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Photo: AP
Before the Australian men’s soccer team’s first World Cup appearance in 1974 (pictured above), the team competed in war-torn Saigon.

Young, ambitious Australians, playing for their country for free in 1967, didn’t know any better when they accepted an invitation to a soccer tournament — in Saigon. I heard this story on WBUR radio’s Only a Game. It is beyond amazing.

James Parkinson reported, ” ‘It was one of these stories that you heard at a bar with colleagues and ex-players, and you thought, “Is this really true? Could this really be a thing? Surely this didn’t actually happen,” ‘ sports journalist Davidde Corran says. ‘Except that it really did actually happen. It really was the way that they told it.’

“It was November 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, when an international football tournament was held in Saigon. Eight nations would compete: New Zealand, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, then South Vietnam and Australia. …

” ‘We were the pawns in the game to win over the South Vietnamese people, so it was a PR exercise,’ says Ray Baartz, a former Australian national team player, from 1967 to 1974. …

“There was little time for the players to think about the potential dangers of sending civilians into a war zone.

” ‘I think it was about a matter of weeks. We’re on the plane off to Vietnam. We didn’t have too many discussions about it,’ says Stan Ackerley, who represented Australia from 1965 to 1969. ‘These days, you would think twice about going.’ …

” ‘Well, the first, biggest shock we got was the amount of armed people we saw — soldiers, sentry points all over the place,”‘ Stan says.

“Bombers here, and fighter planes here, there and everywhere,” Ray says. “You thought, ‘Hello, we are in the middle of a war zone,’ you know? And we got through the airport, and then into the bus to take us to the hotel and had a police escort all the way.” …

” ‘They went to this briefing at the embassy, and one of the things they were told was, “Be careful of people riding on bikes because it might be someone who’s a threat, and they could mistake you for an American or a soldier and attack you and shoot you,” ‘ Davidde says. ‘[These] players, in this completely new surrounding, walk out of the Australian Embassy, and what do they see? Just a city filled with people riding around on bikes.’ …

“The players discovered the proprietor of their hotel had stolen their food vouchers, leaving them with nothing but substitute ham. And Stan received an electric shock, thanks to exposed wires in his room. Even the training pitch was questionable.

” ‘The training field was a real quagmire at the best of times, so you couldn’t train there all the time because of the conditions and that,’ Ray says. ‘It was really a cow paddock. You know, quite often we’d train on the roof of the hotel, just to keep the body moving a little bit. We weren’t allowed to train on the main stadium.’

” ‘There would have been this surreal sight during this short period of the Vietnam War, where footballs were just falling off the top of this building, this hotel, every day during training,’ Davidde says. …

“The tournament began with a group stage. Australia was drawn into Group A alongside New Zealand, Singapore and hosts South Vietnam.

” ‘The army was going around the stadium with mine detectors and so forth, and then you think, “Oh, hello,” ‘ Ray says. …

” ‘You gotta bear in mind that these players — a lot of these players were playing for the national team unpaid,’ Davidde says. ‘You’re taking annual leave to go and play for the national team — you’re sacrificing to play for the national team.’ …

“The Australian team’s PR mission had, in some ways, managed to work. The Vietnamese people had just seen their own team eliminated in the other semifinal. They also loathed the South Korean soldiers. So they began cheering for the Australians. …

” ‘To be part of the first tournament that we ever won was fantastic,’ Ray says. ‘You know, we were all so thrilled and so proud to be a part of it.’

“The magnitude of Australia’s performance in the Friendship Tournament cannot be overstated. Not only did they perform on the pitch, but they did it in remarkable circumstances, and all for the honor of representing their country.

” ‘To play for your country, you have to sacrifice a lot,’ Stan says. ‘So we sacrificed a lot, you know?’ ”

Wow. More at Only a Game, here.

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Photo: Lisa Wrightsman
When soccer player Shauntel Payton attended the Street Child World Cup in Brazil, she says, “A lot of people kinda didn’t know why I was there. Like, ‘How are you homeless? You’re from the United States.’ ”

I hope readers don’t mind that I keep revisiting favorite themes. Since there are always new followers, I have to assume not everyone is familiar with the topics near and dear to my heart.

One such topic, covered here in 2014, concerns the sense of freedom that street soccer can provide to people experiencing homelessness. The 2014 story took place in Chile. This one, by Martin Kessler at Only a Game, is from California.

“Seventeen-year-old Shauntel Payton is the second oldest of five children. … Growing up, Shauntel and her siblings lived with their grandparents. She says her mom was in and out.

“But around 2010, Shauntel’s mom moved into a transitional housing program outside Sacramento for adults who had been in homeless shelters or rehab centers. She was recovering from addiction. Shauntel and her siblings joined their mom. Shauntel liked living there — there were lots of other kids.

” ‘All the kids knew where I was coming from,’ she says. ‘We all came from somewhat of the same background, so we all kinda just connected.’

“Around the same time, another resident named Lisa Wrightsman was trying to start a soccer team.

“Wrightsman was a former college player. She was also recovering from addiction. When she moved into the transitional housing, she realized Sacramento had a Street Soccer team for men. But not for women. So she decided to start one.

“And if she wanted to recruit women, she was certain of one thing: Children had to be welcome at practices. … That’s how Shauntel and her siblings ended up at the very first practice for the Sacramento Lady Salamanders.

“The idea was that the kids would sit and watch while their moms practiced. But when the Payton kids started wrestling on the sideline, Wrightsman realized that plan wasn’t going to work. …

“So Wrightsman invited Shauntel and her siblings to scrimmage against their mom and the five other players. …

“Shauntel says those practices were important.

” ‘It was like a different vibe when we would go there,’ she explains. ‘We kind of connected better than we would’ve, I think, without having some type of outlet to come together and do something as a family.’ …

“As Shauntel’s siblings got older, they gravitated to other sports. But Shauntel stuck with soccer.

“When I step on the field I just feel like a brand new person,’ she says. ‘And when I shoot the goal, it’s like a feeling like I’ve never really felt before. It’s like freedom.’

“And that brings us to an event called the Street Child World Cup. Every four years, the World Cup host country holds a competition for children who have been homeless.

“In 2014, Wrightsman nominated Shauntel to join the U.S. team in Brazil. …

Shauntel had never left the country. But in Brazil, she met boys and girls from Zimbabwe, Burundi, the Philippines, and 15 other countries.

“Some of the kids were surprised to see Shauntel and her U.S. teammates.

” ‘A lot of people kind of didn’t know why I was there,’ she says. ‘Like, “How are you homeless? You’re from the United States?” I was really shocked. And I was like, “I don’t know.” ‘

“The kids shared their stories. One Indian boy told Shauntel how he spent his days working for pocket change to help his family. And how he saw his dad abuse his mom.

” ‘It made me kind of think back to my life and how much I took for granted,’ Shauntel says. …

“Shauntel says as soon as she got back to the U.S., she gave all her siblings big hugs and started crying.” She says the trip made her more hopeful.”

More here.

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My, but we work hard at the office. At 4 today, everything stopped and we went to the break room to watch the World Cup. A co-worker from Ghana called his brother. Everything had stopped in Ghana, too.

In honor of the world’s fascination with soccer today, I am posting a futbol story from Bill Littlefield’s radio show Only a Game.

At the show’s website, Ellis O’Neill describes an encounter he had with homeless soccer: “It’s 9 p.m. and the sun went down long ago, but that’s not stopping this group of about 20 young men from playing soccer under the bright lights of a turf field in Puente Alto, a poor suburb to the south of Santiago, Chile.

“Homeless Soccer aims to offer the benefits of sports to Chile’s homeless. It’s been so successful that, over the past eight years, it’s grown from one team that practiced in one Santiago park to almost 100 teams all over the country.

“Domingo Correa is a longtime participant in Homeless Soccer. He first joined back in 2011, and his nickname is Jack Sparrow. With his long dreadlocks and beard, his piercings and rings and his high, sharp cheekbones, he lives up to the name. But Correa doesn’t have a pirate ship, much less any treasure. For 15 years, he lived on the streets of Santiago.

“ ‘There’s no way out, you know?’ Correa said. ‘You think everything has been lost. You have no hope of finding stable work. Also, I had been involved in crime, so I had “stained papers,” as we say here: I had a criminal history. The distance between society and living on the street is enormous.’

“One day, while Correa was watching a Homeless Soccer practice in a Santiago park, the team’s psychologist invited him to join in. He decided to take a stab at it, and he liked what he found. For the first time, there was a group of people that was always there for him – every Monday and Wednesday evening on the soccer field.”

Read how soccer changed Correa’s life, here.

Reminds me of what running means to the Back on My Feet homeless folks that my friend Meg told me about, here.

Highlights from the 2011 Homeless World Cup

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If you’re a country called Ireland and your soccer team doesn’t make it into the 2014 World Cup competition in Brazil, what do you do?

Change the “r” in your name to “c” and adopt another team.

I like David Trifunov’s headline at the Global Post, where you can read the background: “Iceland closes in on World Cup bid. Wait … Iceland has a soccer team?”

He continues, “Iceland is now one game away from becoming the smallest nation ever to advance to a World Cup. … It started in 2008 when the national economy, under the weight of an inflated currency, tanked.

“The modest Iceland soccer league cut ties with nearly all its more expensive foreign players, leaving the door wide open for homegrown talent. They took advantage, getting the experience they needed. …

“Ireland is one frustrated World Cup nation that has taken notice. At least the fans have. Eoin Conlon and friends were lamenting their country’s failed attempt to reach Brazil when he realized there’s only one nation that deserves their support now.

“ ‘And we kind of laughed, saying: “Well, that’s as close as Ireland’s going to get to Brazil. It’s only a letter difference. A ‘c’ for an ‘r.’ We might as well be brothers,” Conlon told Public Radio International.

“So they struck up a website and Twitter profile to encourage Irish football fans to back tiny Iceland.

“ ‘There are only about 320,000 people in Iceland,’ Conlon told PRI. ‘So if they were a county in Ireland — I’m calling them the 33rd county — it would [be] only the fifth-largest county in Ireland.’ ”

More here.

Photo: (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)
Iceland’s striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, right, and Croatian defender Vedran Corluka vie for the ball during their World Cup playoff in Reykjavik on November 15, 2013. 

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The Friday NY Times Giving section addressed innovative approaches — large and small — that nonprofits are developing to improve the world. Reporter Ken Belson described one organization that makes a practically indestructible soccer ball for kids who are stuck with playing on rough terrain.

Tim Jahnigen has always followed his heart. whether as a carpenter, a chef, a lyricist or now as an entrepreneur. So in 2006, when he saw a documentary about children in Darfur who found solace playing soccer with balls made out of garbage and string, he was inspired to do something about it.

“The children, he learned, used trash because the balls donated by relief agencies and sporting goods companies quickly ripped or deflated on the rocky dirt that doubled as soccer fields. …

“ ‘The only thing that sustained these kids is play,’ said Mr. Jahnigen of Berkeley, Calif. ‘Yet the millions of balls that are donated go flat within 24 hours.’

“During the next two years, Mr. Jahnigen, who was also working to develop an infrared medical technology, searched for something that could be made into a ball but never wear out, go flat or need a pump. Many engineers he spoke to were dubious of his project. But Mr. Jahnigen eventually discovered PopFoam, a type of hard foam made of ethylene-vinyl acetate, a class of material similar to that used in Crocs, the popular and durable sandals.

“ ‘It’s changed my life,’ he said.

“Figuring out how to shape PopFoam into a sphere, though, might cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and Mr. Jahnigen’s money was tied up in his other business.

“Then he happened to be having breakfast with Sting, a friend from his days in the music business. Mr. Jahnigen told him how soccer helped the children in Darfur cope with their troubles and his efforts to find an indestructible ball. Sting urged Mr. Jahnigen to drop everything and make the ball. Mr. Jahnigen said that developing the ball might cost as much as $300,000. Sting said he would pay for it.” More.

Today the One World Futbol is making a positive difference in the lives of many children.

Photograph:  Nicholas Hammond
The One World Futbol stays inflated, even when used on concrete in El Salvador.

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The Manhattan Paris Saint-Germain soccer team is made up of both rich and poor boys from many cultures. Coach Wilson Egidio thinks the team’s diversity is part of its success.

Vivian Yee has the story at the New York Times. She writes that Amara, for example, “joined the team after an eagle-eyed former player for Mr. Egidio spotted him playing on a Bronx playground. [He] wound up scoring the goal that made Paris Saint-German the first Manhattan youth club to reach the national playoffs.

“For the players, their coaches and parents, the team’s diversity is a source of success as well as pride. Their international styles, they say, add fluidity and creativity to their game.

“Combined with Mr. Egidio’s Brazilian approach — he grew up in Brazil and played professional soccer there — that could be key in the national tournament.”

Click here to read about this week’s competition and the backgrounds of the players.

Photograph: Christopher Gregory, New York Times

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