By Mark Dickinson
Teachers face a Herculean task both connecting with children and building a sense of community to foster learning, a task even more challenging in diverse, often marginalized groups. Sometimes, the solution is as simple as turning on a soccer match.
I teach middle school in a rural, Georgia county with kids from 32 countries, speaking 18 languages. It’s tricky enough for people from the same culture to get along, not to mention the problems that can arise when children mix English, Urdu, and Korean, or attempt to relate to one another’s customs, as dissimilar as the Battle of the Oranges in Italy or the Monkey Buffet Festival in Thailand.
Despite the differences, young people from Boston to Brussels to Beijing share one thing in common — they love to play, and the game they love playing most, and viewing most, is soccer. More than 40% of the globe’s inhabitants identify themselves as soccer fans.
Every four years, 32 of the best national teams meet in the sport’s preeminent professional event, the World Cup tournament, a spectacle watched by billions. This year, the competition was held in Qatar, beginning in November.
I must admit I normally don’t follow soccer. I grew up in the Deep South where a football is spherical, not round, and college football is a way of life. However, in numerous countries, soccer is more like a religion, unifying people who otherwise might not even be able to stand the sight of one another.
In the last World Cup in 2018, 3.5 billion people tuned in to the competition at some point, more than half of the Earth’s population, aged four and above. In comparison, the United State’s most popular sporting event, the Super Bowl, drew 208 million viewers worldwide in 2022.
When this year’s World Cup kicked off, soccer dominated our school’s conversation from the first bell in the morning until dismissal in the afternoon. My students — several of whom are Latino — asked me who I was pulling for. On a good day, I can’t name five professional soccer players, but if something is important to kids, it’s important to me, especially if those kids belong to populations, who may feel devalued or misunderstood.
I went with Argentina, since the team’s star player, 35-year-old Lionel Messi, could have been playing in his last World Cup. On four previous occasions, Messi’s squad failed to capture the championship.
The trash talk started immediately.
“Mr. D, there’s no way Argentina will win it.”
“Mr. D, I don’t have a team. I just want yours to lose.”
“Mr. D, Neymar (Brazil’s star player) is way better.”
Many of my students cheer for Brazil, winner of five World Cups, the most of any country. It was yet another reason to root for Argentina because Brazil and Argentina are soccer’s biggest rivals. I enjoy a little smack talk, as well, especially when it stirs up the kids.
Our school prohibits cell phones in class, but as the 29-day tournament unfolded, the staff knew kids were peaking at their phones or checking their Chromebooks to get updates.
I had an inspiration. Why not just let students watch the early games during lunch on the cafeteria’s big-screen TV?
I work for a fantastic principal. She knows her stuff, supports her teachers, and is willing to try anything to engage students and increase their academic performance. When I asked about the TV, she said, without hesitation, she’d take care of it.
In the quarterfinals, an early game appeared on the schedule, pitting the underdog, Croatia, against the all-time champ, Brazil, and for the first time, a World Cup soccer game would be televised in our school’s cafeteria.
I wasn’t there when the sixth graders arrived to eat. I didn’t have to be. I heard the cheers echoing through the hallways. My seventh graders would go to lunch last.
A professional soccer game lasts 90 minutes. If there’s no winner, the teams play 30 extra minutes. If there’s still no winner, the game goes to a penalty shootout.
At the end of regulation, neither Brazil nor Croatia had scored, defying the odds. The game headed to overtime.
As we wrapped up our English lesson and lined up for lunch, I broke the news: “You might have the coolest principal in the state. There’s an early Christmas gift waiting for you in the cafeteria — the World Cup.”
I feared for my safety, as the hyped-up fans stampeded out of the room.
My stomach dropped when I entered the cafeteria. I cringed as Brazil’s legendary player Neymar da Silva Santos Junior, known as Neymar, danced around the goalie and deftly deposited the ball into the top of the net, breaking the tie.
With only minutes remaining in the game, it appeared Argentina’s nemesis was going to the semifinals.
“In your face, Mr. D!” shouted Giselle, a rambunctious student, clad in a Neymar jersey.
I left the cafeteria, preparing for the barrage of insults I knew were heading my way.
And then, it happened, the unexpected. Before the clock expired, Croatia tied the score against the pre-tournament favorite. That meant penalties, arguably the most exciting and agonizing moments in sports.
Soccer players are some of the fittest athletes on the planet, sprinting up and down a 100+ yard field for an hour and a half—logging, on average, seven miles—with just a 15-minute break between the two halves of the contest. The intensity hits a fever pitch during extra time, leaving players mentally and physically spent.
Suddenly, it all stops, as teammates congregate in the middle of the field, arms intertwined, watching helplessly and praying, as one of five players from each side takes turns kicking the ball from the penalty spot, a mere 12 yards away from the goal, defended by just the opponent’s goalkeeper. The best of five goals wins.
I tore down the hallway from my classroom, positioning myself directly beneath the TV, cheering on Croatia, and staring down Giselle.
First up, Croatia … Goal!
Next up, Brazil … blocked by the goalie, giving Croatia an early advantage. In the World Cup, penalty kicks are successful about 70% of the time.
“Croatia!” I yelled, pumping my fists in the air.
The kids responded with an avalanche of boos.
On the following two penalty kicks, each team scored. Croatia 3 – Brazil 2.
For the fourth shot, Croatia remained perfect. Croatia 4 – Brazil 2.
Now, Brazil would have to make its kick to keep the match alive.
The excitement in the stadium and lunchroom grew, straining the nerves of everyone tuning in worldwide.
Marcos Aoás Corrêa, nicknamed Marquinos, was selected for the critical shot, despite having never before taken a penalty in his professional career.
The ball sailed toward the left corner of an almost wide-open net, after the keeper dove to the right, guessing the shot would be headed that way, but the ball bounced off the post. No good. Game over!
Neymar, who was slated for the final penalty kick, sank to the turf, weeping uncontrollably, knowing — at age 30 — this, too, might be the end of his World Cup career. After the game, the superstar wrote on his Instagram account he was “psychologically destroyed” by the defeat.
The prayers of the South American faithful, and of the gods themselves, went unanswered.
Yes, I know I’m an adult, but the laws of the seventh-grade jungle dictated I gloat over the loss of “my” team’s archrival.
I tracked down Giselle, pounded my chest, and took my revenge. “How about Croatia!” I belted out. Later, another student approached me, saying, “Mr. D, I mildly dislike you right now,” but a connection had been made, even if I were the villain.
For the record, Argentina made it to the finals on Sunday facing France, the defending World Cup champion. After a 3–3 draw at the conclusion of extra time, Argentina won the game on penalty kicks 4–2, giving the country its first title in 36 years. Fittingly, Messi scored two goals in, perhaps, his World Cup farewell.
Due to the winter break, I’d have to wait until after the holidays to take my victory lap through the school’s hallways, but, really, it didn’t matter to me either way if Argentina won or lost. What did matter was for almost a month teachers and students alike — regardless of their identities — shared a common passion some kids treasure above all others.
Purists could argue the children were off task academically. To a certain extent, I agree, but over two decades of teaching, I’ve discovered a few minutes away from reading, writing, and arithmetic is well-worth it for teachers to demonstrate they do care about the lives and interests of their students, to bond in a real, meaningful way. During the tournament, the kids seemed happier, more cohesive, and a little more motivated to do their work.
Educators like to tell themselves students will remember their brilliant lessons on gerunds, geometry, and genetics. Most won’t, but it’s a decent bet, one day, a group of Georgia middle schoolers will look back fondly at mixing it up with their classmates and teachers during the 2022 World Cup.
About Mark Dickinson
Mark is an international instructor currently teaching in the United States. Before beginning his career in the classroom 20 years ago, he worked for almost a decade as both a television and newspaper reporter.