The U.S women’s national soccer team has made history by winning a third World Cup. On their road to the trophy, they beat the top-ranked team, Germany, and then the defending champion, Japan.
Seen by 26.7 million viewers in this country, the women’s final was the most-watched soccer game in United States history. The total audience surpassed those for the recent NBA finals, the World Series, and even the men’s World Cup final!
As I watched the women’s World Cup and celebrated each U.S. goal, the children who play in the Success Academy Soccer Club were constantly on my mind.
Last October, when we launched the program with the ambitious goal of developing Success Academy scholars into world-class soccer players, not a single scholar had heard of soccer stars Messi, Ronaldo, or Xavi, let alone Alex Morgan, the striker on the U.S. women’s national team.
Now, our players “argue” over which one of them is Messi or Ronaldo. They watch soccer on a weekly basis and play the FIFA 2015 video game whenever they can. And earlier this summer, when we hosted the first SA soccer camp, our kids were proudly announcing the teams they would most like to play for one day. “When I grow up, I want to play for the U.S.,” or “I want to play for Senegal,” or “I want to play for Ivory Coast.” They were identifying with the players in the women’s World Cup, regardless of gender, while at the same time embracing their cultural heritage.
For me, the highlight came one morning, when one of our girls, Elon Belin, ran into practice clutching a newspaper. She was so excited to share with us an article about the U.S. women’s team and their victory the day before. In that moment, she imagined herself as a member of the U.S. women’s national team playing in the World Cup. Even though she is only 7, she was up to date on all the tournament’s happenings. The moment made all the coaches, including myself, feel very proud.
It also reminded us of the long road ahead to make sure that more children from working-class families of color have access to world-class soccer programs — the reason we started a soccer program at Success Academy.
There is no question that the U.S women deserved to win. Throughout the tournament, they demonstrated amazing teamwork, perseverance, and, more than anything, passion. They fought and won as one team, leaving their hearts on the field. Our young athletes strive to play the same way during practice every week. But the lack of racial and ethnic diversity on the U.S. women’s team was disturbing. Except for a couple of players who got a few minutes of play time in some games, the top 11 players on the U.S. team were white, not at all representative of the America we live in.
At Success Academy, we want to help close the gender-racial gap in soccer. That is why we have created a program that is unlike any other in the country. Our program is open to any elementary-aged child who wants to play and makes the commitment to work hard every week. We believe that the children in our schools have the potential to become great players, so we do not scout players from other schools or clubs. We also don’t charge the exorbitant fees that prevent most disadvantaged children from participating in high-quality soccer programs. Our approach to training also ensures that our kids won’t compete until they are ready, unlike most programs.
Next year, we hope to double the number of children in our elementary schools who participate in our soccer club. Our long-term goal is to create competitive school teams that will play in the network’s league and against top soccer clubs and academies in the tristate area. We also aim to prepare players to compete at the college level and professionally. Ultimately, we hope our program serves as a catalyst and a national model for youth soccer reform, so that all children, regardless of their background, can be the next Messi, Alex Morgan, or Elon Belin.