Yes, the world’s game is coming to Seattle. Yet many of the world’s people are already here and playing it.
Rightly or wrongly, soccer’s long been labeled as largely a game for those in the suburbs. Minivans, look-alike uniforms, orange slices and all that. Maybe that was the case in the Eighties and Nineties.
Now look again.
When folks refer to Seattle as a world city, what are they talking about? Probably its port, its industry and businesses, many of which are far reaching?
Several years ago, Jessica Breznau saw Seattle as a world city for completely different reasons.
Soccer’s equivalent of a gym rat, Breznau is always looking for a game of pick-up in the park, and living in the city’s south end, there seemed to be a different language spoken on every lot.
“I would go out and play pick-up with the Laotian guys, then I’d go the valley and see Somali guys playing and then I’d go play with the Hispanic guys,” says the Edmonds native.
Breznau was exposed to other cultures early on, with her family hosting foreign exchange students and, soon thereafter, at age 16, she was an exchange student herself in Mexico. Soon after returning home from helping with a community project in Honduras, she got to thinking.
What would be ideal, Breznau thought, would be seeing all these different groups playing together. From that thought came action, and soon after, in 2003, she founded the non-profit organization Sister Communities.
“Sister Communities’ mission was to foster cross cultural relationships,” Breznau says. There would be many barriers–some real, some suspected–to overcome, but language would not be one of them.
Everyone spoke soccer.
And so Sister Communities’ annual event would be a 16-day, summertime tournament, the All Nations Cup. It began with men’s teams representing 12 countries and in four years has mushroomed to 40 covering all six of the globe’s inhabited continents, plus additional divisions for youth, women and masters.
Although Breznau is stepping aside, the All Nations Cup will continue on in 2008 under the direction of Sam Hassan, whose involvement was initially as coach of Brazil.
More than just games, the All Nations Cup begins with an opening ceremony, complete with the parade of nations, dancers and music performed by a global percussion orchestra. There is an art exhibition and multicultural World Grill food tent that would put the old Seattle Center Food Circus to shame.
For the volunteers, and Breznau in particular, the event has demanded a tremendous amount of work. It has also paid off.
“There’s satisfaction is seeing the event come together, seeing the families out there together and, in general, enjoying each other and having a good time,” Breznau says.
She’s not only referring to families of one nation getting together, but those crossing boundaries to meet those from other nations, other continents.
Within Seattle, these small ethnic communities feel fragmented. Many are impoverished and reclusive. That is changing.
“When people come here (to America), they tend to stay in their virtual ghettos, so soccer’s a great way to start breaking down those barriers in a real way,” she says. “They see the value of coming together.”
The coach of a girls team on Beacon Hill, Breznau’s squad is a living example of the lines disappearing between different races, different cultures. Half of her players are Hispanic, the other half Somali.
Before stepping back from her post with Sister Communities, Breznau sought feedback from her wide variety of constituents. As the letters rolled in and she read on, the tears welled up.
“They say things like, ‘You’ve created a general atmosphere of interaction and tolerance. You’ve made an impression on our soccer landscape.’ I guess that’s when I feel the greatest satisfaction.”
More than a Game
One of the last ethnic communities to join the All Nations Cup was Cambodia last summer. The Cambodians played skilled soccer in their own distinct style. And the games gave multi-generational families a forum to support one another.
Along the sidelines, sitting cross-legged in native garb, were many elderly women. Nearby, children ran with balls at their feet. Out on the field were the Cambodian men in their prime, playing the game. But it was more than just a game.
The All Nations Cup creates a portal for Seattle to see soccer in its more natural state, or how it’s become a part of the social fabric of so many other countries.
“It’s a sport they know and fell comfortable with, and they also feel a connection to their homeland,” says Breznau. “For them, the game is almost like church. It’s a community-building tool, and that adds a huge dimension to watching the game.
“It’s not really Brazil or Somalia playing, but it’s validating these people as a community, when they are really being overlooked a lot of the time. This is giving them an opportunity to show who they are and see who other people are.”