Ever since our son was born almost eight years ago, my husband and I have been committed to raising him and his younger sister bilingual (Mandarin/English) and bicultural, with an interest in the world beyond our borders. We send them to a Mandarin immersion school, they have traveled internationally since they were tiny, and we take full advantage of the San Francisco Bay Area’s rich diversity to learn about the world’s cultures, especially the food! But in the last couple of years, one interest, more than any other, has begun to turn my son into a true global citizen: his love of soccer.
As he becomes a full-fledged soccer fan, listing off his favorite players and excitedly watching the Euro Cup semi-finals this past summer, I see him absorbing more knowledge about the world than any social studies class could teach him.
Here are eight lessons soccer teaches kids about global citizenship:
1. Unity: Individuals from diverse countries, economic and social backgrounds, abilities and personalities can join together to create a winning team. This is as true for AC Milan as it is for my son’s local U8 team.
2. International cooperation: A star player from Argentina, Ghana or Brazil can move his talents overseas to play for Barcelona, Milan or Manchester. The best football clubs are truly international and fans root for their favorite players and teams across national borders.
3. Geography: Young soccer fans quickly learn where to find Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Italy on a map as well as Barcelona, Milan, Manchester and Madrid. My son has learned which languages each player speaks, flags of his favorite national teams and the countries that play in the Euro Cup.
4. Gender equality: The name Alex Morgan rolls off my son’s tongue as smoothly as Zinedine Zidane. Especially in countries where the men do not always have a winning team (e.g., China, U.S., Japan), women can be at the top of the game globally and just as exciting to watch.
5. Racial equality: Black players have faced rampant racism on the soccer field but have proven time and again that talent trumps race. One recent example: black Italian footballer Mario Balotelli shut up racist fans and opponents who have long taunted him by leading Italy to victory over Germany in the Euro Cup semi-finals. And what young soccer player doesn’t worship Pelé?
6. Strategic thinking: Soccer requires flexible thinking, cooperation and foresight, not brute force—important skills for future diplomats and politicians.
7. Shifting the global balance of power: Soccer is one arena where the economic behemoths of China and the U.S. are notably not dominant. It teaches my son a valuable lesson that these two countries (which are the two he personally identifies with) can be soundly trounced in soccer by Brazil, Argentina, Italy or Portugal.
8. Globalization brings the world closer: Soccer is the only truly global sport. Unlike the NFL, NBA or NHL, soccer fans exist in all corners of the world. Except for the Olympics, major soccer matches are the only games with a global audience. And unlike the Olympics, fans often root for countries other than their own. Wherever he travels, a knowledge and love of soccer will give my son something to talk about with people he meets. A pick-up game can be played anywhere in the world and immediately breaks down barriers.