CONCACAF must close the disparity gap

Commentary on Twitter was interesting last night. As the U.S. women's soccer team pummeled the Dominican Republic, and the score crept closer to 14-0, we entered that gray area where sportsmanship and ethics become questionable. Where to draw the line is different for everyone, so both sides are justified. Having played for Pia Sundhage, she has my utmost respect and I would personally never question her ethics. Amidst arguments as to whether Sundhage's high-fives were too much or the commentators too negative, a different question came to my mind.

Why is Pia even in a position to choose whether she wants to run the score up?

The disparity gap in CONCACAF is not closing. When people ask why, money is the first response. The per capita income in the U.S. is $46,000 compared to $9,000 in the Dominican Republic.

Others blame the federations, saying they only care about the men because that is where the money is made. The men have pro leagues and World Cup qualifying that make money for their federations. So lots of money is poured into men's programs while women's programs are a big expense.

My 10 years of playing in Mexico permitted me to travel to many of these countries and five years of living in Mexico City have impressed upon me where equally important, yet perhaps unnoticed, parts of this disparity lies.

The first goes way beyond the soccer field and into the realm of public education. Most CONCACAF countries have public school systems that pale in comparison to the worst of the low-standard American schools. While corruption and the economy of these countries are issues way out of the average citizen's control, the effects trickle into all worlds, including youth sports and women's soccer.

Education affects sports performance. Think of it as a gym for the mind. Sitting through classes hones concentration. Incorporating studies into life trains discipline and focus. And studying for finals prepares one for stress and pressure. Every player on Canada and the U.S. has either finished college or will soon. I can say the same for only half of the Mexican women's team. Even fewer on the Mexican men's team, but don't get me started on them. Boys are forced to quit school to enter fuerzas basicas, which is the pro system. It is a flaw on the Mexican men's side, but that's another article for another day.

Do you remember where you learned the basic values of sportsmanship and fair play? I do. It was my kindergarten physical education teacher Miss Mojica, who disqualified me for cutting the cones on Field Day. I really wanted the ribbon but I had to learn the hard way that cheaters never win. In Mexican public schools, P.E. doesn't exist. It's called recess, where kids go sit outside in the courtyard and socialize. There is no equipment. There are no fields. There are no life lessons learned.

You may ask, why isn't this disparity played out on the men's side? Men's soccer in many Latin American countries, such as Mexico, Colombia, Argentina and Brazil, is better than in the U.S., regardless of education. But that is because of the culture. These countries filter their best athletes into soccer. In the U.S. the best athletes still play baseball, football and basketball. In Latin American countries boys live, eat, breathe and watch soccer from a very young age.

But let's get back to the women's game.

I spoke with Randy Waldrum about his experience in Trinidad and Tobago with the U17s. He is one of the few high-profile coaches who has taken time to help develop soccer abroad. He described his experience as "different and difficult." In Trinidad, most of the girls don't begin playing until 12 or 13 years old. They come from impoverished families and few have health insurance. In fact, the federation had to pay for one player to get medical treatment when a nasty tooth infection kept her off the field. It was her first time to a dentist. Randy said during his time there, he solicited help from universities to start youth academies.

I applaud this effort, because it brings us to the solution. There are avenues by which progress can be made to close the gap in CONCACAF. The first is to look to our European friends and see what they have done. UEFA's Grassroots Charter now has 47 of the 53 member associations on board. And check out this article. The pressure is on CONCACAF to step it up and get its members involved in more of the same. Sure, UEFA has more money, but that's not an excuse. A Mexican peso can buy me a lot more in my country than a euro can over there.

Corporations and nonprofits can play a huge role in closing the gap as well. In Mexico, the only established, nationwide youth girls leagues are run by corporations. Mexico's stud forward, Monica O'Campo, was discovered at the Coca-Cola tournament final. Telmex and Bimbo also have nationwide tournaments. Girls can play, develop, and travel for free. This is a wonderful way for companies to brighten their image while fighting issues like child obesity, diabetes and teen pregnancy. We need more of it in developing countries.

I spent the last three days evaluating grant proposals for the U.S. Soccer Foundation. They have $2 million to give away to nonprofits over the next two years that will implement their Soccer for Success curriculum to underserved youth throughout America. I've had a chance to read, in great detail, how organizations like the Boys & Girls Club, the Salvation Army and even youth soccer clubs, plan to integrate soccer and life-skills programming to low-income children to help brighten their futures.

There are also countless nonprofits that provide grants for organizations to do the same in developing countries. CONCACAF has a charitable arm -- perhaps they should look into creating more programming that its members can follow. Perhaps collegiate athletes can take a year after graduation to work for one of the organizations I've listed below, or you can help through a donation. While there isn't much the average person can do to change economies or corruption in the government or its soccer federations, I have faith that those issues will move in the right direction -- after all, the earth's kundalini is moving to Latin America (Google it)!

Meanwhile, let's take action and control what we can. College coaches, let your players know about these organizations; club coaches, think about doing a fundraiser. It's a win-win. I invite those of you who read this article to comment below if you know of organizations I haven't mentioned. Leave the name of the website. It's incredible to see how many friends in the soccer world are active in sharing the beautiful game with those who need it the most.

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