Goals scored, barriers broken: the universal language of soccer

Courtesy of Elior Waskow

Elior Waskow

Before my trip to Uganda this past summer, the last time I had played organized soccer was five years ago. I knew from people who had traveled there before that the Jewish community I was teaching for a month would be obsessed with the sport, so I bought two soccer balls in the U.S. and brought them with me.
As soon as I arrived it was clear that they were amazing as expected and never turned down a chance to play soccer. Before I knew it, they were asking me to join in. I began playing with just the younger kids at their school, Yonatan Netanyahu Memorial School. Since they had very few hours of school, the kids could play from the time school ended at 3 p.m. until it was dark at 8 p.m. Even though I was older, bigger, and stronger than these kids, they always found a way to steal the ball from me.

While it was fun playing with the younger children next to their school, I was not able to compete with the older kids and adults who had prior commitments. During the last week of the trip, however, the teenagers were intent on playing a competitive game with the older kids. Instead of randomly deciding teams, they played within their different Ugandan Jewish communities: people from one village, Putti, faced off against people from the two Jewish communities, Mukono and Apac.
All the players and spectators, walked 10 minutes to a big grassy field. I saw short grass and end lines next to the huge school, but I didn’t see any goals. Cows grazed in the field, and the Ugandans had no desire to move them as if this was just a completely common occurrence. My teammates explained to me that in most places in Africa, when people want to play a soccer game, they build the goals themselves and try their best to avoid the interfering cows. To form the goal posts, they took a hoe, slammed it into the ground twice on each side of the field, and stuck tall branches in them. Everyone got their positions and I was told we were playing 45-minute halves. I was excited to see how I would match up against them.

The referee blew the whistle and we began. The players from both sides were very competitive, so I did not have many chances to touch the ball. There weren’t many opportunities to score, and the first half ended in a 0-0 tie. The teams were even and while both complained about cheap head-butting and kicks to the shin, the game was refereed well. In the second half, both defenses collapsed and the final tally was 2-2.

But the teams did not feel like they could end the game in a tie—they were too competitive for that. So we all went to one of the goals and set up for penalty kicks. I hadn’t had the opportunity to touch the ball for most of the game, but now they were offering me the first penalty kick.
I took the ball, set it on the ground, and wiped the sweat off my forehead. I backed up slowly, two steps back and one to the right. I knew where I was going to shoot the ball. I wound up and kicked. My shot went right just past the outstretched arms of the goalie.

Following my turn, the teams traded off one successful kick after another until one player from Mukono came up and missed. The game was over and the Putti community had won. They chanted and cheered all the way back to the village, and after a seemingly never-ending game, everybody went straight to bed.
Although the majority of my time in Uganda was not spent playing soccer, it was still a significant time. I was able to have an amazing time playing with the younger kids all month, and it showed me how simple the love for a game can break cultural barriers.