Just prior to Thanksgiving, Embassy Rangoon hosted a trio of world class soccer stars for an exciting and historic week of Sports Envoy programming. From November 21-26, Cobi Jones, Lorrie Fair, and Jay Hoffman engaged hundreds of Burmese youth in Rangoon and Mawlamyaing under the theme of “Soccer Unites Us” to promote tolerance and respect among Burma's diverse religious groups, as well as to underscore the United States’ commitment to women’s empowerment and the rights of the disabled.
Ambassador Derek Mitchell kicked off the program in Rangoon with a donation ceremony held in conjunction with One World Futbol and USAID. The distribution of sporting goods, including more than 500 “indestructible” soccer balls donated by Chevy and One World Futbol, was warmly welcomed by diverse groups of NGOs, community leaders, soccer teams, and coaches from across Burma. One highlight was watching the “Colorful Girls,” a group of young girls from one of Rangoon’s more detached communities, take the field with their new balls and join their male counterparts on the pitch -- showcasing a “leveling of the playing field." Not long after taking the field, hundreds of youngsters sought hugs and high fives from Cobi and Lorrie, the former American who has played the most international matches and the latter, an Olympic gold medalist and member of numerous World Cup teams.
During the visit to Mawlamyaing -- Burma’s fourth-largest city -- local officials warmly welcomed the Sports Envoys, saying they were honored by their presence as being among the first Americans to visit the city in an official capacity. The envoys were also welcomed at a school in one of the city’s poor Muslim neighborhoods by a headmistress who recognized the value of sports diplomacy. Headmistress Daw Khin San Wai proudly uses her school’s soccer field to motivate her students to perform in the classroom. “When my students don’t pay attention to their schoolwork or fail to show up to class,” she said, “the first thing I take away is soccer” -- which, she adds, gets them quickly back in the classroom and striving for excellence.
Working together with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the program helped Embassy Rangoon to continue making strides in promoting peace and tolerance among Burma’s religious and ethnic groups, which remains one of the major challenges for Burma as it opens up to the world after decades of isolation. Thanks to the universal appeal of soccer, Muslims and Buddhists, girls and boys, all took to the field together, putting aside their differences. Indeed, Soccer Unites Us!
About the Author: Erik Eisele serves as a Cultural Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon, Burma.