‘Only the ball matters’: Soccer unites refugees in Clarkston
Note: article originally published in The Talon: Dacula High School’s newspaper, and is published with permission.
“Los niños no pueden juegan fácilmente,” (The kids cannot play easily) Carlos, the Argentinian soccer coach tells me, on a cold Saturday afternoon, right before Christmas in Clarkston, Georgia. A group of friends and I had been traveling to Clarkston for the last few weeks to spend time with the children of refugees. In Clarkston, people come from an unimaginable number of places: Nigeria, Malaysia, Burma, Chad and more. In Clarkston, an unimaginable number of languages are spoken: Arabic, Malay, French, Spanish and more. In Clarkston, religion is not homogenous. But in Clarkston, there is one thing many have in common: soccer.
Returning to Carlos, without him, even something as simple as soccer would have been difficult for these children (not to mention all the other difficulties, such as adequate food, electricity, space and education). Every Saturday, Carlos brings soccer nets and balls so the children can play. While playing, one thing I notice is every time the ball goes out of play, Carlos blows his whistle and yells, “Get the ball and score in whichever goal!” Meaning, there were not any specific teams. How could there have been? An entire neighborhood worth of kids came to play, varying from ages eight to young adults, all trying to occupy the field for even just a few minutes of play.
When only the ball matters, people’s differences do not get in the way of that. In fact, the more different people are, the better. The kinds of people I met on the pitch were incredible. There was an eight or nine-year-old kid named Zidane (who happens to share his name with legendary French soccer player Zinedine Zidane) who after scoring, would always perform backflips for the fun of it.
About half an hour later, there was a Malaysian kid, probably around the same age as Zidane, who asked me if I was Muslim. When I responded yes, he did two things. The first was a simple Arabic greeting of As-salaam-u Alaikum (May peace be upon you). The second was a bit more surprising but perhaps the most rememberable. He waved to a group of other Malaysians, his family, and invited them to come to greet me. Simply because just like him, I was Muslim.
That cold, wet, muddy, uneven soccer field was not just home to a blend of different ethnicities or religious backgrounds. Gender was not a restriction either. Zidane’s sister joined in soon after her brother did, being the only girl on the field. Within minutes, she dribbled past the near ten kids who tried to take the ball, took the ball past two more boys on the right, then with unchallenged control over the ball, ran back towards the center of the field and scored in the bottom right of the net.
Despite the torturous freezing and windy weather, the line of people wanting to play seemed endless. It seemed that even a dog wanted to play, as out of nowhere, a small brown dog decided to ran on the field. As my friends and I were trying to figure out who the owner of the dog was, Carlos decided to have some fun and joined in the soccer game with the dog in his hands.
Clearly, soccer is of high importance in Clarkston, but why is Clarkston important? After Atlanta United delivered the city the MLS Cup title, it became clear that soccer is a part of Georgia’s identity and is here to stay. That includes Clarkston. In a situation where one does not have much in life, many resort to soccer. The best soccer players in the world do not always come through academies or colleges. They come from places where soccer is the life of the city, where the city is fertile soil to produce soccer players.
Lyari, Rio de Janeiro and Clarkston. What would all three of these places have in common? In their respective countries, they are home to some of the poorest people but produce the best soccer players. Despite the people of Clarkston not having as much food or housing or excellent schooling as the rest of the state, their soccer players, at a young age, are far better than those in other cities and will only become better and stronger in the future.
Why is Clarkston important? As far as the future of the soccer landscape goes in Georgia, Clarkston very well could be a part of that future. When differences between people are no longer a barrier, people prosper and unite. In this case, in Clarkston, people’s differences are celebrated which unite people towards one goal: the ball.