Sports: A winning goal

Illustration by Dave Cutler

From the January 2016 issue of The Rotarian

Anyone who spends a weekend morning or weekday evening as a casual observer of a youth sporting event is likely to come away thinking that too many adults take kids’ sports far too seriously. Whether it’s parents who harbor illusions that their children are destined to make the pros or coaches who entertain delusions of Vince Lombardi grandeur, there always seems to be someone on the sidelines or in the bleachers with no apparent misgivings about barking dubious advice at a player or beefing at a referee.

In my experience as a baseball coach in a local league whose motto was “Fun, friendship, and fundamentals,” each season brought new occasions to pull aside an overeager dad or uncle and suggest that he take a timeout. One of my pet peeves was stubborn adults who griped about having to stop play at the sound of thunder unless it was raining, evidently believing that getting wet posed a bigger danger than being struck by lightning.

Scott Hanlon, a family practice physician in Chicago, is one parent who takes youth sports – in particular, soccer – very seriously. But he does so with a higher intention than pushing his three sons toward a full ride to college on an athletic scholarship. Hanlon believes that the game most people call football can play a big role in achieving a big goal: building a more peaceful world.

As a teenager in the 1980s, Hanlon played on a soccer team that participated in several international youth tournaments in Europe. At the Dana Cup in Denmark, Hanlon’s squad played a team from the Soviet Union.

“At that time, our biggest enemy was Russia,” he says. “It was embedded in my mind as a child that Russians were bad people. Well, like any game, while the teams were warming up, we shook hands. And then we had a great game – we lost 3-1. The thing that had a huge impact on me was after the game. The coaches had arranged for us to all have lunch together. Some of the kids spoke English, and there were translators. We had the unique opportunity to learn for ourselves that these were good people, friendly people. They wanted to have a fun life just as I did at that age. It really opened my eyes.”

Two decades later, in 2006, Hanlon began putting up posters in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood, where he and his wife lived, with the goal of starting a recreational youth soccer league. About 50 kids signed up the first year, and with the help of other volunteers, the fledgling league began to grow.

In 2010, Hanlon made the acquaintance of Matt Miller, a 23-year-old soccer player from the United Kingdom who had come to Chicago in hopes of playing professionally for a Major League Soccer team. Injury forced him to scrap that plan, but Miller, who had experience teaching youth soccer camps, proved to be just what the doctor ordered. Under his stewardship, the league, Chicago KICS Community Academy, expanded to attract more than 1,000 boys and girls.

“I’m the guy who planted the seed, and Matt is the one who cultivated it,” Hanlon says. In 2014, they organized the Chicago KICS International Youth Soccer Cup, a weeklong tournament that attracted teams from the United States and five other countries. There are bigger and older international youth soccer tournaments – including one in Minnesota started in 1985 by a group called the Sons of Norway and another in Florida hosted by Disney/ESPN – but Hanlon thinks Chicago is an especially good setting: “We have so many different nationalities represented in our neighborhoods.”

In its second incarnation last summer, the Chicago KICS tournament drew teams from Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Israel, Pakistan, Palestine, Puerto Rico, and Ukraine. Hanlon hopes the tournament is providing kids with a similar experience to the one he had as a teenager.

Scout Murray, an 11-year-old midfielder who plays on KICS United of Chicago, says that playing soccer against kids from other countries “is really special, really cool. The coolest part is realizing that these people are just like me. They speak a different language, but they’re playing soccer, just like me.”

Scout says that to get in a competitive spirit before a game, it usually helps if she can find someone to dislike on the opposing team – for instance, a player who looks to be showing off during warm-ups. But when she played against a team from Guatemala, she had a much different frame of mind. “I wondered if they were scared or nervous,” she says. “I wondered how they feel to be so far away from their home. I think I would be scared if I were in another country. I would like to do what they’re doing, but I would be nervous.”

For a group of teenagers from Pakistan, the Chicago KICS tournament was the midpoint on a world tour that also included matches in Brazil and Norway. “Our goal is for our kids to learn about different cultures,” says Asim Azfar, a U.S.-based representative of the Azad Foundation, an organization headquartered in Karachi that provides shelter and education and health services for some 2,000 homeless children – including the 16 members of the Pakistan Street Children Football Team. “We want to make them feel important, to understand that they have value.”

Luis Carlos Lobo, 15, is a member of the champion team from Costa Rica. The tournament marked his first time out of his country. “It is a really great experience,” he says. “We learn much about the culture of people all around the world.”

Luis and his teammates stayed in a dormitory at the Illinois Institute of Technology – temporarily renamed the “International Village” for the tournament. There they ate meals and played pingpong with players from other teams. While competing in the championship game, Luis was aware of his new friends from Pakistan cheering on his team. “All I can say – they are amazing,” he says. “They are good people.”

The Israeli and Palestinian teams sat together during an outing to a Chicago White Sox baseball game. “I did occasionally sense some tension from some of the visiting parents,” Hanlon says. “But the children didn’t seem to have that. Which to me is one of the keys – getting these kids together at a young age. I think all of us need to have a better focus on our common humanity and not on our differences. Something like the KICS Cup, which gives peace a louder voice, can have an impact.”

At the tournament’s closing ceremony, on a warm summer evening on a Lake Michigan beach, hundreds of kids from different countries marveled at a fireworks display, danced to a DJ, and took photos of each other with the Chicago skyline as a backdrop.

Surveying the scene, Luis said soccer “can absolutely bring people together. I have made new friends here.”

Paul Engleman is a Chicago-based freelancer and a frequent contributor to The Rotarian.

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