Empowering Girls Through Soccer

 

By Brianna Russell

We’re late. We’re always late. My dad yells—at me, at traffic, at the heat. Son of a bitch. God damn you. You piece of shit. He’s been angry ever since he lost his job at the Refinery, now relegated to working as a janitor and truck driver. Trapped in my seat, I imagine running from him—running hard, and never stopping. When we arrive, I bolt from the car. I run so hard I score three goals within the first ten minutes of my game.

After the game, we walk to the car. “Never seen a kid play soccer like that. Keep it up.” I smile. I’m not a total letdown to him.

Empowering girls through soccer

From then on, I’m known as gel blong futbol—“soccer girl.”

I leave my father far behind twelve years later and join the Peace Corps in the South Pacific. Vanuatu’s beautiful, but not without its flaws and colonial scars. I’m the only non-native in my village. Living here’s like living in a fishbowl. I’m told I can’t wear shorts, can’t talk to men without another person present. Here, most marriages are arranged for young girls.

In Vanuatu, when I ask if I can join a soccer game, the men laugh—until I win.

A few months into my stint, I learn of a soccer tournament on the nearby island of Ambrym—it is so close you can see it in the distance lighting up the sky. Suddenly, I’m consumed with a burning desire: to take a team of women from the village to compete in the tournament.

Now, I just have to convince the women they can do it.

So I call a meeting. About twenty women, ages 15-24, turn up. Most have never left the island, and they’re excited. As the tournament date approaches, discouraging rumors circulate; They practice Black Magic on Ambrym. The witches of Ambrym will create voodoo dolls of you. Don’t drink the tea in Ambrym, they will poison you.

And slowly, the team starts to shrink—one girl at a time.

In the end, only seven of us board a speedboat to cross shark-infested waters for Ambrym. There, we play for three days on volcanic ash so hot the bottom of my cleats melt off the sole.

My teammates have no shoes; they play barefoot.

We take our Wimbledon-size trophy and $100 prize money as first place champions and wait for the speed boat to come take us home.

When we return to our village, community members meet us with flowers—they’ve heard about our victory. The girls run around the field chanting, and I run with them—we run hard, like we’ll never stop. From then on, I’m known as gel blong futbol—"soccer girl.”

We share the prize money and admire our trophy, all the while knowing the real prize is neither the trophy or the money. It’s friendship, trust, well earned respect.

And hope.

And so, years later, I keep coaching in a quest to change as many lives as I can—one gel blong futbol—one “soccer girl”—at a time.

Brianna Russell is the founder of Girls Leading Girls, a San Francisco based non-profit organization that trains young women in leadership and life skills through soccer. Love her article? Share your experience empowering women here!