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Global Soccer, "Pelada" to World Cup

On the eve of the World Cup, we take a world tour—ground level, back lot, of how soccer is played around the world.

South Africa's Steven Pienaar, center, controls the ball during a training session, ahead of their opening World Cup match against Mexico on Friday, in Johannesburg, South Africa, June 9, 2010. (AP)

World Cup soccer fever is roaring now, with Game One opening up tomorrow in South Africa. 

From Soweto to Cairo to Rio to Madrid and far beyond, soccer fans are on fire. Dreaming of their teams, the fields, the glory.  Acting out their own high-stakes competitions in pick-up games on back-lots and beaches. 

A crew of young American soccer players has scoured the world, video camera in hand, for that face of soccer — on mountainsides, in prison yards, favelas and school lots. Chasing the game.  

This Hour, On Point: we’re deep in the world game, pick-up-style, all over the world. Plus, The New Yorker‘s Hampton Sides on the extraordinary U.S. goalkeeper, Tim Howard.


Grant Wahl, senior writer for Sports Illustrated. He’s author of “The Beckham Experiment: How the World’s Most Famous Athlete Tried to Conquer America.”

Gwendolyn Oxenham, one of the filmmakers of the documentary “Pelada,” which explores the game of soccer in countries around the globe. She is a former captain of the Duke University soccer team.

Luke Boughen, one of the filmmakers of “Pelada.” He played soccer at Notre Dame.

Rebekah Fergusson, one of the filmmakers of “Pelada.” She was also a captain for Duke’s soccer team.

Hampton Sides, contributor to The New Yorker. His new article is “National Defense: Can the United States’ goalkeeper produce another Miracle on Grass?” (subscription required).


Here’s the trailer from the documentary “Pelada,” featured in today’s show:

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  • Tatiana

    Hi Tom!

    Why are Americans so different from the rest of the world when it comes to soccer? What is it about the game that turns Americans off? Or is it the lack of corporate advertising dollars behind it?

    I’m back in Brazil after many years living in the US, and the soccer fever here is in full swing. They’re closing the businesses and sending people home during the games, can you believe it?!?

  • Rick Evans

    What is it about you and Bill Littlefield that have a problem with Americans watching sports other than soccer.

    I have yet to hear an American wonder, what’s wrong with all those other people around the world who have “failed” to embrace the NFL’s game.

    In the spring Americans lose all productivity over NCAA march madness. And about those corporate dollars? Advertising chase eyeballs and not vice-versa.

  • John


    I don’t think you can simply compare football (soccer) to American football and speak to what Tatiana was referring to. When it comes down to it, America is the only country in the word that has yet to embrace the sport. This is sad for me, as an American, as I LOVE the sport. I wish we had the nationalism and passion other countries did – especially when World Cup comes around – but unfortunately we don’t. World Cup is huge. It’s the time when everyone around the world is focused on the same thing… except us Yanks.

    Their are a multitude of sports out there, American football is one of many. So is cricket, for that matter. The simple fact of the matter is Soccer transcends all other sports primarily due to it’s raw nature. All you need is a ball (a round ball, good luck making a football in a remote village in the Amazon), an idea of goals and the passion to play. No excessive rules, no extra gear, don’t even need a field (yesterday I played in an office hallway). Soccer is more than a sport – it’s an international language that everyone has the ability to speak.

    I was fortunate enough to go to a screening of Pelada this week and my mind was blown. Major props to Gwendolyn, Luke, Rebekah and Ryan on making such an enormous commitment and bringing such a beautiful reality to the screen for us all to share!

  • maeve fitzgerald

    Pigs bladder football! My father is 88 years young and tells stories of his boyhood in the poor “Liberties” district of Dublin city Ireland. One of these stories is how they had no soccer ball and obviously no money to buy one so they would plead with the workers at the nearby “abbatoire” or slaughter house to giv them a free pig or cow bladder. The lads would then wash it out and blow into it to inflate it. Let the game begin! Soccer is a fast and exciting sport packed with amazing footwork and body skills, having said that, I just like to watch the highlights!

  • John

    Kenyan born socialist Obama is forcing real Americans to watch this foreign sport.

  • Terry Daniels


    ENGLAND (not the UK) plays USA on Saturday. All of the UK countries have their own individual teams.

    Nice show


  • andy

    I’m a soccer addict, and play both pick up and in an adult league. There is a big difference in the two, at least here. As soon as you add a ref, it’s about winning and keeping score. In pickup, it’s much more about playing beautiful soccer and not hurting the other players

  • Margaret

    How often did the filmmakers see girls (or women) playing pick-up soccer around the world?

    I started playing soccer when I was 10. I am 41 now & have played soccer all of my adult life, pick-up style with other women. Totally fun. I never thought as a kid that this would be the game I would play my whole life.

    How does the U.S. rank in women’s soccer?

  • Renee

    We LOVE soccer and plan to watch the World Cup. 4 years in a row my husband did a multi-day adventure race across Costa Rica, and I went as a volunteer. Every town, no matter how small, had a school and a soccer field, and we saw several impromtu. What you don’t see in the U.S. are many pick-up soccer games. Around the US I see many more pickup basketball games.

  • Edward Shaw

    Some of the best friendships I had were via soccer. Especially the ones I played while studying abroad in Germany.
    I was a graduate student in German at the University of Connecticut for much longer than should be allowed. One of the reasons I was in no hurry to finish was that I discovered in my first year that a large group of international students met several times per week for pick-up soccer. I often felt outclassed and awkward as one of a handful of Americans, but I learned so much about the playing styles of South Americans, Africans, Asians (especially South Asians), and even Europeans.
    But the happiest moment was the year young American students came in numbers to play along because they knew they would have a good game and learn a lot. Older Americans don’t realize the revolution in the American game that is about to unfold.

  • Renee

    We LOVE soccer and plan to watch the World Cup. 4 years in a row my husband did a multi-day adventure race across Costa Rica, and I went as a volunteer. Every town, no matter how small, had a school and a soccer field, and we saw several impromtu pickup games. What you don’t see in the U.S. are many pick-up soccer games. Around the US I see many more pickup basketball games.

  • Kye

    Thank God it’s World Cup year. Why are the documentarists not showing the film here in DC! Going to Europe during the World Cup and I’m thrilled. Been to Europe several time, but never during the World Cup. Glad to be going to a country where the appreciate the Joga Bonito! Allez les bleus!!!

  • ken

    Didn’t Bob Marley die from a toe injury that turned into a bad infection from playing barefoot soccer?

  • Mary Saudade

    I have a soccer story rigt here in our back yard. While at Rever Beach sometime last summer, I was people watching. There were alot of young people from all over the world. There was a group of Irish guys kicking a soccer ball around. There was also another separate
    group of young men playing soccer from, I would guess by their features, the Pacific islands somewhere. Well they decided to play against each other. It was so interesting to see their different styles of playing – the Irish were straight forward and a bit stiff compared to the other team’s beautiful flowing game full of fancy footwork and unconventional plays. Both teams were very good but their styles reflected their cultures so accurately.

  • David Martin

    The previous caller was correct — Americans have gotten away from playing pickup games in any sport. Children learn much about sport and life through pickup games.

  • ron

    Soccer is a great game. I coach a youth team in the hopes that these kids will learn to love the game as much as I do.

  • Tracey

    Soccer doesn’t lend itself to advertising because breaks in the action don’t happen the way they do in American football or baseball. No commercials, no marketing, no support in the US.

  • David Ray

    I was in Tanzania in 2006, walking through a corn field with a pastor that I had just met, to visit one of his congregations. I was still getting used to finding a multitude of foot paths leading through the field when we came upon a small clearing and a thatch hut. Before I could process finding this home in the midst of the field, a young man came sprinting out the door (there probably wasn’t a “door”) with his soccer jersey, cleats and shin pads on, just like my son running to practice at home in Virginia. When we came up out of the field, we were on a soccer field, no grass, lots of dust, but a soccer field with enthusiastic fans non-the-less. Having cleats was unusual, playing barefoot more standard, but the skill and passion for the game are everywhere.

  • Ernie G.

    Regarding Tom’s last comment: the U.S. is not playing the U.K., but England. The usual rule that the U.K. is the correct term, and not England, doesn’t apply in international football where England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales all compete separately.

  • http://GAZAsoccerfieldproject&Hebronlittlekidsteam Hilary Stookey

    Our sons all love soccer and continue to play beyond college. We’ve learnt you can enjoy it throughout your life, it’s terrific exercise and it gives you a healthy way to feel a part of a community.

    For these reasons, our family donated funds to the Rebuilding Alliance’s effort to upgrade a soccer field’s facilities in one particular Gaza community. We hope it will help bring some return to normalcy, improve the community life of the neighborhood and give the kids – and the adults – a way to clear their frustrations in a safe way. We encourage all soccer enthusiasts to look at the project’s description on this link – http://blog.rebuildingalliance.org/projects
    See a very touching youtube description and how much playing soccer means to the kids in that community – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQqe5FvfxkM

    In the city of Hebron, CPT.org has filmed how the game of soccer can even produce compromise between Palestinian locals and Israeli soldiers: http://cpt.org/gallery/album211 And another link on their gallery of photos offer a sweet look at the matches/tournament fun for little Palestinian kids playing soccer in Hebron: http://cpt.org/gallery/album81

    When we were traveling & living on a sail boat, our kids found a game of pickup soccer on a new country’s quay brought everybody together…

    All you need is a soccer ball to connect with each other and have fun ~

  • lucinda

    10-15 years ago I played pick-up soccer games on dusty Cambridge Common at Harvard Square. Of course, given the location, we had many students, but we had a wide variety of others as well from different walks of life, ages, and nationalities; some “regulars” and some folks invited to play as they walked by in their workboots or street clothes. I now teach ESL and feature a soccer ball as a prominent visual on my school website,to welcome all.

  • Gayathri

    Hi Tom,
    I am from India and football is hugely popular (second only to cricket)..kids play in the streets,in playgrounds,apertment parking lots amd many times, the cricket stumps or even a pair of shoes would be used as goal posts.
    It is still considered a man’s game and growing up I never really played the game but the girls are avid fans and follow the games closely. Growing up,I remember trading posters of stars like Maradona with my friends and staying up late to watch the games. My mom disapproved of late night TV and my brother,dad and myself would watch the game on mute but could not help shouting at the tense moments..those are some of my best childhood memories.

  • Chris Hannan

    Regarding the US first World Cup match. The opposition is ENGLAND not the UK.

  • Rick Evans


    “I don’t think you can simply compare football (soccer) to American football and speak to what Tatiana was referring to.”

    You missed my point completely.

    I wasn’t directly comparing soccer aka foot ball to NFL football. I know the difference between an apple and an orange. I was asking why, as you are doing in response to America’s mostly collective yawn to soccer why Tatiana and you feel a need to wallow in collective self flagellating apologies for the rest of us American sports fans.

    “It’s the time when everyone around the world is focused on the same thing… except us Yanks.”

    So? Since when did being gnu or lemming like become a virtue? We ‘Yanks’ have our own collective, productivity sapping focus during March madness.

    “The simple fact of the matter is Soccer transcends all other sports primarily due to it’s raw nature. All you need is a ball (a round ball, good luck making a football in a remote village in the Amazon), an idea of goals and the passion to play.”

    I think you miss the forest for the trees. There’s plenty of soccer being played around the U.S. Maybe you need to ask all those soccer moms and their kids if they’re watching the pros. Sports fans are not necessarily kids who played a sport.

  • Waldo

    Aftr coaching soccer for 15 years, the game has never left me. I’m 73 year old and following the World Cup VERY closely. I missed this film when shown in Charlotte, NC. What is the schedule for showing? WM

  • http://www.millenniumsoccerclub.org/ David Wandel


    Well check out Madison, Wisconsin. We have a volunteer system and a well known soccer program for inner – city kids.

    Click or paste:

    Great program and it is alive and well in Madison…


  • Waldo

    My wife just reminded me…I had a team with 14 languages on it one year. Undefeated. won four league chapionships. WM

  • Rick Bozada

    Want to get hooked on soccer in America? Take in a single game of any Womens Professional Soccer team. These pros display the heart and verve that is what sports used to be about in the US.

  • http://ncpr stillin

    Never fails to amaze me, how little people need to play soccer yet in this country, it’s money, uniforms, organized sports drive me crazy…it’s so ridiculous, when I hear about South African construction workers choosing to play soccer, instead of eating their lunch, in 110 degree heat, with their regular working clothes on, I know WHY I will make the pilgrimage to Africa.

  • Terrence

    Why have I heard so much coverage on NPR and elsewhere this year about the World Cup? Didn’t they have one last year? I never heard a peep about it.

  • Derf

    Great show!

    I was travelling in Thailand and played a couple of these pick up games on the beach of an island. They’d play everyday at 4. It was super fun and you could jump in the water when the game was over! It was great to play a game with people from all over the world.
    Although I’d kicked the ball around a lot with my friends, I’d never really played soccer before but didn’t catch any flack for messing up.
    I wish they played more in the US, even if it was just pick up games. I from MI and soccer was kind of a yuppie/rich kid sport. You had to pay a lot to play in leagues and be able to travel a lot.
    I live in Japan now, by the way they call it soccer here, and they play a lot of futsal, Looks fun. I think I’ll give it a go.

  • Derf


    It’s every 4 years.

  • Richard in Newton

    Awesome show indeed.

    My organizational end came via a blown knee while playing in Div. III college, but through the years including post-injury, I’ve played with women, men, Ivy League players, day laborers, Polish math professors, lesbians, heterosexual women, construction workers, pizza delivery guys, Haitians, Brazilians, Koreans, White Americans, Mexicans, Ghanaians, Italians, Germans, Englishmen, etc. etc…and sat down to share water, some words and exchanged names with most of them following the pick-up games. This sense of community, this “togetherness” is what I think of when the sport is referred to by its other “Beautiful Game” moniker.

    Also, when I want to see passionate footie fans locally, I don’t need to go far. Near my neck of the woods, I can drive into the North End (Little Italy for the non-Bostonians), Harvard Ave in Brighton, Inman Square in Cambridge, Mattapan and so forth where World Cup fever thrives in these ethnic enclaves.

    Prior to listening to this podcast, I happened over to ESPN’s website to watch the matches I’ve missed. On their front page is a poll asking which is more important to you, USA v England or Game 5 of the NBA Finals featuring once again Celtics v Lakers. USA v England currently enjoys a 56%-44% lead in this polling.

  • John Morgan, Waltham, MA

    Dear Tom,
    For years now you have enjoyed a prime position, in my estimation, among broadcasters and journalists for your persistent exhibition of wisdom, intellect and humor while hosting your ‘On Point’ radio program.
    Alas, your reputation collapsed in a breath this week! While discussing the opening of World Cup 2010 on a direct link to South Africa you repeatedly referred to England as the UK!
    Now, I don’t know, but maybe your gaff might earn some sort of inverted approval in the quiet villages of north Wales or on the highland slopes in Argyle shire in Scotland; not to even mention the reaction in some communities within Ulster in the north of my own country.
    To save your bacon, I’d strongly urge that, say, before you next set out for the British Isles (or Ireland) you should call one of your friends in HM Embassy of the United Kingdom and run over Political Geography 101.
    I’ll probably continue listening next week all the same.
    Diplomatically yours,
    John Morgan

  • Renato Yoshida

    The US soccer team has been improving since 94. I believe they are able to play even matches againt any country in the world. However, I believe that for the average American is hard to understand that by winning a domestic league – whatever is baseball, basketball, American football, hockey … – does not give you the right to call yourself a World Champion. To be a World Champion is much more than that. That’s why a World Cup is so exciting. When the game is being played you may lay down on the busiest avenue on the busiest day of the week without risking your life. Sounds insane, doesn’t it? Not for those living the passion of the game.

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