With soccer fever sweeping the nation thanks to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, I’m fondly recalling the Soccer Saturday gatherings that we at the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center organized earlier this year.

With USL to Portland (the prospective USL League One expansion club) as a partner, we sponsored friendly games at the Kennedy Park field in Portland, where hundreds of soccer balls were given away to mostly immigrant youth. For those too young to play soccer, we had toys, books, healthy snacks and fresh fruit. Camaraderie, smiles and carefree laughter are what I remember the most from the events. As a former soccer player, I found it rewarding to see how soccer – or “football,” as it is called everywhere outside of the U.S. – could unite all.

I have played soccer all my life. I like to think I started to chase a ball right after I learned to walk. I still play soccer for fun. Around the country, there are groups of immigrants, young and old, playing “the beautiful game” in a school gym or outside in a field. Despite the differences in ethnicity, spoken languages, religion and race, our shared love of soccer brings us together.

When I came to Maine as a refugee, I felt sad to see soccer not being cherished widely by Americans of all ages. When telling friends in Maine that I played soccer, I was reminded, to my dismay, that it was seen as a children’s or girls’ sport, popular in suburban communities. Yet, given the chance, I’d follow the international competitions, the European clubs’ rise and fall and their scores from away. Soccer reminded me of home.

It all changed when the U.S. women’s soccer team won the championship in the 1991 FIFA Women’s World Cup, followed by the U.S. hosting the FIFA World Cup in 1994. Finally, soccer came to America, gaining respect and admirers.

Worldwide, soccer is more than a sport: it can pass as a religion, complete with saint-like personalities worth worshipping. In 2018, according to FIFA, the international governing body of football, a combined 3.5 billion viewers, which was almost half of the global population then, watched the final competition.


In America, soccer might as well be called the sport of immigrants. In communities across the U.S., a soccer practice or a game is a multicultural event.

Soccer brings people together. It offers hope and it can heal divisions. Who can forget the widely shared images of members of the U.S. soccer team consoling the Iranian players after their team’s defeat a few weeks ago? The American players exemplified the best in humanity at a time of international conflict and animosity between governments. The exchange showcased how worldwide sports tournaments and nations meeting on the sports fields can rise to international friendship and even be a form of diplomacy.

In 2015, Lewiston’s Blue Devils, the high school soccer team that included players from six or seven countries, with a majority being African immigrants, won the state championship. In a city that has experienced racial tension, the community found solace in soccer. A book and a documentary on the subject put Maine on the national and international maps.

On Sunday, the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center will host the World Cup final watch party at the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine in Portland, offering community members a chance to watch the game together. For the sake of creating community in the name of soccer, show up to make a new friend or greet a newcomer in a language different than your own.

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