Soccer Without Borders Is Using the Beautiful Game to Build a More Inclusive World

Gabe Zaldivar

A ball and someone to kick it to, soccer remains a remarkably simple game. But imbued in its simplicity remains a powerful tool to unlock some of the greatest gifts humanity has to offer.

Soccer Without Borders is a non-profit organization that is utilizing soccer to grow inclusion throughout the world and to provide under-resourced communities with the tools they need to find success off the pitch.

The foundation was started in 2006 by former Lehigh University men's soccer player Ben Gucciardi and fellow soccer player, longtime coach, and former All-American at Dartmouth College, Mary McVeigh Connor.

"He and I were both in graduate school at Lehigh at the time and (SWB) sort of came about from being lifelong soccer players who saw that the game was so much more valuable than just the wins and losses on the field,” McVeigh Connor, who is also the executive director of Soccer Without Borders, tells En Fuego.

“And if you design it with intention, it can really be a living classroom that allows people to reach their full potential, explore who they are and what change they want to make in the world.”

The program is a multifaceted approach to address some of the most glaring needs affecting under-served communities. This includes working toward social inclusion and gender equity.

The very nature of SWB is to welcome those who are generally displaced with a lack of access. The field is open to them to find friends across myriad cultures. Language barriers are broken down thanks to the universal language of sport and camaraderie.

This also means ensuring that females not only have an opportunity but also a roadmap for success.

“We're really focused on getting girls in the game, making sure they have female role models in the game, regardless of cultural backgrounds, regardless of gender norms, and making sure that the game is as equitable and inclusive as we hoped the world can be,” McVeigh Connor said.

The Beauty of Contagious Positivity

Photo En Fuego 6
Photo Credit: Balazs Gardi (On behalf of Soccer Without Borders)

Warshan Hussin is a Soccer Without Borders graduate who found his way in recent years back to the program. He now works in the finance department, is a leader of the Alumni Council, and also coaches.

His story exemplifies the empowerment and positivity that comes from young men and women going through the SWB program.

Hussin came to this country from Iraq by way of Syria in 2009. It was a tumultuous time for the young man.

“When you come here, you don't really speak the language,” Hussin explained. “You don't know the culture. You're not used to things and how things work here. So, I was struggling. My family was struggling.”

Finding SWB was a tremendous discovery. It led to more than budding friendships but was an avenue towards self-confidence and personal growth amid the often arduous journey of getting used to a new country and culture.

“It was just an amazing community to be part of,” he says. “And it was just life here in the U.S. started to get easier and easier for me.”

The experience was both educational and supportive. Hussin tells of his very first season playing in the SWB program. He recalls with a smile the first game not knowing the intricacies of the kickoff.

While an accomplished football player at home, he and other SWB players didn’t quite get some of the rules behind the game. Losing 9-0, Hussin’s team finally scored in the waning moments, which led to an eruption of glee from his side. The winning team looked on in disbelief.

“They had no idea this was our first ever goal,” he recalls with a smile. “We felt connected with each other.”

While much of his experience is remembered with fondness, there were those times when he and his teammates encountered the truly ugly side of being in a new country.

Back in 2010, he and the team were met with racial epithets like “terrorist” being thrown their way. Literal bananas soon followed. A truly sickening moment led to life-changing words of encouragement from Hussin’s coach.

“The coach sat down and said, take all that anger and put it into something positive in your life.”

Hussin did just that, and years later remembered the ugly actions and the enlightened wisdom, a confluence of ideals coming together as he watched more recent events unfold.

“There's so much going on with the refugee communities and I felt that same anger again, and I had no idea what to do. So, I reached out to one of the coaches there in Baltimore and said, hey, I'm looking for a job I want to work with SWB.”

A support system for refugees led to Hussin channeling his efforts into positive action. Now encouraging the next generation of young men and women to see that there are people who care; there are programs that welcome and support and guide.

It’s a ball being passed across the pitch, landing at the feet of the next great leader in the community.

Hussin explains the next step was simple, “I reached out and I then put in that energy into something I think really positive here in Baltimore.”

Moving Forward

Photo En Fuego 7
Photo Credit: Balazs Gardi (On behalf of Soccer Without Borders)

COVID certainly meant less time on the field for everyone this year. But for the SWB program, the Zoom practices and daily fitness challenges served to further illustrate what makes this foundation unique.

“It was never about soccer,” McVeigh Connor states. “It was about belonging and a sense of belonging that people feel when they're part of a team that cares about you. And that was actually most needed in COVID and still is.”

Moving forward into 2021, Soccer Without Borders will continue the excellent work that has been a bridge of friendship to so many young athletes who yearn for familiarity and friendship.

And it’s never about fixing but supporting. It’s not about assimilation but inclusion. And succeeding means something wholly different neighborhood by neighborhood.

“One of our core values is authenticity,” the co-founder explains. “And that really has to do with authentically responding to and meeting the needs that that community identifies.”

And in that way the ball gets kicked among a team, incorporating everyone who can share in this common language of football.

“A third of our staff is now former program participants,” she continues. “And we're going to keep that number growing. And I think that is one way that we can make sure that the program is not happening to anybody. It's not happening for anybody. It's happening with and alongside and building something together that everybody benefits from.”