A View from Afar / Commentary

In praise of Jim Kenney’s Philadelphia international cup

Photo provided by Dan Walsh, pictured with players from his old pickup game

My first pickup soccer game in the Philadelphia area was an all-Ethiopian affair till I arrived.

Back in autumn 2006, I got an invite from Sammy, the father of a girl on my stepdaughter’s soccer team with the Chestnut Hill Soccer Club. Whether he expected me to ever show up to his regular Sunday game at the School Road Park in Hatfield, Pa., I don’t know. He certainly never expected to me to stay and run with Peter, Teddy, Getcho, Beke and the guys for nearly five years and make a bunch of friends I think fondly of to this day. But that’s what happened.

So when I read about Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s plan for a city-wide soccer tournament drawing teams from various ethnic and immigrant communities — a Philadelphia international cup — I couldn’t help but smile.

Finally, here was a politician looking to celebrate the immigrants and real diversity in his community, not demonize them or merely throw the “diversity” label around as a concession to political correctness but without much substance behind it. Better still, he and his organizers had the stones to schedule the tourney’s final to take place three days before Election Day in the most xenophobic political campaign since George Wallace’s day. Talk about a message to send.

And to do it with sport, with what could be the best local soccer event developed in years? Brilliant. Nothing breaks down barriers between groups like sports, and no sport does it quite like soccer, the most popular sport in the world.

Soccer and immigrants

The America I grew up in has always been an America of immigrants. My oldest close friends are first generation Americans, with parents hailing from Argentina, India, South Korea, and Syria. I remember my great-grandmother telling my brother and me stories about when she was a child in “Russia” (i.e. modern day Odessa, Ukraine). Maybe that exposure to immigrants comes from growing up in New Jersey just outside New York, with all its immigrant communities, but it doesn’t matter. This is America. 

My pickup game in Hatfield may have started with Ethiopian immigrants, but it didn’t stay that way. Philip, Noel (aka Cuba) and S.T. showed up one day, with their roots in Ghana, Cuba and America/Germany, respectively. (S.T. is an Army brat raised in Germany.) Then a couple Liberians showed up, followed by a few Mexicans. A Chilean joined and became a regular. Then came the Sudanese players, including that one quiet, strong guy with the horrific scar on his left cheek, the origin of which I never asked, lest it be some horrid memory he preferred left far, far behind. Then a few more Americans started to play. 

Through that game, I learned my first bits of Amharic, the primary Ethiopian language, got my introduction to injera and other Ethiopian food, and received an even better introduction to Ethiopia’s best export: its people. 

Like most pickup games, this one had an identity that reflected its players, a group of friends and family who prized a friendly, honest, and fun game over a trash-talking, win-at-all-costs approach. Whether this was just a uniquely great group of guys or it reflected the Ethiopian culture as a whole — well, I figure it’s a bit of both.

This proved an interesting and amusing contrast point after I moved to the D.C. area and joined a mostly Somali game where players were constantly arguing with each other. One day, one of the more reasonable guys explained to me with a laugh, “This is just the way our culture is.”

That’s what you get through soccer. You experience foreign cultures through sport.

I’ll never forget a conversation I had in Hatfield with Teddy, an Ethiopian immigrant and about the most likable guy you’d ever meet, who in spring 2008 chatted me up about the presidential election one day during warmups. He thought Barack Obama couldn’t win the Democratic presidential primary, let alone the general election, in part because he was black. I told him he was wrong. This country is better than its worst elements, I told Teddy. People will vote for the best candidate. And Obama was an historic one.

The smiles I saw out on that field after Obama won the primary and general election could only be matched by the rampant but now heartening disbelief Teddy had that Obama actually won. For me, it was remarkable to witness these moments where a new kind of belief in America and its better angels opened to my immigrant friends.

It didn’t shock me though. This is a nation of immigrants. It has been since the day it was established by immigrants and children of immigrants here in Philadelphia back in 1776. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney apparently didn’t forget his hometown’s heritage. 

What will this tournament look like?

Kenney’s move to celebrate that identity through a Philadelphia soccer tournament is more than welcome in that regard, both for its latent message and the intrinsic draw of a big, unique, city-wide event.

Sure, there may be some logistical issues to sort out. Who gets to be the “American” team, for example? The city has dozens upon dozens of soccer teams populated mostly by Americans. And how do you even define that team, considering that most other teams will be populated at least in part by dual nationals? You’ll also probably have numerous claimants to the title of the “Mexican” team. 

Maybe the best way to go, in the long run, will be to create a city-wide soccer tournament that has nothing to do with nationalities. Then again, maybe not. The political statement that comes with Kenney’s decision is awfully timely. 

Those are issues to sort out for the long term. 

For now, Philadelphia gets a moment to celebrate the beautiful game and a prized aspect of American culture. I’ll take soccer and immigrants over the wall-builders any day.

11 Comments

  1. I had no idea you played on the same fields that my kids play on! I would also like to mention the group of Asian men who play at Kenas Rd park in Montgomeryville and the co-ed games that happen at Knapp Elementary School in Lansdale. I love seeing all the adults out playing – its a great lesson for my kids that soccer is for a lifetime – not just until you graduate from high school.

  2. Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

    Dan, 2 weeks in a row that you are 100% correct. Go to the pickup games in Cherry Hill on Sunday mornings and it is like a meeting of the United Nations. My steady men’s league team is a mixed group as well (mostly white guys and Colombians). I’ve always felt that people that dislike certain groups, or people, or religions, or color or what not should look for an opportunity to work together towards something (like winning a soccer game!)It is in that environment that you realizes that people are people and that you will like most and dislike a few, but it is based on who they ARE, and not the demographic that they were born into!

  3. el Pachyderm says:

    Stellar article today Dan.

  4. Wish I could post a picture of me playing in Nigeria on a team similar to yours. For some reason it is much easier to identify me…

  5. Great article Dan. Shared it with all the team. Would love to know more about the Mayor’s plan and we will consider participating.

  6. Great piece, Dan. And such a nice move by Mayor Kenney.

  7. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Yes, the US of A is a nation of immigrants. So are the North and South American continents, blood group evidence suggests strongly that Native Americans are the youngest grouping of Original inhabitants in the world.

  8. Dan, Thanks to Mayor Kenney for such a kind gesture. We already have a league that involves many immigrants that have come to our area over the years in Philadelphia, it’s called the United Soccer League of Pennsylvania and it was established in the early 50’s and they presently have numerous tournaments throughout the year and also a league that has weekly games, great idea but it is already been in the works for many years.
    Just a heads up for our Mayor who we can see is a real soccer guy.

    • Marlene Fricker says:

      Yes, seems like a good idea…except that Immigrants have been playing in and around the City for at least 100 years. This “new” tournament seems to Un-Afffiliated with US Soccer/US Soccer Federation. Maybe the city program can look into the affiliated channel/path to running a “FIFI-style” tournament.

  9. Knowing footy gives you the ability to speak a universal language, that transcends culture. It’s the first thing I always bring up when speaking to someone from a different country, and you always get a smile in return…and a look, that says…….all right, your cool! And honestly, if your squad is just a bunch of white guys….in 2016…….you probably aren’t very good…at any level. Great article!

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