World Cup fever is in full effect in South Africa. Everywhere you turn, someone is talking about it. Commercials, music videos, special songs on the radio, official jerseys and soccer balls all sport World Cup-related imagery. TV shows of all genres have written the countdown to the 2010 World Cup into their story lines. South Africa's Department of Education has even designated Fridays as "Football Fridays," where teachers, administrators and students, most of whom usually wear uniforms, are allowed to don World Cup jerseys and T-shirts.
As I travel throughout South Africa, it is not lost on me that one of Charlotte's most interesting soccer-oriented organizations, Concrete2Green, is in jeopardy. Currently the group is housed at Eastland Mall, which will no longer exist in a couple of weeks -- so they will be, for all intents and purposes, homeless. It's tragically ironic that an organization dedicated to bringing soccer to the inner city is losing its lease during the month of the most anticipated World Cup in recent history.
Concrete2Green teaches kids (among other skills) the art of futsal, which is a variation of soccer that is played indoors on surfaces different from traditional grass fields. The ball used is smaller with less bounce than a regulation soccer ball. There are two teams, with five players each, and one goalkeeper. The team is allowed unlimited substitutions for team players. The game is judged based on improvisation, ball handling and the ability to pass in tight spaces.
The goal of Concrete2Green is to bring soccer to communities that wouldn't normally have access to traditional soccer fields, mainly those in urban settings. Its "higher calling" was to take abandoned spaces of recreation and revitalize them with sport, creating a community where youth have a space to share, communicate and, of course, play soccer. Through this, the hope was to create players who would then go on and compete in traditional soccer (football) tournaments or become a part of the growing futsal movement across the world.
It is with this in mind that Akbar Majeed and Irvine Smalls Jr. started Concrete2Green, and they accomplished their goals, bringing together black, brown and white communities in Charlotte. On any given day, they would have 200 or more players in and out of the Eastland Mall location with no drama -- which was much needed at that troubled mall. It is truly sad thinking about the possible demise of this organization -- because of the loss of its primary home -- that has managed to accomplish in a short period of time what many have not been able to do in decades, through the lens of sports.
Sports has always been a space where social and political issues are either highly charged or slowly disappear. To give young people who would not ordinarily have the opportunity to explore soccer in any form a chance to develop skills used on and off the field is important and significant. As I watch Bafana Bafana (South Africa's national soccer team) on every channel, their team is made up of people from their country. The same is true of Brazil, Portugal, Nigeria and Germany, to name a few.
When the United States rolled out its 2010 World Cup roster this week, only four of the 23 players on the team play for American soccer clubs. I thought to myself that organizations like Concrete2Green are necessary if for no other reason than to develop a pool of homegrown soccer players who can represent our country on the world stage. Even though futsal is different, it is based on soccer, so it is not out of the realm of imagination that traditional soccer players may develop from this sport.
As I am surrounded by 2010 World Cup mania, my mind is on Charlotte and thinking about the role that we could have played in creating homegrown talent that could possibly compete on the international level one day. As is the case in our fair city, there's loads of talent in a number of categories, but our ability to nurture and grow this talent is a challenge for us. Futsal/soccer are not immune to this challenge.
In the United States in general, we get behind so many sports -- even extreme sports are wildly popular. It is a mystery to me why soccer doesn't make the cut, particularly with so many immigrants from countries that live and breathe soccer (aka football). Wouldn't it have been wonderful to have some of these young people from Concrete2Green travel to South Africa to witness the 2010 World Cup in person? (It's the first time that the World Cup has been hosted by an African country and judging by the growing challenges leading up to the tournament, it may be the last.)
Whatever the case, losing Concrete2Green at this time would be a sad thing -- particularly as the rest of the world celebrates what we've let go.