submitted by Chris Thomas

Soccer - Youth Mission - photo by Joan Cartwright

The World Cup is underway in South Africa — the first time an African nation has ever hosted the quadrennial event. Joining Brazil, Spain, Argentina, Germany, England, the U.S. and other football powers in the 32 team field include five from sub-Saharan Africa — Ghana’s Black Stars; Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions; Ivory Coast’s Les Elephants; Nigeria’s Super Eagles; and South Africa’s Bafana Bafana (the Boys).

The game has a powerful gravitational pull and unique appeal to humanity. It binds us together – a common language understood throughout the world. While global in scope, it is also markedly local in flavor.

From Dhaka to Dakar; and Kabul to Kinshasa, its pitches are makeshift but ubiquitous – football is played on dusty fields, squalid pastures and dirt plains, in the shadow of great mosques, mountains and monuments, in slums and shantytowns; beside rubble and ruin; and down narrow and congested alleyways.

As a youth soccer coach, it is heartwarming to see skills and confidence grow, how teamwork breeds respect and tolerance for others, and self-discipline and understanding.

In a globalized world, it is hard not to notice the pervasive influence of the sport. More than two billion people watched the last final in Germany in 2006. Global icons, from Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o to Lionel Messi and Kaka inspire children at home and abroad.

No matter where it is played, football can unlock the best in humanity. It can be an escape from crime and violence, or serve as a unifying force, from a short truce across the trenches of the Western Front over Christmas during World War I to playing a role in ending five years of civil war in the Ivory Coast.

It is easy to see how it can be used for social good – that development and football share a close connection. Community organizations use the game as a way to bring together youth.

Grassroots Soccer operates in 14 African countries and uses the power of soccer to fight HIV and AIDS and provide African youth basic life skills that them make healthy decisions, avoid risks, build support networks, and address gender issues. Check out this video.

Another group, United against Malaria, is using the World Cup as a platform to raise awareness of the disease and catalyze action against it. Malaria kills nearly one million people each year, mostly pregnant women and young children. The partnership is working in 11 endemic African countries where 91 percent of deaths occur, especially in remote villages on the importance of using mosquito nets to protect against malaria.

Football is like an epic novel, dramatic and unpredictable, a gripping thriller carrying hopes and dreams of individuals and societies. It can be aggressive and reckless as opponents throw numbers forward and press the attack, and stingy and slogging as defenses pack it in. No matter what the outcome, fair play is paramount.