A group of young football (soccer) players from all over the world have been in the United States at the invitation of the U.S. State Department celebrating the World Cup. During their visit the athletes took the World Cup's motto -- "a time to make friends" -- to heart.
The young players are from all over the world: Africa, South America, Asia, the Middle East, with one thing in common: a love of football (soccer).
The young athletes, ranging in age from 13 to 18, are spending two weeks together as part of the World Cup Sports Initiative, a partnership between the U.S. government and the major football organizations in the United States.
David Tyahla, with the U.S. Soccer Foundation, says the visitors are becoming good friends. "It is a great way to live up to the slogan of this year's World Cup which the German organizers are calling 'A Time to Make Friends.' And that's the whole point about it: crossing boundaries, bringing the global community into the world's game."
The young athletes spent a week in Washington, D.C. learning about football in the United States. Excelling on the field was a big part of the week's activities. But organizers hope the athletes will take an even more important message home with them: how success in sports can translate to success off the field.
Sasho Cirovski coaches the University of Maryland's Men's Football team. "Our greatest glory is not in never falling but rising every time we fall. Because that is what sports teaches you -- you get knocked down, you get up. You learn from your mistakes."
Cirovski stressed the importance of both athletics and academics in preparing for the rest of their lives and encouraged the players to pursue both.
While very grown-up themes, such as teamwork, cross-cultural understanding and conflict resolution were addressed during the week, the trip was also about making new friends and having fun. Anna is an athlete from Uzbekistan and says she has made lots of friends.
Shamila, an athlete from Afghanistan, says it has been a great learning experience too. "I learned a lot of things here especially football or technique, technique especially -- we found different people, friends from different cultures, different countries."
Bolivian athlete, Jose, adds he is making new friends and learning from them also. He says he will never forget one encounter. "I would say meeting the president, which I'd say was the most exciting experience I had."
For many of the teenagers, this is the first time they have been out of their country. Simon Norton of World Learning, a group that regularly works with young people on peace-building efforts, believes spending time together has been a "powerful experience" for the athletes.
“There are so many benefits, from cross-cultural understanding, for the chance for them to hangout, perhaps for the first time with somebody from a different country, certainly a different culture, a different religion, a different skin color.”
And these varied experiences have had an impact on the group. Memory, a young player from Uganda, has been especially touched by the week's life lessons and offers this advice to other young athletes: "They should continue playing their soccer, playing their sports, because any sporting activity you do can take you anywhere."
And football will also take this group of young athletes to the World Cup to see a game in person.