Most people who know me will tell you I am a big Muhammad Ali fan. I was introduced to Ali in 1974 when he fought George Foreman in what was dubbed “the “Rumble in the Jungle.” I was one of the kids following the G.O.A.T. chanting “Ali Boma Ye” (“Ali, kill him”) in the streets of Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaire.
The Ali-Foreman fight was a culmination of a significant sporting year in the history of my native Congo. Our national soccer team, Zaire’s Leopards as it was then called, won the African Cup of the Nations by defeating Zambia in Cairo, Egypt. The Leopards earned the right to participate in the World Cup in Germany. The Congo’s team was representing the whole continent to the once-every-four-year world competition as the first-ever sub-Saharan African country to do so.
The excitement of watching the African Cup of the Nations and, later, the World Cup games was unspeakable. Neighbors who had a television set — a luxury not afforded to all — would place it outdoors to allow dozens of others to follow and cheer for our team with a sense of solidarity and patriotic pride. Soccer had a way of unifying us in spite of tribal, ethnic, linguistic, religious and other differences.
As kids, when we played barefoot on the hot sands of the tropics, we would take on the names of the Leopards’ players. One of the uniqueness of soccer is that it is accessible to everyone. While the well-to-do kids played in fancy fields with all the bells and whistles, no pun intended, we could start a “football match” anytime and anywhere we had at least two kids wanting to play. Sometimes we would use mounds of rocks to create a makeshift goal. Other times we would use bamboos to erect the goalposts. No nets needed. For a ball, we would use old clothes rummaged from neighborhood’s garbage. Some kids were skilled at rolling those clothes or any random items to make a workable ball. Those balls never needed air, thus never “deflated.” I bet Tom Brady couldn’t play with them. Sorry, I digressed.
When we started a match, any kid who wanted to join was welcome. The only requirement was that he or she would need to find another so the pair could be split between two teams. We learned many lessons. We learned eye-foot-hand coordination. We learned teamwork, sharing and strategies. Since we didn’t have referees, we learned to set the rules and self-regulate. Many of my best childhood memories were created around soccer. In addition, by watching international games, we learned about other countries, their people, history, geography, cultures, languages and more.
When I came to the USA in 1991, imagine what was one of my biggest disappointments: soccer was not as popular. I couldn’t watch the world game. I couldn’t play it easily. I saw the game gain in popularity over the years. Now fast forward to 2014 when Indy Eleven debuted. I will never be able to put into words the excitement of that first game at the IUPUI Michael Carroll Stadium. I had marked my calendar and was looking forward to the game. My joy overflowed when I could see people from all around the world and hear all kinds of languages surrounding me. When Indy Eleven scored its first goal, the exhilaration had no boundaries of country of origin or cultural tradition. For me, at that moment, Indiana’s tagline “Crossroads of America” became “Crossroads of the World.” Soccer did that. Its universal appeal created a broad-based sense of unity of all Hoosiers — by birth and by choice. I have witnessed firsthand the growing diversity in our city for the past two decades. This diversity is a strength on which we can capitalize as we aspire to be a world-class city. Just imagine the tangible and intangible impact of having a pro soccer stadium. Now, imagine the possibility of hosting a World Cup in Indianapolis. I am speaking it into existence.
Central Indiana is home to global headquarters for a number of major corporations, churches and other institutions. I am grateful for many past and current efforts — both from the public and private sectors — to raise the profile of our city in today’s global marketplace. The leadership of the Indianapolis International Airport is one such laudable example. I believe having a pro soccer stadium will catapult these efforts and accelerate the process of making Indianapolis an attractive and appealing international destination.
José Lusende is Vice President for Strategy & External Relations for Recorder Media Group — home of the Indianapolis Recorder Newspaper and Indiana Minority Business Magazine.