At 2:30 EST tomorrow, in Ankara, Turkey, a soccer team representing the United States will take on Russia in an opening round game in a World Championship tournament. They will proudly wear uniforms that say "US" on them and - as one of the pre-tournament favorites - fully intend to bring home the Cup.
At which point we should all meet them at the airport and tell them two things: 1) "Congratulations" and 2) "We promise to do better".
About ten days ago a kind reader sent me a link to a letter written by someone I admit I had never heard of named Yon Struble. It's dated July 2 and reads, in part:
"The US Deaf Women's National Soccer Team leaves for Ankara, Turkey (for the Deaf Soccer World Championships) on July 12th and due to unfortunate circumstances, we have no uniforms."
Turns out that Struble is the head coach of said team - which won the Gold in the last two Deaf Olympics - and they were scheduled to get on a plane on the 12th with nary a jersey, warmup or pair of socks to their names.
Now if you were at all aware of the US National Deaf Soccer Team - and if not you're far from alone - you, like me, probably assumed that the United States Soccer Federation took care of this kind of thing for them.
Unfortunately, they don't and therein lies the story:
To give you an idea of how these teams (Men and Women) operate, here's Ken McDonald, coach of the 2008 Men's team that competed in the inaugural Deaf World Cup in Patras, Greece:
"We did not receive a single cent from anybody."
"I had to wash our uniforms in my hotel bath and hang them off the balcony after our games"
By comparison, the teams from England and Italy each had tournament budgets of around $100,000.
"England had five full time coaches and a medical staff with them"
"They even employed a full time Kit-man to wash uniforms. They had a budget of $20,000 for the tournament just for uniforms." Embarrassingly, it gets worse.
In 2008, and again this year, the USA players each had to come up with $5000 to cover their own rooms, meals and travel expenses.
This after having had to pay their own way to national training camp, along with meals and lodging. Needless to say, there are a number of players - who are, after all, either current college players or recent grads - who simply can't come up with the money.
As for those 2008 men: they ended up playing the well-funded and well-trained Italians and kicked ass. (They lost to the eventual winner, Turkey, in a semifinal shootout.)
(Before you ask, the only concession to their disability is that in addition to blowing a whistle the referee also waves a flag. And, it should be noted, all of the players came up through regular youth, premier and college teams. They've played the game their whole lives without the flag thing anyway)
Back to Struble and this year's women's team:
Apparently the umbrella organization, US Deaf Soccer - which used to be members of USSF but who let their membership lapse because they didn't think they were getting much for it - believed they had an arrangement with the fed for uniforms to wear at their World Cup in Ankara.
But when they arrived, all that was in the box were one set of Men's US home and away kits.
(By comparison, when teams like the US 15's or 17's trundle off to one of their tourneys they each need a personal Sherpa to help carry the tonnage of free gear they get.)
But when the US Deaf officials called USSF and explained that they also had, you know, a WOMEN'S team, they were reportedly told to just split them up.
Except that a) men's uniforms don't really fit women very well and b) are you freaking kidding me?
(For the 2009 Deaf Olympics, the women did have to wear baggy, ill-fitting Men's uniforms but didn't complain because, as one official noted: "beggars can't be choosers". BTW: they won the gold anyway)
To their great credit, when the USSF and Nike became fully aware of the situation they apparently busted some serious ass and, despite a temporary shortage of women's shirts, got some men's 17's sizes whipped together - for a "substantial discount" - in time to stuff the boxes on the plane to Ankara.
To be as fair as possible to everybody involved, the whole thing appears to have been caused by a communications breakdown. When they finally got the right people's attention and they completely grasped the problem, the folks at Soccer House and Nike got a full set of uniforms, from scratch, made up and delivered in about 8 days.
Additionally, the situation got a bunch of attention from around the country and a number of individuals, groups and commercial outfits stepped up with cash and donations that enabled the team to have matching Nike backpacks (the women were so thrilled that they posted photos of them) as well as actual matching warmups and training outfits, something they've never had before.
(The rule always was "bring a pair of black shorts and socks from home, along with a white and a blue shirt." Sort of like your local U9 boys.)
So the women, who were having trouble finding 18 matching shirts to wear against the Russians tomorrow, will actually look neatly turned out when they take the pitch.
As I said, they're thrilled, delighted and proud to be wearing US on their shirts. Sadly, the rest of us don't have a whole bunch to be proud of in all of this.
Interestingly, Russia provides their athletes with full year round training support as well as performance bonuses. Not to mention decent uniforms they don't have to beg for.
So, as another example, does the Ukraine.
In England, the FA not only funds their teams and coaches but works to assemble teams of players with roughly equal skills and put them in appropriate leagues. They also have a program called "Pathway" which monitors talented individuals, moves them to better teams and leagues as appropriate and, if the situation calls for it, puts them into the camps conducted by the various national teams.
Italy and others - Japan among them - do much the same.
In short, they make certain that players who happen to be deaf have as much opportunity as everybody else.
What a concept.
Not that there aren't some heroes here.
For example, since they have no money to rent training camp facilities, when the teams needed a place to hold their final pre-tournament camps, the Columbus Crew arranged for free lodging, fields and food from local benefactors and then gave both teams the use of Crew Stadium for friendly tune-up games as the opening matches of a Crew triple header.
They also got time with a local longhair guy:
Said surfer-type was also seen slamming beers with them in a pre-Crew-game party tent. Imagine.
Yesterday, in their opening match, the US Men defeated South Korea and will play Germany on Thursday. The women will play Japan on the 20th and Germany three days later.
Just to make it clear, the people with US Deaf Soccer I have spoken with all express great appreciation to US Soccer and Nike for their help in making sure these teams are appropriately outfitted, and are particularly lavish in their praise for the heroic last-minute efforts on behalf of the women's team.
They also say that, after this tournament is over, they'd like to sit down with the USSF and see if there isn't a better way of operating going forward.
Because beginning the day after they return, win or lose, they're going to have to start fundraising for the 2013 Deaf Olympics. Reportedly they will need $200,000 from somewhere in order to participate.
Having to overcome obstacles is something that they're used to and it shocks me how uniformly cheerful, optimistic and upbeat these people are about all of this. They don't mind that getting to play soccer representing the US is hard; rather, they expect it and embrace the difficulties because they consider it an honor.
They expect it to be hard.
All of which is great as far as it goes, but all of us - up to and most definitely including the USSF - need to see if maybe there are some things that could be done to make it a little LESS hard.
Edit: If you're fortunate enough to have a few doallrs you won't miss too much at the moment, you could hit their Paypal button and spend the rest of the day feeling like a Rockefeller.