I’ve been finding it extremely difficult to put the magic of the Copa de la Paz– the only all girls youth soccer tournament in Nicaragua– into words. It’s the only all girls youth soccer event. Let that sink in. Hosted by Fútbol Sin Fronteras (SWB), the Peace Cup is held every year in commemoration of the United Nation’s International Day of Peace, a day observed around the world with the objective of strengthening our devotion to the ideals of peace.
The inaugural Copa de la Paz kicked off in 2009, and saw the participation of six teams. In striking contrast, this year’s edition– the sixth annual– was comprised of 18 teams spread out across four different divisions, with the oldest girls playing 11v11 for the very first time. And this wasn’t the only way in which the tournament expanded, either; 2015 saw the Peace Cup extend its reach immensely, with teams traveling to Granada from as far away as Matagalpa in order to participate in the festivities. It was a spectacular event, an atmosphere of peace, positivity and hope that can only truly be captured in real life. Regardless, here is an attempt at providing you with a glimpse into un día único e irrepetible:
Tres Pisos– FSF’s office space– was bustling at 6am on Saturday morning. In fact, if you were still a bit sleepy you might have mistaken your surroundings for Granada’s central mercado, always teeming with people in search of fresh produce, meats and other necessities; a group of parents from the older teams demonstrated their ardent support for their daughters by volunteering to cut fruit, serve breakfast, and even travel to the field with the remaining food to serve as snacks. Support of this nature by parents for their daughters’ sports teams would have been unheard of years ago, which made their help that much more significant and special.
By 8am, after an adrenalized bus ride, the teams arrived at La Pólvora, the designated start point for the welcome parade. What was particularly exceptional was that one of the visiting teams began to make the rounds, passing by each and every opposing team’s huddle to shake hands and introduce themselves. Excited and confused faces instantly transformed into happy and welcoming smiles, and peace began to radiate throughout the space.
Within the blink of an eye, the 18 teams were in their places to begin the parade, led by three girls holding a stunning banner that read “Copa de la Paz. Jugando por el cambio. Fútbol femenino” (Peace Cup. Playing for Change. Women’s football). The interlocutor called out each team by name over the loudspeaker, to which he received animated cheers and shrieks of excitement in response. Songs like “We Are One (Ole Ola)”– the official 2014 FIFA World Cup anthem– set the stage for the girls to walk hand in hand the entire width of the road up to the fields at San Matías. Over 200 girls marching together in unison to commence a day of shared soccer play and peace, it’s tough to predict the next time I’ll see such a fantastic display of love, solidarity and female empowerment.
Before blowing the starting whistle, the participants formed a massive circle and listened to introductory speeches from Co-director Veronica, a representative from the US Embassy, and six FSF participants from the Grupo de Liderazgo, or Leadership Group, who read the words of Peace and explained why the organization celebrates the tournament.
Then, we were off. Each and every way you looked, out of every corner of your eye, there was a girl kicking a soccer ball, jumping up and down with excitement, cheering on her teammates. Teams from Tipitapa competing against teams from Managua, Matagalpa and Granada. It was the pinnacle of beauty and harmony. While the girls themselves worked to communicate positively and effectively on the pitch, demonstrating respect, discipline, and trabajo en equipo, the FSF staff did the same in their phenomenal efforts to make sure that the event ran as smoothly as possible.
While each team inevitably played out some fairytale moments on the pitch, there were a few standout moments from my team, FC Fenix, that I will never forget. When Fenix reached the final match against Matagalpa, the girls from La Villa– FSF’s newest program– joined me on the sideline to support the other FSF teams. The girls from La Villa are brand new to team sport environments, trailblazers in their community as the first girls’ team in the entire part of the city, but you would never guess that they are new to the game; their teamwork, dedication and motivation are second to none, and there is no doubt in my mind that they are on their way to becoming tremendous leaders of their teams and community both on and off the pitch.
The second moment leaves me with the desire to stress the fact that you can’t underestimate the importance of an all girls youth sporting event like the Copa de la Paz in Granada, Nicaragua. The girls dream of this day year round, and the emotion and excitement of the event is something that they will surely hang onto until the seventh edition in 2016. Due to the fact that there are no girls leagues here, these are some of the girls’ only “meaningful” games of the season. I don’t think I was fully aware of the significance of the event, nor of the weight of this fact, until I saw Rossmary, one of the members of my team, score a goal in the closing minutes of the final to put Fenix ahead 1-0. She ran over to her teammates– on the verge of shedding a thousand tears of joy and pure elation– and gave them the most genuine, heartfelt hugs I’ve ever seen. All of those days of practicing under the scorching sun were worth it to see her beaming smile.
All 18 teams walked away from the Peace Cup sharing the hopefulness that comes from playing for change and promoting peace through sport and friendship. Not only this, they left with the satisfaction that they had effected a positive change in their local community; seeing the droves of people that came out to support them and watch girls soccer– including players from the local men’s league who provided additional help as referees– solidified the sentiment that girls can do much more than household chores, cleaning, cooking, upholding traditional roles. Each and every one of these incredible young women is a trailblazer for her efforts to break these molds and go beyond societal norms that have been set in stone for decades.
We want to thank the U.S. Embassy in Managua, Bristol Link with Nicaragua (BLINC) and everyone else who helped us make this amazing event possible, and a special thank you to the coaches, parents, community members and participants who fomented such unrivaled sentiments of peace, friendship and teamwork. Until next year!