Like inadvertent pied pipers, Becky Poskin and her DartmouthCollege soccer teammates walk through the dusty slums of Granada with enticing bags of soccer balls slung over shoulders, seducing girls to come out of their ramshackle homes and follow them to the parched soccer field.
Poskin is one of a growing number of U.S. soccer players coming to Nicaragua to volunteer as part of a program that aims to change girls’ lives by showing them that they, too, can play the world’s most popular sport.
“We want to teach them life skills, community leadership and teamwork,” Poskin said, as she led girls ages 8 to 16 in Saturday morning drills on a Granada field.
The San Francisco-based Soccer without Borders is a non-profit organization with satellite youth soccer programs around the world. The program came to Granada in 2006 to support youth soccer programs here.
Last year it began focusing on introducing the sport to girls.
The program seeks to catch girls’ interest at a young age, teaching soccer during gym classes at local elementary schools and recruiting them to come to weekend practices.
Based on a model similar to Habitat for Humanity, which brings U.S. college students to help build houses in poor countries during their spring breaks, Soccer without Borders brings U.S. college soccer players to Nicaragua during school vacations.
The ambitious program has a Granada girls’ league in the works and on March 8-22 will bring down college athletes for another two week soccer camp.
“We’re working within the community but trying to change this culture where girls don’t play,” said project coordinator Mary McVeigh, assistant coach at DartmouthCollege.
More than just giving girls something to do in their spare time, McVeigh hopes that on and off the field, the program can instill values of teamwork, sportsmanship, and personal responsibility in the girls. In addition to team-building drills at practice, volunteers have plans to bring girls together for movie nights, lectures and group discussions.
“It’s great they’re playing and it’s great for their health and confidence. But there are so many more benefits to sports when you’re in a group that matters to you. We’re hoping to get it to that next level where there’s responsibility,” she said.
Program leaders have already learned that giving in Nicaragua comes with considerable responsibility. After volunteers handed out equipment with little discretion last year, many recipients didn’t return to practice afterwards, and others reportedly resold the equipment for cash.
This year, the volunteers are implementing a merit-based system in which equipment such as cleats and balls are given as incentives to make sure players attend practices, clean up trash and even plant trees around the soccer field.
“We can’t just start giving away randomly,” Poskin said. At the end of practice, girls who wanted to make sure they got their merit points huddled around volunteers who checked off their names on a list.
Bridging The Social Gap
When Dalila López, 33, was in elementary school, it was almost unheard of for girls to play soccer in Nicaragua.
“I didn’t start playing until I was 15, but before then you didn’t see it much at all,” she said.
López had the privilege of attending a private school, where it was more accepted than in public school for girls to kick around the ball.
López, who is now the director of women’s soccer for the Nicaraguan Soccer Association (FENIFUT), says she’s hopeful when she sees girls playing soccer in public and private schools alike, and even in the barrios.
Playing soccer breaks down barriers for the girls, and not only builds confidence for them, but opens up opportunities for interaction among girls on both sides of Nicaragua’s gaping social divide, she said.
“It opens space for them, it creates opportunities. They learn to socialize with different social classes. There are poor and rich girls on the same team,” she said.
On the field in Granada, girls with ripped clothes and flip-flops played alongside girls with shiny new cleats.
A key to getting girls to engage in sport is to give them role models to look up to, McVeigh said.
McVeigh was surprised at a recent practice when only five of 50 girls were able to name a female athlete. But she’s hopeful that will start to change as soccer slowly catches on here.
It’s crucial to get girls interested at a young age.
“You really see a change in them after 6th grade, when they feel the need to be little women. Running around is no longer o.k.” McVeigh said in a phone interview. “So we started aiming at 4th and 5th grade and we’re hoping that by offering this to girls at that age, when they get older that stigma might be less.”
Though women’s soccer has virtually no TV exposure here, girls are starting to recognize leading female Nicaraguan soccer players, such as Claudia Mojica, Nicaragua’s leading goal scorer, who has netted 300 goals over the past decade. Another recognizable face is Modesta Rojas, the national team’s most dangerous goal-scorer.
Soccer without Borders volunteers invited two Under-17 players from the National Selection to play with the girls in Granada on a recent Saturday morning practice.
A group of younger girls stood beneath the midday sun looking on as 16-year-old Yelba Siria Corea of the U-17 national team juggled the ball on her foot.
“Soccer makes me feel strong,” said Larisa Cisneros, 8.
Find out more about the program at its articulate web site www.soccerwithoutborders.com.n