Soccer in MIA

I stumbled across an article in the Sunday Magazine about a soccer team in suburban Georgia made up of political refugees from all around the world. Not surprisingly, they encountered prejudice, hardships, and financial difficulties throughout the season, as well as having to fight for their right to a practice field. Sounded pretty damn familiar to my own experiences at Central, so I decided to let the NYTimes know that it’s not only foreign refugees who struggle to find success on the soccer field, but people right here at home too.

Check out the article, it’s pretty great. Refugees find Hope and Hostility on the Soccer Field

Here are some of my thoughts.

It is easy to think that because Ms. Mufleh’s players are refugees, their situation is different from other soccer teams here in the US. My own girls’ soccer team in Miami had a similar dynamic to the Fugees’ despite it being in a regular public high school. I joined Teach for America in 2004 and began teaching high school English in one of Florida’s many failing schools. Frustrated by a lack of progress in the classroom, I began coaching the girls’ varsity soccer team with another TFA Corps member.

When we arrived, the girls’ program was one year old. They did not have uniforms, balls, or a field to play on. The old coach was a substitute teacher who would often not show up to games, let alone practices. The 11th grade captains did most of the coaching. Many of the girls did not have the raw talent that the Fugees brought with them from their home countries. They had never touched a soccer ball before, or had only watched their brothers play. Our school, Miami Central Senior High, is a mix of Haitian Americans, Latinos, African Americans and Caribbean immigrants. In many of these cultures, girls do not traditionally participate in sports. Soccer, especially, is seen as a male domain.

When I showed up to our first practice, I was discouraged. Soccer has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I joined my first team at 5 and played Division III soccer in college, so I am fairly familiar with the game. Two of the girls had cleats, none had shinguards, and maybe four knew how to pass the ball. I think that about half knew how many people should be on a soccer field for a game.

From then on, I threw myself into the team. As my professional life as a 9th grade English teacher degenerated into chaos and disrespect, I knew that at 3:40 when school got out my team would be there. As Ms. Mufleh noted, coaching a team of children who are bonded by more than upper-middle class sports enthusiasm is much more than a twice a week job. I drove kids home from practice when their parents worked night shifts, explained in Spanish to a father who commuted 5 hours a day for farm work in Immokalee that his daughter would be safe at practice, wouldn’t walk home after dark, and that only I would take her home. On the weekends, we shuttled the kids to the movies to encourage team bonding and organized scrimmages against the private club teams from Hialeah. When a girl ran away from her foster home, my co-coach let her stay at her apartment until she got back on her feet.

The girls became like my own family, and although I played the “bad cop” coach in charge of fitness, drills, and soccer tactics, they came to recognize that my demands for commitment and hard work came from my desire to see them succeed.

Now that the team had adult advocates who were fighting for them, it took off. We reminded our principal and Athletic Director that Title 9 demanded that they find money in the budget for uniforms and soccer balls. We held strategy sessions in my classroom on rainy days to discuss tactics and positions. Mandatory weight lifting, nutrition lectures, and after school tutoring became standard parts of the soccer regimen. The first year, five players were almost ineligible due to failing grades or standardized test scores, and most of the girls considered a bag of Doritos and a Coke a pre-game snack.

In soccer terms, we had the most successful seasons that Miami Central has ever known. A team that had never scored a goal in league play went to winning four games in our second season.

If this were all that these girls accomplished, I would be ecstatic. Yet these teenagers have more responsibilities and problems than anyone twice their age should ever have to deal with. Soccer was a time when they could let go of their other lives and be part of a unit, a team. A strict rule was that all conflicts stayed off the field, but as a coach we had to be there to support the players when their sometimes fragile social structures weren’t enough.

Our goalkeeper, who probably could have walked on to a D III college team if she hadn´t joined the Air Force straight out of high school, broke her tailbone in the middle of our second season. The school’s medical insurance wouldn’t pay for a hospital visit and x-rays, let alone rehab, and her mother didn’t read enough English to fill out the doctor’s questionaire. The team raised enough money to cover the hospital bills, but we lost our best player. She came to every single game for the rest of the season.

Our captain, a straight A student and AP scholar, won sportsmanship awards and was accepted in the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship program which guarantees a free 4 year education at any state school. Unfortunately, she is not a naturalized citizen of the US. Although she was born in the US, her parents, from the Bahamas, never filled out the paperwork to make her citizenship legal. She is now living at home, attending community college. There are some problems a coach just can’t handle, but that´s part of the job.

It is hard when a student has to miss a game for the funeral of a classmate who was shot near the city reservoir a few blocks from school. You hate to lose players to after school jobs, but if you’re one of 5 kids with a single parent making minimum wage, there aren’t many options.

In spite of being a Title 1 school with more than 70% of students on free or reduced lunch, when we all didn’t have electricity for two weeks during hurricane Rita, one of my players offered to have the coaches over to use the power generator.

There are so many teams just like Ms. Mufleh’s here in America, and although Miami doesn’t often resemble the rest of the 49 states, it is part of our country. I am so proud to have been able to be a part of these girls’ lives and teach them about being part of a team. For some of them, there are very few reasons to be optimistic about school or their future, so seeing real success on the soccer field is empowering. Being their soccer coach was so much more than a part-time job, it being part of a family, a community, a bonded social unit

I left Miami in 2006, but when I went visit this winter and say hello to the girls, I was able to see them in their new green uniforms with enough balls for practice, ready to warm up for their first game, lead by a new captain and many familiar faces. In spite of the struggles that they encounter every day in their lives, even without their old coaches, they were still a team. “Coach Williamson!” they shouted when I stepped out of the car, and coming from those girls it felt so good.

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