By January 12, 2018 0 Comments Read More →

Trend Alert: Soccer and “Shithole Countries”

As the President of the United States dignifies the discussion of immigration by referring to Haiti, El Salvador, and various African nations as “shithole countries,” immigration is very much on my mind—for a much different reason.

A recent story in the Chicago Tribune highlighted the triumph of the Sullivan High School soccer team, a group of kids comprising “refugees, asylum-seekers, and immigrants . . . who escaped dire circumstances” in Tanzania, Mexico, Congo, Rwanda, and other countries. (Check out the article for a six-minute film that puts faces to names and shows their championship-winning goal.) The story brought to mind a 2017 book I reviewed recently, One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together, by Amy Bass, that tells the complicated, fascinating, and truly inspiring story of a team composed mostly of Somali refugees who won their Lewiston, Maine high school’s first-ever state championship. (There’s a film in the works for this one, too.)

Bass’s book isn’t the first of its kind: Soccer fields offer a natural place for this country’s newcomers to find their feet and, despite the xenophobia and racism many of them encounter, athletic skill provides its own kind of entree in our sports-obsessed society. Almost a decade ago, I reviewed Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town, by Warren St. John (2009), about a soccer team in Clarkston, Georgia, a sleepy town that somehow found itself hosting refugees from more than 100 war-torn countries. And Steve Wilson’s The Boys from Little Mexico: A Season Chasing the American Dream (2010) tells a similar story, focusing on an Oregon high school’s mostly Mexican team and the social and economic factors facing them. A perennial playoff contender, Los Perros continually fall just short—a fact that the author pins on not a lack of ability, but a lack of belief in themselves. Given the harsh realities the team faces, it’s not easy for their well-intentioned elders to build their confidence.

Published before all these books was Paul Cuadros’ A Home on the Field: How One Championship Team Inspires Hope for the Revival of Small Town America (2006). In Siler City, North Carolina, Latinos arrived in droves to work in poultry-processing plants, changing the dynamics of the town. A newly formed team at Jordan-Matthews high school, the Jets, won a state championship within three years but faced racism, resistance, and the simple challenge of facing better-funded teams along the way.

The idea of using soccer to assimilate has itself assimilated. In David Starr and Dirk McLean’s new Soccer United: Team Refugee series for reluctant middle-grade readers, kids are given insight into the lives of other kids from war-torn countries through the lens of a sport nearly all of them are familiar with: soccer is now the third-most played team sport in the U.S., ahead of even the game we call “football.” (We just published our review of one of the titles, Golden Game, today.)

In all of these narratives, new arrivals struggle to overcome fearful, small-minded people. Although real-life sports championships aren’t as transcendent as they are in the movies, they can help begin to change the way outsiders are perceived. Even more meaningful are the thousands of small interactions players and their families have with teachers, coaches, other students, fans, and even local businesses. The simple fact of contact is humanizing.

Unfortunately, one of the loudest voices in the immigration debate is that of a man who eschews meaningful human contact and, just as bad, doesn’t read.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of six books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Matchstick Castle (2017). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

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