Soccer Without Borders empowers youth

Former college soccer players and coaches took part in a volunteer effort through Soccer Without Borders to give the girls of Nicaragua the opportunity to play soccer. Courtesy of Soccer Without Borders

Soccer Without Borders began an Inter-American Women's Soccer Exchange in partnership with the U.S. Embassy of Managua and FENIFUT on Feb. 24. The Exchange brings together a 16-member team of recently graduated U.S. women's NCAA soccer players with the growing girls' and women's soccer community of Nicaragua.

I gathered a group of 60 girls from their primary school classrooms in Diriamba, Nicaragua, and led the line of aspiring athletes down the street. We were headed to the national stadium to take part in a skills clinic aimed solely at girls, led by Soccer Without Borders. As I walked with them, I was overcome with feelings of pride and excitement that I was about to share my love of the beautiful game of soccer with these young women.

In that moment I realized that, in some capacity, my fellow volunteers and I were giving these underprivileged girls a similar chance to the one we were given at that same age. My fellow volunteers and I were all former collegiate soccer players, having enjoyed some of the perks of the game at a high level.

Now, however, we seemed to return to the root of our passion for soccer: being part of a team. The opportunity to be part of a team with peers proved to be one of the most invaluable experiences of my life, one which I was eager to share. The enthusiasm, nervousness and sheer joy traveled palpably down the line of girls. I could feel the anxious anticipation of what the sport of soccer might mean to the girls that day and every day after that.

What made the moment even more special was my understanding that in Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, female athletics have experienced a very slow growth in comparison to their male counterparts. Participation remains low and playing options are few and far between due to economic and cultural barriers. This was the first trip to Nicaragua for our team of former NCAA players, and we saw firsthand the harsh realities the locals face each day. From pollution, to a lack of clean water, to underemployment, each day is a challenge.

Despite all the complications surrounding the overall living conditions and minimal support of female sports in this region, more than 140 animated girls showed up that day sporting their school uniforms of long navy blue polyester skirts, knee-high socks and black leather shoes. While coaching the athletes that day, it became clear that no lack of equipment, societal or economic limitations were going to stop the young women from enjoying and playing the beautiful game with their friends.

Over the course of the week, it became apparent that soccer and the life lessons that go along with the sport, such as confidence, commitment and teamwork, were what immediately bonded all of us together. Our volunteer group included 16 former NCAA soccer players and four coaches, brought together from all different backgrounds, playing experiences and regions of the United States to work as a team to spread our appreciation and respect for "fútbol femenino."

We all shared the same comprehension that the sport teaches transferable everyday skills, but we recognized that it is also so much more than that. It provides a safe space to have fun, grow as an individual and create lasting friendships. We hoped to instill this aspect of sport in the girls of Nicaragua, realizing that a lot of the splendor of soccer does not come from remembering every single win or loss, but from laughing about the wild locker room dance party with your teammates before the game and the silly cheers at halftime.

Later in the week, after a hard-fought 1-1 game between our team and the Nicaraguan national team in the Managua national stadium, we held a question and answer segment for the local girls and players.

One moment that stood was when one of the young girls asked, "How does it feel to represent your team and what did you have to do to make the team?" One of the players on the Nicaraguan national team spoke up and expressed that the honor to play for your country is a very achievable goal but to reach that aspiration you have to overcome many obstacles in life with hard work, perseverance and determination.

The goal of our tour through Nicaragua was to encourage more girls to get involved in sports and get excited about being part of something larger than they are. The game at the national stadium, the meet and greet with the teams, and the bus ride home after further affirmed our hopes for female athletics and absolutely displayed the power of the beautiful game.

On the journey back, we celebrated the game with all of our Soccer Without Borders' participants from Granada by dancing and singing, much like many of you reading this were lucky to experience on your high school and college teams. This was certainly a moment the Nicaraguan girls will remember about their fútbol careers and lasting memories we hope every girl worldwide will have the opportunity to share and benefit from just like we all did.

For more information on Soccer Without Borders, click here.