Soccer, Salvation and Why It Matters

There are a lot of words in our language that used to hold great meaning and impact, but which now, unfortunately, serve mainly as convenient reference points.

A good example is the concept of "hell", a word that for previous generations conjured up images of fire and terror and torment but which more recently is a term we use to describe, say, spending Thanksgiving day stuck in a house with our inlaws or having to sit through a Detroit Lions game.

We've become so comfortable with the kinder, gentler concept of hell that we lose sight of the fact that across the globe, in far, far too many places, millions of people wake up every morning and stare hell square in the face.

From the Balkans to Central Asia to much of the African continent, belonging to the wrong tribe or the wrong religion or the wrong clan can - and often does - make you and your children the target of organized, government sanctioned efforts aimed at eliminating you. Governments that use food as a weapon of social control and the police as instruments of political enforcement. Governments that arm young men - and children - with everything from sophisticated military weaponry to crude homemade machetes and turn them loose on anyone and everyone that might vaguely be considered a threat.

Places where backing the losing side in an election doesn't mean that you spend the next four years sulking and whining in internet chat rooms, but rather that men come to your home in the dead of night and drag you away. If you're lucky, you'll spend the next decade in one of the foulest, most brutal prisons on Earth while your family huddles in a UN refugee camp.

If you're not, you simply disappear.

In response to this wave of human suffering, Western governments search for ways to ameliorate the misery, which usually amounts to negotiating with the very people who are creating these disasters in the first place. Food aid gets siphoned off to the army. Financial aid is simply stolen. Trade credits are used to buy more guns. And the innocent continue to suffer and die.

In fact, the only sure and certain way to save most of the people who suffer under these conditions is to get them the hell out of there, but as a practical matter no country is able to absorb the waves of humanity that would result from trying to save them all. The US, therefore, conducts lotteries to select the lucky families who end up getting shoved onto an airplane in some God-forsaken hellhole and emerge 12 hours later in the US which, to the stunned and bleary-eyed survivors, might just as well be China or Neptune as far as their ability to relate to local society is concerned.

And therein lies a tale of misery and redemption and hope and football, and how one person has chosen to make a difference.

The just released book Outcasts United: A Refugee Team An American town written by New York Times reporter Warren St. John, is the story of what happens when one unbelievably determined woman agrees to start a soccer club for refugee kids from every pit of despair on Earth.

They call themselves the Fugees.

When the US government began accepting large numbers of refugees from around the globe they established Clarkston, Georgia - population 7,000 - to serve as a settlement community and proceeded to stuff the place with 19,000 destitute, non-English speaking, badly traumatized human beings with nothing whatsoever in common with either the locals or each other except the desire to live their lives in peace.

From Burundi and Serbia and Rwanda and Iraq and Azerbaijan and Liberia and a dozen more international basket cases the flotsam and jetsam of humanity's self-hatred are packed into apartments located an hour's bus ride from the chicken processing and hotel room cleaning jobs that occupy whatever adult family member managed to survive just long enough to escape while the children have to try and fend for themselves in a culture heavy in gangs and drugs.

Into this chaos and insanity came a young American-educated Jordanian woman named Luma Mufleh, who is herself a variety of refugee, having rejected the kind of social restrictions good Muslim girls are expected to accept.

Mufleh agrees to start a soccer club for refugee children and thereby begins an extraordinary journey that St. John documents with a reporter's eye for detail and a novelist's feel for the complex myriad of emotions each of the players has to find a way to deal with every day.

It's a story that boils down the very essence of soccer; young men from every war-torn corner of the globe who don't speak the same language or eat the same food or worship in the same fashion are nonetheless able to relate to each other through the universal language of a sport that is as much a part of their individual cultures as their language.

Because of course football is the world's game, the one thing that kids from everywhere have in common, and their love of the game is the only thing that many of them brought with them out of hell. The one thing the thugs and murderers and kleptocrats couldn't steal from them.

What's ironic of course is that they all ended up in the one country on Earth where soccer doesn't much matter, and Mufleh's struggles with the local authorities over the right to practice on vacant baseball fields and in public parks would be sad enough even if she weren't doing it for refugee children that the locals resent anyway.

The real struggle however, the heart of the story, is how this incredibly stubborn, single-minded woman manages to get her players to begin to trust each other, play as a team and, in the end, succeed in a society they still don't fully understand.

I've read that Hollywood has taken an interest in the rights to [ame=""]Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town[/ame], and I encourage you to read it before they get their hands on it.

I say that because there are two ways they will interpret this story for commercial release: the first would be "The Bad New Bears Play Soccer" with Sandra Bernhardt as Walter Matthau, herding a lovable bunch of rag-tag losers through a season of zany antics.

Which would almost be preferable to the other - more likely - treatment, which is "Mississippi Burning II: The Soccer Players", wherein a bunch of small town southern Klansmen organize a harassment campaign aimed at chasing a bunch of foreign kids out of their town.

What is guaranteed is that they'll never get the real point: that it's soccer itself that makes it all possible; it's soccer which has an almost mystical power to dissolve racial, ethnic and social barriers that seem otherwise insurmountable and while it can't solve the problems of governments it can and does provide a connection between people of every race and religion that all the politicians and propaganda on Earth can't prevent.

In the end, the biggest problem Mufleh has to face is not the narrow mindedness of the average American when it comes to soccer or the chronic lack of equipment or decent facilities. Those are serious obstacles, to be sure, but she keeps finding ways to overcome them.

Rather, her biggest problem is the set of inherent prejudices her players bring with them as the legacy of their individual cultures: Kids from the Balkans don't like the Central Asians who look down on the North Africans who denigrate the Southern Africans who disparage each other based on what tribe they're from or what religion they follow.

How she manages to use the game itself to get all of these kids to come together as a team is a fascinating story, and one which I highly recommend. And maybe, like me, you'll find yourself hoping that someday, when Mufleh is done with the Fugees, we can get her to come to work for the rest of the world.