Creating Cultural Bridges under the Bridge

It’s Tuesday night. It’s dark out. You see your breath. Your hands feel the sudden sting of cold and soon you won’t feel them at all. You head down the path off Washington Street towards the basketball courts under the bridge. Bright murals are painted on the supports that hold up the massive cement structure overhead. You hear cars pass. Each car sends vibrations traveling through your body. Fluorescent light fills the court. Off in the dark corners the homeless gather. Soon others like you arrive. You have different facial features, different skin colors, different sexes, heights and sizes, but you are all united by your purpose. It’s time to play street soccer.

Every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday night a group comes together to play street soccer downtown at the Washington-Jefferson Park. Teams of four play first to three goals and the winners stays on while the losers come off to make way for the next team.

The courts at the Washington-Jefferson Park receive heavy traffic. As well as the street soccer players, a group shows up weekly to play bike polo and another group shows up to boff, dressed in their mid-evil armor and armed with wooden swords and axes to hit each other. The soccer players look at the bike polo  players and boffers and think what a strange thing to do, but everything is relative. A boffer might look at the soccer players and think, “What kind of weirdo goes out in freezing weather to spend their time chasing a ball around?”

It is a fair question and the soccer players have an answer.

“I play because it’s fun,” says Dillon Borta. “If you don’t make time to do fun things in your life, what’s the point?”

“I play because it’s a great work out,” says Chad Tinsley.

“I play because it’s an opportunity to meet new people from all sorts of different cultures,” says James Webber.

James Webber

The group of street soccer players is diverse. There are men and women. There are players with national ties to Nicaragua, Kenya, Mexico, the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia, China and other countries all playing together.

“It’s really something special we have here. We are all very different. We have different cultures, lifestyles, religions and opinions, but we are all united by our passion for the game,” says Webber. “If it wasn’t for this I would never have the opportunity to meet these people. We live in separate worlds.”

Webber is a graduate student at the University of Oregon. He has white skin, and grew up in the state. He has friends from a variety of nationalities but admits that if it wasn’t for soccer all of his friends would be white.

Besides soccer all of Webber’s experiences have been segregated. He went to a high school that was predominately white. He worked at jobs where everyone was white. Even at the University of Oregon, which has multicultural programs and brings in exchange students, the majority of the population is still staggeringly white.

While pondering the lack of color in his life Webber began to appreciate soccer even more.

“I have white friends that get uneasy around Hispanic people. I feel ashamed at first, but then I realize that they are not fully to blame. They lack exposure to people from different cultures and so most of what they know comes from television and movies where non-Caucasians are often portrayed poorly. I’m glad that I’m part of a group that allows me to meet people of different cultures and let my views off those cultures be based in real life rather than media stereotypes.”

Soccer as a multicultural bridge goes far beyond the street game in Eugene. In 2006 a Dutch Multicultural group organized a soccer match between gays and Muslims to ease tension between the two.

In 2005 Soccer for Peace was created, a non-profit group whose goal is to help solve the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. They strive to achieve this by bringing together Jewish and Muslim children in the United States and having them play together on the field so that they can co-exist off of it.   

In 2010 the world will come together in South Africa for the World Cup, the first ever to be held in an African nation. The World Cup itself is organized in a way to allow as many different cultures to be represented by the 32 teams in the cup final as possible.

South Africa is a country divided by race. It has a long history of black and white segregation. Danny Jordaan, the top official of South African soccer, feels that South Africa’s soccer team and its preparation for the World Cup is uniting the nation’s blacks and whites in support for their country.

All around soccer brings people together. “I can travel anywhere in the world, put a ball down on any street corner, and instantly I have 25 friends,” says Ethan Zohn, co-founder of Grassroots Soccer. Grassroots Soccer is an organization aimed at using the celebrity of African soccer stars to promote HIV/Aids education throughout Africa.

Zohn’s sentiments are echoed by the Eugene street soccer players.

“Everyone is really friendly. We’re all competitive but we make sure to play with respect so no one gets hurt or feels cheated,” says Webber.

The pick-up game may not be as significant as Soccer for Peace or Grassroots Soccer, but the games here have broken a few stereotypes. In the heat of the game you’re not white, Hispanic, Asian, or black. You’re either a teammate or an opponent, and then eventually you’re a friend.

Unfortunately, the courts under the bridge are not the most ideal location for street soccer. The bridge leaks and so during heavy rains the courts get wet resulting in poor traction which is hazardous for the players.

The first set of goals donated by one of the players was stolen at the end of summer after being locked up with a bike chain at the park. Another set of goals was donated by another player. One of these goals broke a few weeks ago after taking too much stress from hard shots.

Another problem with the courts is the homeless and drug users that occupy the area. Usually the players and the homeless get along fine. Occasionally conflicts arise. On November 17th an intoxicated homeless man staggered his way on to the field demanding to play. He got in the way of the players and at one point kicked a player’s shin instead of the ball because his reflexes were too slow. Eventually the players placed him on a team and worked around him.

On November 25th players moved aside as police cars drove through the court to aim their high beams at a group of homeless people. The game resumed but soon stopped again as a woman made her way on to the court and away from the police officers before being pulled back and arrested.

Some of the organizers of street soccer in Eugene dream of something better.

They dream of a street soccer league and street soccer tournaments. Right now up to 16 people come to play each night. As the temperature drops, so have the amount of players showing up. Chris Lopez, one of the initiators of the pick-up games wants more people, and dreams about turning street soccer into a hang out event involving players, fans, and music.

“We used to have a boom box playing all kinds of stuff, hip hop, rock, salsa and samba, but we blew out the speakers. We need to get that back,” says Lopez.

The players also want an official street soccer court where there are no wet surfaces, no drug addicts interfering with games, no competition for the court, and no one stealing their goals.

“Skaters get a park, so do basketball players and floor hockey players. Why not us? We just don’t know how to go about it,” says Lopez.

An email was sent to the Eugene Parks and Open Spaces about the street soccer players, how the game is uniting cultures, and getting people active. The email asked about what it would take to create an official street soccer park in Eugene. It was sent two weeks ago. No response yet.

In the meantime the players will continue to share their passion for the game and breakdown cultural barriers under the bridge. It’s not the ideal location, but that doesn’t change the fact they’re grateful to have it.

About davidmehr

I'm a Journalism student at the University of Oregon. I'm also a rock climbing instructor and a soccer referee.
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