The Pickup Game as a Model for Peace? Sure, There Are Fouls and Penalties, but the Spirit of the Soccer Match Brings All Races Together

Article excerpt

Byline: Nicholas O'Connell (O'Connell lives in Seattle.)

Whenever I travel, I always pack a pair of soccer cleats, an unofficial but universal identity card recognized and honored throughout the world.

I've played in pickup games in New York, London, Paris, New Delhi and Katmandu. There's a soccer game in most every town, if you know where to look. You don't have to speak the local language. You don't have to share the same religion. You simply have to run, pass, dribble and shoot. It's a fast way into a foreign culture and an entree into being a world citizen, in the best sense of the term.

Over the centuries, there have been many utopian schemes for world peace, now mostly consigned to the ash heap of history, but soccer offers a vision of how such a world order might actually work. There are none of the vague platitudes you hear at UNESCO conferences; the sport allows for plenty of competition; it's not just about love and brotherhood, as witnessed by the recent World Cup. People push, shove and sometimes foul. They want to win. But they must subordinate even the fiercest rivalries to the game itself. If a fight breaks out, the game stops. No one wants that.

The sport's value as a model for international affairs first struck me while attending college in Nantes, France. I massacred the French language, but I knew how to pass and shoot. Alain, a droll student with a goatee, recruited me for his team. He sought to assemble the best equipe possible, regardless of race.

He also recruited George, a tall African who butchered the language as badly as I did, but who had a devastating shot. He then tapped several wiry Algerians and Moroccans, who as former colonists had an uneasy relationship to French society, but who dribbled like magicians. Our team included so many ethnicities with so many overlapping centuries of conflict it was hard to keep track of them all. So we simply concentrated on the game.

During our matches, George and I berated each other--not about imperialism or ethnic cleansing, but strategy. I played right midfield while George played right wing. He wanted me to play back. I wanted to move up.

After several matches, we worked out a compromise. …