, 44 camps, 16 league seasons and over 100 community events – it leverages 83 full- and part-time staff, over 130 youth leaders and more than 250 volunteers to provide marginalized youth with coaching, equipment, transportation and activities.
It operates hub programs in Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts and Oakland, California — serving recent immigrants, asylees and refugees from over 70 countries of origin who speak more than 50 languages — and in Nicaragua and Uganda. All of it is free, to every participant. Those are the statistics. The individuals tell the story behind the numbers.
One is Mary Connor. She was not a refugee. But when she was young, her family moved to Germany. She did not speak the language. But she could play soccer, and that was all she needed to know at recess.
Playing at a high level – Dartmouth College, then professionally in the WUSA and Iceland – she made lifelong friends. She was an assistant coach at Lehigh University too, while earning her master’s in sociology.
Ben Gucciardi, a fellow grad student, wrote his thesis on how the soccer field could be a “living classroom” and transform communities around the world, an idea that would become a nascent Soccer Without Borders. Mary asked how she could join him. The answer: launch the organization’s first girls’ program in Nicaragua.
As they saw its success – using the sport for youth development, education, and community-building – they took a leap of faith. In 2010, they quit their day jobs, and devoted themselves to Soccer Without Borders full-time.
Mary (née McVeigh) Connor was a first-round pick in the 2003 WUSA draft, chosen by Philadelphia Charge coach Mark Krikorian along with goalkeeper Hope Solo. "I remember Hope and I both came from colleges on the quarter system," Connor said, "so we spent a lot of time during that first preseason at the Villanova library finishing our exams.” For the Charge, whose 2003 squad included 1999 U.S. World Cup winner Lorrie Fair, French star Marinette Pichon and England star Kelly Smith, McVeigh started 16 of her 18 appearances during her rookie year. "Every day was this balance of playing like I always had, and being star-struck from playing with these women who were my soccer idols.” says Connor. But the WUSA folded after the 2003 season. McVeigh Connor took her career to Iceland club IBV before returning to the USA to coach and earn her master's degree.
At Dartmouth, Connor majored in philosophy. She never took a business course. But she read voraciously on non-profit management.
“Building a non-profit, there are so many moments that you feel like ‘this is the day things will crumble’,” she recalls. “You don’t know what you don’t know.” But whenever they sought help, someone believed in their mission of inclusivity, welcoming and belonging — and backed up that belief with funding.
Over the years, the founders honed their focus. It now encompasses two core focus areas: social inclusion for newcomers (including refugees, asylum-seekers and recent immigrants), and gender equity.
“Our teams are not always at the top of the standings,” Connor says. That can happen when 11 players speak half a dozen languages, or many are playing the sport for the first time.
But that’s not why Soccer Without Borders fields teams.
The organization has six mantras:
• We’re glad you’re here
• You play best when you’re smiling
• Celebrate the pass more than the goal
• Get them to the field
• Know the thingy thingy
• Leave your shoes at the door
If those ideals sound similar to Ted Lasso’s: They are.
“Everyone gets his spirit, and what he exudes,” Connor says of the fictional, optimistic (and inexperienced) coach.
So it seems like a natural fit that when Brendan Hunt (the actor portraying Coach Beard, Ted Lasso’s friend and assistant) competes on “Celebrity Jeopardy!” next month, he’ll designate Soccer Without Borders as his charity of choice.
The charity has a compelling need. Whether it’s Syrians fleeing civil war, Afghans affected by war or Latin Americans driven away by poverty or gang violence, the migrant crisis is real. Some Congolese refugees served by Soccer Without Borders’ Uganda program have been awaiting resettlement for more than a decade.
Those large-scale stories are important. But for Connor, her work always comes down to individuals. Her face lights up when she talks about Hasly, an 8-year-old she met in 2008 in Nicaragua. Hasly had never played soccer. But she kept returning. At the end of high school, she won Soccer Without Borders’ first-ever university scholarship. Now she’s graduated.
“She’s an exceptional young woman,” Connor says. “But she’s not the exception at Soccer Without Borders. We get to see and support young people reach their full potential and find their path forward every single day.”
As a player and coach, Connor kept track of statistics. Now she understands that “soccer is not about numbers. It’s about connections. That’s what makes the world of soccer so meaningful.”
And although it’s a world with borders, her organization proves that soccer can move far beyond them.
(For more information, go to SoccerWithoutBorders.org).