ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan - Once every four years, the World Cup captures the undivided attention of hundreds of millions across the globe. It unites people in their love of the beautiful game and stirs national pride in fans and non-fans alike.
I am a fan, so much so that today, I rose before 7am in order to watch the first match of the day. But I was not up so early to cheer on Team USA or any other nation’s team. No, I was up at first light to cheer on the International Rescue Committee’s squad of under-15 boys in the Zaatari camp World Cup tournament.
In honour of the World Cup, the Union of European Football Associations organised the tournament, with each team sponsored by a humanitarian organisation. The IRC adopted our team after one of our outreach workers found the boys, Syrian refugees, playing an impromptu game on the makeshift gravel pitch. They did not have a coach or even organised practices, but they already had won a previous informal camp competition. We gave the boys IRC jerseys and new trainers for the matches. They were excited.
I arrived at the game just as our team scored its first goal with a long shot from the top of the box. The watching crowd cheered loudly. The day was going to be hot, and the two-group, round-robin style tournament meant five 15-minute games from 8:30am. to 12:30pm. The top teams of each group would advance to the championship round.
We got off to a good start, winning the first game and then tying the next two. As the sun rose and the heat intensified, we decided to create a shaded area for the team as well as supply some refreshments. We jerry-rigged a tent from a tarp and passed out juice and snacks before game four.
That game turned into a tough loss, which meant that we had to win game five in order to have a chance to advance. Luckily, our striker scored an impressive goal on a counterattack to secure the win, forcing a tiebreaker “shootout” between the top teams in our group. Two teams, three shots each, winner goes to the finals.
The first shot by the opposition missed high. Our first shot also sailed high: 0-0 after round one. The opposing team then scored with a hard kick to the left, but we also knocked one into the net. Tied 1-1 going into the round three, the opposition missed wide left. Ibrahim, the IRC’s final shooter, took no time to set the ball, ran up and kicked it home. The boys went wild. On to the final!
We rewarded our players with falafels and Pepsis, not exactly a well-timed snack, but they were hungry and the coach allowed them to eat half their sandwiches and drink half their sodas. The excitement on the boys’ faces was priceless. I felt as if I had been transported out of Zaatari and was cheering inside Maracanã Stadium in São Paulo.
The final match started and, when one of our players shoved a boy on the other team, the referee threw a red card and tried to send him off the pitch. Confusion broke out, but play continued and the opposing team scored a goal—while the referee and our coach were still debating the previous call. A lively conversation between the organisers and coaches didn’t alter events. We felt the call was wrong and play should have stopped, but the point was allowed. The boys tried to rally, but we lost, 1-0.
Needless to say, our players were downcast, hanging their heads, some in tears. This was, after all, their World Cup. I had to say something—my heart was breaking for these kids. I told them that they wore the IRC logo on their jerseys, and that logo represented 14,000 IRC staff around the world—14,000 people who were supporting them, 14,000 people who were cheering for them, 14,000 people who were proud of their great effort in the tournament. That dried their tears a bit, and the kids brightened up, suddenly impatient for next week’s matches to begin.
I am one of those 14,000 proud supporters who also can’t wait to cheer on the IRC team.