By Cesar Diaz – NEW YORK, NY (Mar 23, 2012) US Soccer Players — Recently, I came across of an August 1958 issue of Soccer News. With the motto of 'It Covers the Nation’s Pitches,' the publication gives us a glimpse of what the game was like in the United States at the time. If you wanted Manchester United manager Matt Busby's autograph, there was a classified ad that could help. How about coaching college soccer in Puerto Rico? Colegio of San Juan was looking for a coach, interesting in and of itself since that country was more associated with baseball and boxing in the 1950's.
One article – U.S. Soldiers in Europe Attracted to Soccer – explained how American military personnel stationed in Germany were picking up the game. Several of the soldiers interviewed spoke with enthusiasm about soccer, while admitting to a lack of finesse as they learned the basics of the game.
54 years later, I wondered what has changed. Certainly, the exposure to the game and one would assume a more organized outreach to use it to breakdown cultural differences as well as enrich the lives of service personnel through the sport.
I contacted United States Armed Forces Sports and spoke with the Armed Forces Sports (AFS) Secretariat Steven Dinote. Based in Texas, the Armed Forces Sports has been in existence since 1951. Made up of members from each branch of the Military, this multi-sport program is open to all Active Duty personnel, both Reservists and National Guard on active duty.
“With having a member from each branch, we work collectively in ensuring the Armed Forces Sports includes eighteen Armed Forces Championships, seven National Championships and twenty International Championships,” Dinote said.
“Our level of competition is open to members and their families. We have an Intramural team, All-service Championship, and an Armed Forces championship which each branch competes in. This is an excellent program for our soldiers because along with the opportunity to be a high-performing athlete, they’re representing our country in sports competition against another country.”
Dinote reported that through their soccer program, they conduct soccer clinics within their community and through competition, their squads have had to interact with other armed forces worldwide. That international program is conducted through the Conseil International du Sports Militaire (CISM), founded in 1948 and based in Belgium.
“While it’s understandable to be view our soldiers as representatives of their respectable branch, the one thing the AFS highlights is their humanity,” expressed Dinote. “Our high-performing athletes are individuals who in many ways represent the good of the United States.”
It’s fantastic that the AFS is available for our soldiers, and there’s also a need for programs for our soldiers who have returned home. That's especially true for those that have suffered loss of limbs. One program that has made a difference for soldiers who have been seriously injured is the American Amputee Soccer Association. I spoke with the organization's vice-president, Eric Westover, about the work his organization is doing for returning military personnel.
“Many of the soldiers who return have left behind their fellow soldiers. So there’s a need for them to not only adjust to life as a civilian but to also build new friendships,” Westover said. “Through the training that we provide, we have noticed a change in their self-esteem. For many of us, we were already athletes and for the rehabilitation that many of us have to endure, that competitive streak is never gone. If anything, many of us feel we have to work just as hard in convincing others not to feel sorry for us. The only way we’re able to do that is through competition.”
Now preparing for their upcoming friendly match against Mexico on April 14th, 2012 in Mexico, Westover was proud to report that they were able to recruit two players for the National Team through the Wounded Warrior Project who they trained with recently at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
But what about using soccer specifically for outreach, given the game's global appeal and the steps those soldiers were attempting to take in Europe way back in 1958? I found two groups working in that direction.
Formed in 2007, Balls Without Borders works with the military and other organizations to get soccer balls to children in what they describe as areas "affected by armed conflict and natural or man-made disasters."
Another, Kick For Nick, shows the ability of one individual to inspire while reminding us of the dedication and sacrifices made in the line of duty by military personnel. As explained on the organization's website, "While home on leave from Iraq in July 2006, Private Nicholas Madaras rounded up as many soccer balls as possible to bring back to the children near his post. Being a passionate soccer player, he wanted to give the balls to the children as a gesture of good will. Unfortunately, Nick was killed by an IED on September 3, 2006 and was never able to distribute the balls himself. Instead we have taken up a crusade on his behalf to fulfill his dream."
Cesar Diaz is a freelance writer for several online soccer publications. If there's a soccer topic you believe needs to be written about, please feel free to contact him. Easily approachable, you may contact him at CoveringSoccer@gmail.com and @CoveringSoccer.