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01-airport-welcome

Paul Watson (right) and Matthew Conrad arriving in Pohnpei to reenergize Micronesian soccer. Previous coach Charles Musana, from Uganda, came along to do introductions.

Sometimes giving up on your dream lands you in the wrong profession. That’s what happened to Paul Watson. He wasn’t good enough to play Olympic soccer. So he tried soccer journalism, but it bored him. Then he and his friend, just for fun, started researching teams they could have qualified for had they been born in those countries.

James Parkinson reports at the WBUR radio show Only a Game, “From the time he was very young, Paul Watson had one dream: to play soccer.

” ‘My first passion was that I would play for England,’ he says. ‘You know, that was the dream. Despite not having any talent, really. No discernible sort of natural talent. [As] the years went on, it got less and less likely.’ …

“So he became a football [soccer] journalist who kept his dream alive by playing for a semi-pro team. But he says, that wasn’t enough. …

“In 2008, Paul Watson and his flatmate Matthew Conrad found themselves reflecting on their footballing dreams, wondering what life could have been like if they had made it in the professional game.

” ‘We would sit around in the evenings and kind of watch Brazilian second division football and sort of lament our lack of talent,’ Paul remembers. ‘And, one day, like a lot of fans probably around the world, we came up with the thing of saying, “Well, what team could we have played for if we’d been born there?” … We trawled through the FIFA rankings, got to the very, very bottom. … That was when we found the non-FIFA rankings — you know, places that aren’t recognized by FIFA. At the bottom of that was this island, Pohnpei.’

“Pohnpei: it’s an island in Micronesia. Population: just over 36,000. …

” ‘We sent them an email to the address that we could find for them. And that was it. That was supposed to be the end of it. But it was only actually when their head of their FA got back to us and said, “You know, I’d love to help you, but I’ve just moved to London.” ‘ …

“That man was Charles Musana, a Ugandan who had spent 15 years on the island of Pohnpei playing and coaching football.

” ‘And he said to us: “You can’t go there and play. It’s harder to get a Micronesian nationality than it is to get a British one. … Why don’t you come over and coach? The team’s basically disbanded, so come over and coach the team.” And I think he thought we’d laugh about that and go home. But instead, we said, “Yes.”  …

” ‘It was a good sort of 13 months ’til we actually were able to leave because, you know, we had to save up money, we had to give up jobs,’ Paul says. …

” ‘My long-term girlfriend — and now wife, amazingly — Lizzie, basically said, “You should do this. It’s something you want to do.” …

‘Crazy as it might seem, the thing I was most worried about, that gave me sleepless nights, was that someone would get their first,’ Paul says. …

“After 13 months of research, Paul and Matt finally booked their flights to Pohnpei. They were only planning to stay for three weeks to assess the situation. …

“Charles Musana, the man who proposed the idea of coaching the team in the first place, would come along to make introductions. …

“After 24 hours in the air, Paul and Matt arrived in Pohnpei.

” ‘It’s a U.S. protectorate, so it has a bit of a U.S. feel to it,’ Paul says. “Uses the dollar. But in many ways, it’s a tropical paradise. You know, it’s this incredible, shocking greenery and beautiful blue ocean. It’s absolutely stunning. It’s just such a friendly island. Everyone nods to everyone. It’s incredibly laid back. You drive at about 10 mph, and you swerve around all the potholes.’ …

” ‘We met the head of the Olympic committee in Micronesia — he’s called Jim Tobin, a really amazing American man who’s administrated sport there for years. … We were going down to the field every day and just seeing what level of interest there was.

” ‘And it would range. You know, some days we had a five-on-five kick around on this sort of flooded field. Other days, it would get up to sort of 20 people kicking around. Some days, we’d arrange everyone to turn up at 6:00 — they’d get there at 8:00. You know, it was a mess. But there was interest, and there were kids coming out and kicking a football who’d never done it before. There was some who were actually clearly really good.’ …

“When their three weeks on the island were up, Paul and Matt returned home to plan their next move. For Matt, that decision was taken out of his hands. He had gotten into film school — something he’d always wanted to do. But Paul decided to return to Pohnpei and take the coaching job.

“There was no pay. …

” ‘In a weird way, I felt more comfortable that way. Because if I’d taken on a professional role and commanded a salary, it wouldn’t have felt particularly ethical. Because I would have felt I was painting myself as something I wasn’t. … I was getting more out of this than they were in many ways. So it felt like a deal that made sense.’…

“When he returned to Pohnpei, he met a young man named Dilshan Senarathgoda.

” ‘He had been coaching this group of young kids. So I met up with him, and he was absolutely over the moon that I was there,’ Paul says.”

Read what happened next at WBUR, here.

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real-kashmir-7-591a66101b34d7f508201129db96670cb2626d2a-s600-c85

Photo: Furkan Latif Khan/NPR
In wartorn Kashmir, there are Muslims and Hindus who who would rather play soccer than spend their lives fighting. Above, loyal Snow Leopards fans watch a game.

In every part of the world, no matter how troubled, there are always people who would rather play ball.

I have to blame the British colonial empire for leaving behind the seeds of war everywhere it went, chopping up countries without attention to the needs of the people living there. But thank goodness that human nature and the love of peace is strong! There are always some folks who have no interest in fighting.

Kashmir, created by Partition as the British left India, is an example of what I mean. Today, because of the way the country was divided, Kashmir knows constant war between Hindus and Muslims. Despite that, two friends, one Hindu and one Muslim, started something beautiful.

Lauren Frayer writes at National Public Radio (NPR), “They play soccer in a disputed Himalayan valley prone to car bombs, strikes and heavy snow. Soldiers with machine guns patrol their home stadium. Players sometimes have to arrive at practice three hours early to avoid police curfews. Their team is less than three years old, with a budget that’s one-tenth that of some of their competitors.

“[As of February 2019], Real Kashmir Football Club, from Indian-controlled Kashmir, [was] tantalizingly close to winning India’s top professional soccer title. They’ve been flitting back and forth between first, second and third place, and the season ends in early March.

” ‘We’re the only club in India that has sold-out stadiums at almost every game,’ says the team’s co-founder Shamim Mehraj. ‘What we have done is give people some hope in a place that has actually been taken down by conflict and violence for the past 60 years. It’s helping this place heal.’ …

“A natural disaster helped give birth to this soccer team. In 2014, the Kashmir Valley suffered devastating floods. Hundreds of people were killed. Schools were closed, and young people spilled out onto the streets of Mehraj’s hometown Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir and one of the largest cities in the valley.

“One evening, Mehraj and a friend had an idea.

” ‘We used to go for evening walks. We would see a lot of kids hanging around doing nothing, and I had been a footballer myself. That’s when I thought, “Why don’t I get some balls and at least give these kids something to do?” ‘ recalls Mehraj, 38. He had played for his college team in New Delhi, and for his state in amateur soccer tournaments.

“Mehraj, who is Muslim, and his Hindu friend Sandeep Chattoo, 52, got friends and neighbors to pitch in and buy 1,000 soccer balls, which they handed out to flood victims. But why stop there? In March 2016, they started a team.

“They applied for the team to compete in India’s I-League 2nd Division — the pro soccer equivalent of baseball’s minor leagues. Mehraj and Chattoo invested their own money to pay players’ salaries. They also hired a Scottish former player, David Robertson, who had been coaching a professional soccer team in Phoenix, Arizona, to coach Real Kashmir, a.k.a. the ‘Snow Leopards.’

“Robertson had never been to India, and admits he probably couldn’t have placed Kashmir on a map.

” ‘All I ever saw was TV shows that showed it’s 90 degrees — it’s hot in India! But I arrived here and the next day, it was snowing,’ says Robertson, 50, now in his third season as Real Kashmir’s coach. ‘There was no Internet, the electricity was out, and I just thought, “I want to go home.” ‘

“Mehraj invited Robertson over to his family’s house, gave him a hot water bottle and some home-cooked Kashmiri food — and convinced him to stay. Since then, Robertson has recruited his own son, Mason Robertson, 24, to play for Real Kashmir. By the end of the 2017-2018 season, several Robertson relatives were in the stands at the team’s home stadium in Srinagar, to watch Real Kashmir win the 2nd Division title. …

“[By February, the team was] neck-and-neck with Chennai City FC and East Bengal FC for the top title in Indian professional soccer. …

” ‘I never did think we would go this far,’ Mehraj tells NPR, as he looks out over the turf at Real Kashmir’s home stadium. …

“Kashmir’s 21 percent unemployment rate triple that of the rest of India and militant groups recruit from the ranks of young, idle Kashmiri men. Soccer ‘keeps him away from that,’ says Ishfaq Hussain, 52, a former professional cricket player whose son Muhammad Hammad plays center-back for Real Kashmir. ‘He thinks always about when to play, when to practice. He’s got no time to join politics or go shouting or pelleting stones.’ …

“His teammates include fellow Kashmiris and recruits from Africa, Europe and across India — including Muslims, Hindus, Christians and atheists. Mehraj says he can’t manufacture T-shirts, stickers and banners fast enough to keep up with fans’ demand.”

More of the NPR story here. Follow the rankings here.

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Northampton Town v Forest Green Rovers - Sky Bet League Two

Photo: Pete Norton/Getty Images
Reuben Reid (front) of the Forest Green Rovers in England went fully vegan after the team’s owner introduced healthful food. He says it’s made a huge difference in his life.

Even after the retirement of founding host Bill Littlefield, the WBUR show Only a Game continues to have stories that appeal to sports lovers and lay people alike. I got a kick out of this one about England’s vegan soccer team.

Gary Waleik was the reporter.

“The menu at sports events has traditionally been a bit limited … and unhealthy. Especially at soccer games in England.

” ‘On a match day, you’re looking at a lot of sausages, burgers, bacon sandwiches. Quick and easy fried food,’ says Forest Green Rovers striker Reuben Reid. His team is broadening its menu with healthier fare. But that’s just one part of a much larger mission.

“In 2010, Forest Green Rovers, then a fifth-tier football club in Nailsworth, England, was in financial trouble. Dale Vince, who loved the sport as a kid, was approached by the team.

” ‘They said they needed a little bit of help to get through the summer,’ Vince says. ‘And I thought it would be a nice thing to do — because we could, so we should. But within a couple of months, it was clear that they needed much more than just a little bit of money.

” ‘And they said to me, “You really need to be the Chairman.” And I said, “I really don’t. I’ve got so much else to do.” But I then faced the choice — if I walked away, they would fold.’

“It was heady stuff for a guy who, two decades before, was living a hermit’s life on a hill in England’s bucolic Cotswolds region.

” ‘I had an old U.S. Air Force radar trailer that I rescued from a scrap yard and converted into a home,’ Vince says.

“In 1991, he was traveling in Cornwall. And something caught his eye.

” ‘It was England’s first modern, proper wind farm,’ Vince says. … That inspired him to build his own windmill farm, beginning in 1996. He called his new company Ecotricity. It was a big risk.

” ‘When I got started, renewable energy powered about 2 percent of Britain,’ Vince says. ‘Last year, it was 30 percent. And we’ve grown to be a company of about 700 people supplying about 200,000 customers.’ …

” ‘I saw the opportunity to use football as a new channel to speak to a new audience of people about sustainability,’ Vince says. ‘It’s still a football club, but it’s become something else, as well.’ …

” ‘We cut red meat out of the menu straight away for the players. We did it across the whole ground at the same time, so staff and fans and visitors as well. And then we took a series of other steps over the next couple of years toward full-on veganism.’

“The team dropped all meat, fish and dairy. By 2015, Dale Vince was the Chairman of the world’s first vegan sports team.

‘There were people at the time that said, “You’re gonna kill the club. Nobody’s gonna eat it. This kinda stuff,’ Vince remembers.”

Read more here.

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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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