Julie Foudy spreads love in Brazil

Courtesy DGA Productions

Julie Foudy is trying to change a culture in Brazil that sometimes ridicules girls for wanting to play soccer.

When I told my friends and family that I was going to Brazil for a week this summer to talk and teach soccer, the most common response was, "Huh?" (said cross-eyed with an awkward, uncomfortable giggle). Why would American players go to Brazil, the mecca of the sport, to teach soccer?

As we all know, Brazil is a soccer-crazed nation. "We live soccer, sleep soccer, dream soccer and even eat soccer," one Brazilian told me during my trip. I'm not sure how you eat soccer, but you get the point. Soccer flows through their veins. For Brazilian girls, loving the sport and playing it are two very different realities.

My former U.S. soccer teammate Brandi Chastain and I went down to Brazil with a fabulous program, SportsUnited, run by the U.S. State Department. Our mission was not to help train the next Marta Vieira da Silva (five-time FIFA World Player of the Year) but to encourage Brazil to support programs that would help produce the next million Martas.

Soccer for girls in the U.S. is very different from soccer for girls in Brazil. We have 13 million girls who play. In Brazil, they have just 400,000. In the U.S., a girl can easily find a place to play or a team to join. In Sao Paolo, we heard story after story about Brazilian girls who were not only discouraged but also ridiculed for being silly enough to play a man's sport.

Volumes could be written and debates could be held to get to the bottom of why girls are not encouraged to play in Brazil, but Brandi and I had a simple message to share while we were there: Give a girl a ball, and you give her a chance. Give a girl the opportunity to play, and you give her a dream.

Sports help women stay in school longer and make them less likely to use drugs, break the law or get pregnant at an early age. Sports build good habits, confidence and discipline. They make players into community leaders and teach them how to strive for a goal, handle mistakes and cherish growth opportunities. Now that's universal.

It's a long process, and it doesn't happen overnight. Changing a culture takes more than one generation of leadership, and it'll be a long time before female players in Brazil are as universally known as male players. But we can help move the needle -- crazy Americans high-fiving, laughing and telling girls they deserve the chance to play. It's a challenge I'd gladly travel the globe to tackle, and I'm going to try.

This trip was the perfect way to kick off my summer and the eighth year of the Julie Foudy Sports Leadership Academy, which uses sports to unlock leadership potential in kids. I can't wait to head to down to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in July to continue the conversation about teaching girls to play. Sports not only build better athletes but also better people.

The best part is that we can all be advocates for girls playing. I think Rosana, a four-time Olympian with the Brazilian Women's Soccer Team, said it best.

"Dreams are like oxygen. They breathe life into everything we do. We must give girls the chance to dream."

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