As the World Watches the 2018 FIFA World Cup, State Department Celebrates Soccer Diplomacy

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State Department Sports Envoy plays soccer with children.
State Department Sports Envoy, Marian Dougherty, shares tips on soccer techniques with young players in Morocco. (State Department photo)

As the World Watches the 2018 FIFA World Cup, State Department Celebrates Soccer Diplomacy

With an estimated four billion fans, soccer is the most popular sport in the world. As the finals begin at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, people in every corner of the globe are excited to watch and cheer on the last teams standing. Since 2002, the Sports Diplomacy Division of the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) has been harnessing this global passion for soccer -- along the full spectrum of other sports -- in partnership with U.S. Embassies and Consulates around the world to build bridges, reach out to new audiences, and promote inclusivity.

Sports Envoy, Tony Sanneh, signs autographs for youth in Pakistan. (State Department photo)

The World Cup brings sports diplomacy to the forefront, providing people with an opportunity to learn about many different cultures and to connect with fellow soccer fans around the world. With this in mind, the Sports Diplomacy Division, through its sports exchanges, is leveraging the energy of the World Cup, as well as the upcoming U20 Women’s World Cup in August, to share the U.S. Department of State’s commitment to building people-to-people relationships.

From June 25-July 1, former U.S. National Team Soccer players Lorrie Fair and Tony Sanneh led a Sports Envoy program in Pakistan. During their time in Islamabad and Karachi, Fair and Sanneh trained and engaged young women to become leaders in their communities through soccer. Participants also took part in soccer camps and workshops on critical thinking skills and on the importance of diversity, with the American soccer Sports Envoys serving as role models.

This is just one example of the Sports Envoy program in action. This exchange sends professional athletes, coaches and sports administrators to many different countries, bridging cultures through sport. Past soccer Sports Envoys include Alex Morgan, Servando Carrasco, Nick Garcia, Johanna Lohman, Cobi Jones and Amanda Cromwell. They help advance key State Department priorities such as promoting education, encouraging peaceful resolution of conflict, fostering ethnic reconciliation, empowering women and girls, preventing bullying and improving health and fitness.

Sports Envoy, Alex Morgan, in Tanzania.
(State Department photo)

Another program using soccer as a way to build bridges between cultures is the International Sports Programming Initiative, an annual sports grant competition for U.S. based non-profit organizations that conduct two-way exchanges in partnership with the State Department. As a part of this program, this summer, 20 soccer players and coaches from many parts of India traveled to Salt Lake City, Utah, for a two-week soccer program focused on women’s empowerment and gender equity. The Indian youth and their coaches learned about American culture and shared their own, while staying with American host families made up of American youth and coaches who traveled to India on the reciprocal exchange earlier this year.

Also making sure not to miss out on “Football Fever,” alumni of the Global Sports Mentoring Program: Sport for Community (GSMP) are promoting the power of soccer all around the world for people from all backgrounds, even those with disabilities. Taking part in the 2018 GSMP: Sport for Community, Marcos Lima is a champion for blind athletes everywhere. He knows the power soccer can have on a person, telling us, “In Brazil, it doesn’t matter whether you are blind or not, every boy wants to grow up to be a soccer player.” Marcos Lima is making this passion into a reality through his work with NGO Urece Sport and Culture for the Blind, which organizes sports activities for people with visual impairments.

2018 GSMP: Sport for Community alumnus Marcos Lima gives his action plan presentation. (State Department photo)

To wrap up this summer’s soccer-themed events, 35 youth soccer players from Albania, Belgium, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Haiti, Panama, and Venezuela will take part in two-week long soccer and ESL (English as a Second Language) camps in Asheville, North Carolina, and Boston, Massachusetts. Through on- and off-the-field activities with American peers, as well as homestays with American families, participants will gain a deeper understanding of American culture and society and explore English learning in a fun and practical way.

We may not all eat the same food, speak the same language, or root for the same football team. But we can all share our love for the World Cup together, recognizing the incredible power of sports to unite different cultures, societies – and most importantly – people.

About the Author: Tyler Hubeny is an intern in the Sports Diplomacy Division of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.