Soccer in the Mean Streets

©1995 by Marilyn Knapp Litt

The World Cup came to town and I interviewed for a volunteer position. Despite my dressing up and presenting a pleasing manner, the World Cup committee had no need of my services. Later I met a successful applicant who was in charge of watching cars in small parking lot. My soccer self-esteem was at an all-time low.

Then I saw an article about Soccer in the Streets, a national volunteer soccer program designed to bring the game to inner city neighborhoods. Considered the natural environment for the game around the world, it is typical of America's response to soccer that it is embraced here by the middle class.

My neighborhood is one of the safest and most affluent in the city, a twenty-five minute walk from one of the poorest and most dangerous places, Cabrini Green housing project. This was not a place I had been to and I was concerned about coaching somewhere that leads off the nightly news.

But the head coach reassured me that the park was only next to Cabrini and that the gangbangers sleep in during Saturday morning practice and that it was so safe he had gone there at night. He talked me into it.

Two days later I read in the paper where his bail had been revoked and Coach Jim was in jail charged with soliciting his ex- wife's murder. No wonder he was not intimidated. But as they were now down a coach, I went anyway; certain the statistical probability that any remaining coaches were killers had been reduced to zero.

I was early for practice and waited with two young boys from the team. They asked if I knew "Coach Jim" and I said no. They amused themselves by catching grasshoppers and putting them in a puddle to watch them swim. The grasshoppers were poor swimmers and the boys got bored and left.

The new head coach showed up shortly after that. He said he wasn't sure what to tell the kids about Coach Jim, but he thought he would just say Coach Jim had legal problems. I suggested that the kids would probably be very impressed with the real story and respect the staff more.

The soccer field was the outfield area between two baseball diamonds behind a park district building. Two portable goals were set up to create a small field, carefully avoiding a crater. Sounds from play echoed off a boarded up Chicago Housing Authority high rise.

There were a half dozen coaches and about thirty boys and girls ranging in age from five to twelve with a sprinkling of younger children in the care of their older siblings. A tip to coaches -- younger children should be stashed behind the goals where the net makes it more difficult for them to wander onto the field and the keeper can keep an eye on them.

Practice consisted of warm-up, drill, and scrimmage. The warm-up was especially important for the coaches as much of it was devoted to coaxing and threatening the kids who were not warming- up. These skills would be needed during the drill period when the children waiting in line would fight.

The scrimmage was more successful as the players were very enthusiastic and more competitive than was warranted. A player cried when he turned the ball over by throwing it in the wrong way. Handballs were a problem, but they could move the ball quickly, especially as no one would pass. The players did not hesitate to go after the ball even though they were playing without shin guards. If play stopped, trouble would often start, so play was very fast, and we were very tolerant of fouls. Not unlike Argentina.

I started with the program late in the season, but in time for a tournament. This was a park district tournament where our teams played against teams from other housing projects. The kids fared badly in a suburban tournament earlier in the summer and the coaches hoped they would do better against their peers.

The competition was between teams of five grouped by sex and age. One team did well and those players proudly took home trophies. Another team was disqualified when a sixth player illegally took the field. His team was done for the day and seeing his friends, he just joined in. Other than for the boy who was led onto the bus sobbing because he did not win a trophy, the day was a success.

We let the players keep the shoes and uniforms they wore that day. Our season ended the following week with a pizza party where everyone received a soccer ball. Everything was looking up for next year.

Then over the winter our equipment was stolen. When the new season started, we were also missing coaches. Apparently the euphoria over the World Cup had caused them to volunteer and Planet Soccer having moved on, they moved on as well.

Fewer coaches meant less discipline. More coaches quit after a practice where some kids threw rocks and a coach was hit. Another coach had rocks thrown at his car, but rather than quitting -- he just started parking further away. There was some discussion after this of terminating the program, but we decided to kick out the worst offenders and continue with the core.

Now we were having practices with two or three coaches and twenty children. These kids were cooperative, but it is difficult to run drills with so few coaches. The drills work best with groups of five or six players, so they don't get bored waiting their turn. I see some improvement at practice, but the same kids don't come every week and I suspect that they only play soccer at Saturday practice. The soccer balls probably get more use on the basketball court.

A high point this season was a very successful clinic, put on by the local USISL team, the Stingers. The Stinger players were quite patient and the kids were very excited that a local station showed up to videotape them. One player, David Ndunduma, was with a Division I English team last season. He spent quite a bit of time down on one knee, carefully rolling the ball to a five year old and instructing the boy how to kick it back.

A month later our players were invited to retrieve balls at a Stingers' game. I was concerned that most of them had never seen a soccer game, but the only hitch was when one boy refused to give the ball to an opposing player and ran down the sideline looking for a Stinger.

When the Stingers scored, the ball boy behind the goal celebrated as if he had scored. At times I could see one little girl dancing exuberantly at her midfield position. It didn't matter that there was no music, she was just too happy to stand still.

On the downside, we need more coaches, we need to send our tournament entry forms in on time, and we need the Chicago Park District to fill the crater. The program is very young and it is too soon to say if it can thrive in that tough environment.

The Cabrini soccer players are like children anywhere in that they are bright and sweet and they help with the equipment and they want to know what you brought them. They are unlike other children in that they are very volatile and quick to take offense. Some have parents that bring them to practice and some have parents who died of drug overdoses.

I have heard gruesome stories of the type we used to tell at slumber parties, only these were first person accounts. My goal as a coach is not to change lives; that can't be done on a Saturday morning. And I don't think even our combined coaching skills could nurture a Pele. But once a week, coaches and players come together to run up and down a field and celebrate goals.

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