During the most recent World Cup Games, Americans suddenly woke up to soccer after a stubborn history of denial the rest of the world never could figure out. Soccer is fun, it's simple, it's universal, and it's a social equalizer because it doesn't require expensive equipment. At a high level, there's a lot of money in soccer. There are passionate fans, big brands, big business. More at the street level, it's a powerful tool for social change.
Here are five reasons why:
All over the world, kids and adults come together to play soccer, and the physical place they meet--the soccer field--has become a community center, a hub for other activities. "Many community-based organizations around the world have found soccer to be an extremely, often uniquely, powerful platform for non-formal education, especially for social issues affecting young people like sexual health, gender inequality, unemployment, lack of education, conflict resolution and more," writes Mike Geddes. Geddes heads the US chapter of streetfootballworld, a network connecting over 100 soccer organizations in 60 countries.
About 17 percent of Americans under the age of 19 are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The social and economic costs to society are well known, and studies show that the risks and costs increase if the obesity started at an early age. Community soccer programs (and other sports programs) for youth are an easy and cheap way to involve children in healthy physical activity.
Spending afternoons and weekends playing soccer (or football, as the game is called outside the United States) means not spending that time getting involved in drugs or violence. And soccer programs list a slew of community-related benefits of their programs.
One organization, love.futbol, helps international communities come together to create new soccer fields in safe places, so children don't have to play in dangerous alleys or garbage dumps. Drew Chafetz, co-founder, says love.futbol achieves much more through the soccer field projects. "Mobilizing a community and giving them the tools to carry out the project empowers that community," he says. "The soccer field becomes a symbol of pride, a center of community, a hub for other activities. Other programs develop there; the community partners with other organizations that develop educational programs."
InterCampus*, the philanthropy arm of professional Italian soccer club F.C. Internazionale Milan, has soccer programs in 25 countries to give children "the right to play."
Soccer works wonders with adults as well. Street Soccer USA offers a chance for homeless people to play soccer, and in the process find a support network that can help them find their way back to employment. At the moment, the organization is asking for donations of frequent flyer miles in order to fly the US national team to the Homeless World Cup.
Another group, Soccer Without Borders, brings together players from immigrant and refugee groups. "Soccer provides an avenue for positive engagement, a platform for personal growth, and a toolkit for a brighter future," reads its website.
Soccer also represents a powerful tool for peace. This summer, even the Pope got involved. Pope Francis supported an interreligious charity match at Rome's Olympic Stadium on September 1st*. Famous soccer players representing Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Shinto religions, including Diego Maradona, slugged it out after planting an olive tree for peace.
'Soccer for social change' is a field that has really emerged over the last 20 years or so. The next challenge, say the experts, is how to galvanize the movement with the kind of passion and money that surround professional soccer. "It's a really interesting time for our sector" on many levels, says Drew Chafetz. "For a for-profit business that's able to make value creation for society a business strategy, a partnership like this is very valuable. Professional soccer clubs can build their brands in communities they want to target. Local communities invest in projects, whether through sweat or other resources they have, and revenue is generated that goes back into projects."
Indeed, it is a budding social enterprise movement with a potentially huge fan base to carry it forward. The sports business might want to think about waking up to this next big thing.
* InterCampus is sponsored by Pirelli, the company I work for.
The September 1st interreligious soccer game in Rome was also sponsored by Pirelli.