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Culture & Community: A Look Inside Soccer Without Borders

Culture & Community: A Look Inside Soccer Without Borders

Dela Acolatse

6 p.m. in mid-September. One of Boston’s final days of warm weather. The equipment is set up. The field is put up. The players are taking their time. Talking about school and what they have on their socials. They were joking with each other. Shooting the ball around. The conversation is a mix of Spanish and Portuguese, with a touch of English here and there. Even after the coaches gather the players to begin practice, the conversation continues. But first, they all form a circle. Every practice starts in a circle. It features shirts from numerous leagues and countries, like Manchester United and Bayern Munich, Colombia’s Atletico Nacional, and the New England Revolution. The diversity is also evident in the backgrounds and cultures of these players: from Mexico to El Salvador to Bolivia. Spread across the Americas and even into Europe, Asia, and Africa. They are all linked by their passion of the game. The whistle blows.

It’s time to start another day at Soccer Without Borders.

Soccer Without Borders aims to use soccer to positively impact underserved communities by offering a safe space for youngsters to learn and develop skills for both on and off the field. Dribbling, shooting, and heading drills are combined with lessons on collaboration, respect, dedication, and pride. In recent years, SWB has had many reasons to celebrate. The organization now has four program hubs in the United States, as well as two international locations, Uganda and Nicaragua. The youngest hub, located in the East Boston district of Massachusetts’ capital city, recently celebrated its tenth anniversary.

‘Eastie’ stands above the general perception of Boston as a diverse and culturally rich neighborhood where immigrants come to start a new life. Today, Eastie is predominantly Latino and Hispanic. The neighborhood has a strong sense of community and is prepared to face any challenges that may arise, such as language barriers, health and economic disparities, and racial profiling.

Michael Rendon, SWB Boys Coach

“I’m from Chelsea, which is right across the bridge. Similar communities, very heavily immigrant, Latino heavy communities. Kids that would have been me or my friends growing up. Same backgrounds, recently arrived here and being first gen in America. I can just really relate to the kids, speak the same languages and really know the dynamics of having this opportunity.”

“Here in the US, it’s very much pay to play. If you don’t got money, you don’t get a lot of opportunities. Not a lot of chances to show what skills you have or, or just even the chance to play soccer in general, learn the game. So we’re here giving kids of all different levels and backgrounds to keep playing, make friends and make those connections that they otherwise wouldn’t have. So you can just really see them growing, becoming more comfortable with themselves and adapting to the country if they’re new. And just being able to provide that for them, it’s really nice. It’s something I wish was around when I was growing up.” 

When you go to a SWB practice, you can see certain elements of Eastie. Some of the players arrive immediately after school, only a few blocks from the beach. Others cross the bridge from nearby Chelsea to get to town. And then there’s the Blue Line, which Eastie residents rely on to get into Boston. The players do not need to go that far. While many of these players’ families arrived from abroad, practices were held at Memorial Park, which is located near the local airport. In the last year alone, 511 children from over 20 countries took part in a game, practice, or community event. A small but dedicated team of coaches and volunteers held them together through it all. Five of the eight coaches in attendance switch back and forth between English, Spanish, and Portuguese, much like in tiki-taka, to accommodate players who are more at ease speaking in their native tongue. 

The turf field is divided into three groups: high school boys share a half with middle school boys, and the girls have their own half. The coaches prepare the players for game time. They must exercise prior to playing. Then comes skill development. Yesterday, it was heading. Today, it is possession. Two-on-one challenges lead to three-on-five. Attackers who would normally take on defenders are now learning how to make the proper pass. Making the correct movements. Trusting their teammates more. All of that doesn’t completely go out the window during scrimmages, but when there’s an opportunity to show off and emulate the players the boys look up to, they’re more likely to take that extra dribble or blast over the small goal. Yes, the players, both boys and girls, are still learning. However, there is a burning intensity for such a young group, acting with the same passion as professionals playing for their club or country. Playing as if they’re a part of something bigger.

Caitlin Saupe, Girls Program Coordinator

“I started around the same time as some of the girls we have now. This will be our fifth season together. And they’re seniors now! The girls have more experience, we really built a good SWB culture with them. They’re really into being with each other and enjoying each other’s company on top of the soccer. And you can see that on the field when we’re playing in games. Just watching them, their growth and their skills, is really exciting. Seeing them from the very beginning, they start off really kind of unsure and nervous. And then to grow to fall in love with the sport and really develop their confidence and skills and trying positions and scoring goals. It’s all very, very special.”

The practices are part of SWB’s TEAM initiatives. SWB uses the acronym TEAM, which stands for “trabajando en equipo aprendemos más” (working as a team we learn more). There’s always an opportunity available for anyone in East Boston wanting to be a part of SWB. Coaches and volunteers organize games, events, and study sessions for players to focus on before practice. Children arrive at the park every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday, rain or shine. Parents who attend the games can even become volunteers themselves. SWB enables you to connect with others far and wide. Bound together through culture. Brought together by friendships, mentors, and family. Connected by the lessons learned outside of the game. That’s why so many players are alumni, eager to pass on what they’ve learned to the next generation of kids looking to find a place in East Boston to be their authentic selves. 

Karla Rodriguez, Senior Girls Program Coordinator

“When I moved to Boston, I wanted to continue coaching, to continue doing what I liked. SWB gave me that opportunity to continue that and to give me that stability in a new place. As a coach, we are pretty much preparing for game day: registration, transportation, equipment, getting the players who are coming ready and prepared. In the US, they can be stressed at times so it’s important to encourage them, to have a lot of team building activities and to have the more experienced girls make them feel comfortable. We need to make them feel like a team.”

The sky threatens to rain on the fields, but the weather is on the girls’ side today. They assume their positions and wait for the whistle to blow. When it does, it is no longer just the SWB girls messing around. Now they’re a team, working together to defeat a group of girls they’ve never met before, in a world far from the one they created together. Most Saturdays, they play against teams that don’t look like them, but rather represent the type of players who can afford to play competitive youth soccer every weekend. Most Saturdays, that’s the battle the SWB girls face, and they won today. 3-0. Clean sheet.

The skills demonstrated by the SWB girls at the game provide relief to their coaches, indicating that the lessons are getting to them. Of course, it helped that the SWB girls wanted to impress the visiting coaches from Oakland, Denver, and Baltimore who were here for a training retreat. This time, the youngest branch provided something to learn to the older branches, allowing them to pass it on to their own communities and cement new perspectives throughout the SWB organization. As the whistle blows to end the game, the girls rush to embrace each other in celebration. They calm down briefly for the postgame handshakes before going back to celebrating.

Bruno Contreras, Program Director

“I came to the US from Mexico, where I was using soccer to help indigenous communities. It had such a big impact on my life, so I wanted to continue this work and when I learned about SWB’s mission I loved it. That’s how I got here.”

“Our biggest challenge is that there’s need everywhere and not too many resources. It’s always hard to say no because we don’t always have the  capacity to branch out and expand to other neighboring communities like Chelsea and Everett who reach out to us as well. But we know that the need is there because gentrification in Boston, East Boston is real. It’s getting more expensive here and families are moving away. Our role is to go wherever they are, no matter what. And to support them every step of the way.”

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Jessica Black for Forty One Magazine

The teams scrimmage into the night, as the sunset fades into the moonlight. The whistle signals the end of the scrimmage, and the players, coaches, and volunteers slowly form a circle. Practice always ends in a circle. The players’ movements show signs of progress, fatigue, frustration, jokes, lessons learned, lessons remembered, and so on. You can also see it on the coaches. None of this was done overnight. This was the result of years of seeking out a community, establishing roots and bonds, and gradually developing trust, values, and traditions. A turf field in East Boston, where planes can be heard in the distance, is where this community of soccer players, young and old, thrives. Thriving because that turf field allows you to be yourself while playing the game you love, with friends, family, and mentors being by your side. A final chant concludes today’s practice, preparing to do it all over again tomorrow.

“SWB on 3! 1, 2, 3, SWB!”

“I’m from Colombia, so watching James Rodriguez at the World Cup definitely got me into playing. My friend told me to come to a practice one day and it gave me something to do. SWB helps build a better community, we’re able to bond and play together. Me and Alvin known each other for 6 years but we got close cause of here.” – Alejo, Boys Soccer Player

“I wanted to stay active during the soccer season at soccer and my friend told me to come to a practice. It helps having the community here, having SWB joining in and letting us use their jerseys and everything for free. Wanting us to play. Being really involved with your friends, and helping each other out.  It’s been a good experience” – Anoss, Boys Soccer Player

“SWB isn’t only soccer. It’s building a community and helping us become more confident with ourselves. You can score a couple goals, learn new faces and new friends. Next year our goal is to win first place.” – Alvin, Boys Soccer Player

“I’ve been in East Boston for about 8 years now but I’m from El Salvador. I came here when I was four. So like I barely knew anything. I didn’t know English at all. It was just like, a very different environment for me. A friend introduced me to SWB. It’s a very healthy environment here. We’re always supporting one another, cheering each other on, we encourage each other to try something new every day at practice. When we don’t know how to do something, the coaches always say that we can do it. You just need practice. So like anytime I’m out and I’m trying something new I go oh yeah, I can do it. I just like need to practice.” – Kimberly, Girls Soccer Player

“I’m from Guatemala, I got my love of soccer from my dad. I really started playing last year but two of my friends introduced me to the team and I thought, you know, I should just try it out. It’s helped me adjust here because now I know my way around East Boston. If I want to get around somewhere just go to practices, you’ll find your way.”  – Lindsey, Girls Soccer Player

“My sister played with SWB before me, soccer is big with my family, so that’s how I got started. My favorite memory was scoring three goals in a game…a hat-trick!” – Sophia, Girls Soccer Player

Words & Photography by Dela Acolatse

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