The United Nations of Sports

Like many children, Tunde Jowosimi grew up playing soccer, and he continued playing when he moved from Nigeria to England.

But then Jowosimi moved to Eugene, where he struggled for a few months, unable to socialize through a soccer ball as he was accustomed. He’d drive around desperately looking for a game, but everything he encountered was too organized for him to be allowed to play.

At last Jowosimi discovered a group, an informal “organic” association (an appropriate word for these casual games, considering the generally accepted etymology of soccer, a word derived from the second syllable of association football). When Jowosimi happened upon this organic association of young and not-so-young men chasing a ball like kids, they were almost finished with their game, so he was unable to play.

But Jowosimi came back the next week, and he has continued to do so for the past 15 years.

“This has become a ritual for us,” Jowosimi says. “Soccer allows us to come together and have fun and exchange ideas.”

My own discovery of this organic soccer association was more serendipitous than Jowosimi’s, but similarly satisfying. One night during a dancehall reggae party at The Granary, a young man approached me and, noticing my Barcelona soccer jersey, asked if I liked the Barcelona club or just Neymar — the Brazilian soccer magician whose name is on the back of the jersey.

“Well, Neymar isn’t my favorite player, but I like both,” I replied.

The young man responded by proclaiming, with palpable pride, his support for Barcelona. We agreed that Barcelona is a great club and that their play in recent years has been absolutely wonderful to watch. Then we began talking about playing, and the young man (Ben from Ghana) invited me to a pick-up game at 9:30 the following morning. I accepted the kind invitation and broke fast the next morning by discovering this delightful organic soccer association.

The recently deceased Uruguayan intellectual Eduardo Galeano would be pleased to see such organic soccer, untainted by the profit motive. “Like carnival, soccer has become a mass spectator sport,” Galeano once said. “But just like carnival spectators who start dancing in the street, in soccer there are always a few admiring fans who kick the ball every so often out of sheer joy.”

“We’re the United Nations here,” says Alex Zuñiga from Costa Rica. True, this association includes players from all over the planet, including such far-flung countries as Russia, Ghana, Iceland, Iran, Costa Rica, Kuwait, Mexico, Nigeria, Afghanistan and the U.S., to name a few.

But the United Nations is not nearly as democratic as this association. Here there is no Security Council and there are no veto-wielding bullies. Here there is no referee and no coaches; players arbitrate their associated activities and make decisions collectively, horizontally and organically.

Occasionally, someone will keep score, but most guys seem too focused on playing to pay attention to such trivial details. Nobody dares blow a whistle and pick up the ball in the middle of play. The game ends when everybody decides the game ends. If some guys leave and others remain with desire to play, the game adapts and continues.

Not surprisingly, many consider soccer the most democratic of sports. It costs little to nothing to play. All you need is a ball or something like a ball — and rocks or sandals or whatever if you want to make goals. Almost anyone can play, just about anywhere. Soccer does not require extraordinary height, strength or speed to play, and it doesn’t require much space. Some may prefer playing on a big open field, and others prefer cement, sand or mud (YouTube futelama) but one can play on just about any surface.

Today we play on grass, with small nets for goals. After the game, some of the guys share stories about the makeshift conditions where they grew up playing. And yet, upon whatever surface organic soccer sprouts, the area above immediately transforms itself into one of the few public spaces where ludic play defies lucrative values, where others become brothers and where it’s no big deal to lose.

 Tunde Jowosimi, Mohammad Afshar, Ben Torkornoh, Matthias Donner. Photos by Trask Bedortha.

Zuñiga made a Facebook page for the group, though apparently nobody uses it. He has, however, been successful in getting some guys to play friendly matches with inmates at a prison near Salem. Zuñiga has been playing with this group for about 25 years, and his brother Andy Zuñiga for the past 17 years. Iván has been playing since he moved here 11 years ago from Mexico. Yousef*, from Kuwait, has been playing with this association for about 15 years.

Many of the guys have been playing together for more than 10 years, but there are several relative newcomers. Kofi (from Ghana) says he has been playing with the group for three or four years now. Haf (from Iceland) has been playing for two years, but very irregularly due to work and injuries. Bernie (German-U.S.) has been playing for a few years, and began bringing his teenage son Matthias about a year ago.

Some guys — like Mo, aka Mohammad Afshar, an energetic restaurateur from Iran — are twice my age, while others, like Matthias Donner, make me feel old. It’s an interesting mix of humanity.

Regardless of the diverse ages, professions and nationalities, organic soccer lets everyone play like carefree children. Haf says playing allows him to savor the final drops of his youth, like a fine wine. That’s the beauty of organic soccer; it allows us to recover or renew our energetic and expressive youthfulness, whereas “the technocracy of professional sport,” as Galeano lamented, “has managed to impose a soccer of lightning speed and brute strength, a soccer that negates joy, kills fantasy and outlaws daring.”

Galeano’s affectionate reference to soccer games as “fiestas of communication” seems relevant — today, most guys communicate in English, though some speak Farsi or Spanish, and they all speak some version of soccer.

Despite soccer’s distinct dialects and infinite idiolects, the universal simplicity of its underlying grammar makes the game a uniquely inclusive and adhesive language in an unsettlingly divisive society.

And while the grammar may be simple, soccer has infinite potential for creative expression — or at least untainted organic soccer does. But even formal competitive soccer usually escapes the coach-imposed authoritarianism of many other sports.

Once a game begins, even if a team has a clearly defined plan, unforeseen circumstances and useful observations constantly require spontaneous strategizing amongst teammates. Soccer fields are some of the most fertile grounds for the cultivation of important interpersonal skills. Philosopher Albert Camus is oft-quoted as having said that what he knows “most surely about morality and the duty of man” he owes to playing soccer in Algeria in the 1920s.

Reza moved to Eugene from Los Angeles about 12 years ago, but he’s originally from Iran. “Soccer wasn’t really my thing,” he explains, “but the fact these guys are playing and it’s a really good environment, now this is probably the only fun thing I do. Otherwise it’s all work and family.”

Having witnessed Reza play the game with confidence, grace and imagination, it’s hard to believe soccer wasn’t always his thing, but I can tell he speaks sincerely about his affection for this association.

“For many of us, this is the only exercise we get, but there’s the social aspect too,” Reza says. “Sometimes we go for tea or drinks after we play. There’s a real caring for the group. We are people from all walks of life. We have a dentist, a doctor, professors, business owners, students, all sorts. It’s good fun.”

Indeed, it is good healthy organic soccer fun.

* Due to the organic nature of the sport, participants often don’t know each other’s last names, let alone use them, thus some participants are referred to by first name only in this story.

FIFA gets red-carded

The world of organized soccer has seen some interesting, perhaps encouraging, but sadly not surprising events lately.

Quite unlike Eugene’s informal, organic association of soccer-playing members, there is an infamous association of soccer-promoting national organizations and continental federations — FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), which control the world’s most popular sporting event — the FIFA World Cup — as well as several less popular (and less profitable) soccer tournaments. Rather than promoting soccer and its positive qualities, however, FIFA for far too long has been prostituting the people’s passion in pursuit of profit and power.

Even before these recent charges were announced, nobody doubted that the corruption of FIFA is systemic.

Following a wave of corruption scandals in 2010, FIFA invited Transparency International (TI) to advise it on reform initiatives. In its 2011 report with reform recommendations, TI explained that “FIFA is answerable to the 208 national football associations who themselves are partly dependent on the funds that FIFA allocates to them.  This lack of mandatory accountability to the outside world make it unlikely that change will come either from within the organization or from the grassroots of the football organisations …”

So far, the U.S. Department of Justice has brought charges against nine FIFA officials and five businessmen, though more investigations and charges are expected from the U.S. government as well as from Swiss, Brazilian and Argentine authorities.

These recent and expected law enforcement actions are very encouraging. What is not encouraging is the fact that, just days after the announcement of the indictments, Blatter was re-elected for his fifth term as FIFA president. Despite having the votes, in an unexpected twist, Blatter resigned amid scandal allegations June 2. — Killian Doherty

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