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The first thing I hear as I approach Nike's Ronaldo Field in Portland, Ore., is Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" booming out of the stereo. There's a fire starting in my heart, reaching a fever pitch and it's bringing me out the dark. Then, there's giggling. Lots of giggling. I see in the distance a group of teenage girls, dressed head to toe in red, doing partner soccer drills, and I smile. It reminds me of playing the game in my youth.
But these girls are nothing like me. Many of them just started in soccer, most do not get a chance to train regularly, and none of them have ever imagined the possibility of being able to play in college, let alone on a professional team…until now.
"In Indonesia, it's so rare for a woman to play soccer," says Eva Rahayu, an 18-year-old from Malang who just picked up the sport three months ago. "Indonesian people think that soccer is just for boys, and it's not good for women to play. They think it's dangerous, but I don't think so -- I think it's fun! And I think women can play with no difference than boys."
As part of an American-Indonesian soccer exchange program, Eva, along with 14 other Indonesian teenage girls, just spent 10 days in the U.S., visiting schools, meeting professional female players, training with top-notch coaches, experiencing American culture, and of course, playing soccer. Funded by a grant from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs' SportsUnited Office at the U.S. Department of State, the exchange is part of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's Women's World Cup Initiative, launched on June 6, which seeks to empower women and girls through sports.
The two-way exchange began in January, when four U.S. soccer coaches traveled to Indonesia and trained more than 250 athletes and 45 coaches in the regions of Jakarta, Surabaya and Pontianak. Then last week, Indonesian girls visited the San Francisco Bay area and Portland, where they practiced with local high school players, trained with professionals, and visited the Stanford University and Nike campuses, both epicenters of American sports culture and education.
"We want to show these girls that there are thousands and thousands of young women who play this game," says Karen Willoughby, the program director at the International Center's Sports Corps Division. "We've had them play with high school club teams their own age, train with and watch semi-professional women's teams, and we even watched a Portland Timbers game together. Meeting other Americans and realizing that they share a common joy and love of soccer has really resonated with everyone."
"I've loved soccer since I was a little girl, and I know I can do it, play as good as boys," says 19-year-old Kiky Navy Sukmawati. "Now I want to invite my friends to play soccer with me on my campus. Maybe with this program, I can say to them, 'Hey, girls do have opportunities to play soccer. We can do it.'"
There's a fire starting in my heart, reaching a fever pitch and it's bringing me out the dark.
As I walk away from the field, the girls circle up for a group stretch, happy to be done with their workout for the day, still giggling, and I smile. Maybe they're more like me than I realized.