May 7, 2018
Soccer is a man’s sport, so they say. Although it is safe to say that financially women are still underpaid in soccer, if it weren’t for Title IX programs female soccer players in the US may still be at a greater disadvantage.
When Hope Solo ran for US Soccer President earlier this year, the country learned more about the disadvantages that women face in soccer as they remain undervalued and left without basic needs such as health care after serving their country and after their playing careers have concluded. But no one ever seems to specifically address black women in soccer who are at an even greater disadvantage in the US. At the NCAA Division 1 level, there are only three black female head coaches and at the NCAA Division 2 level there are zero. In the National Women’s Soccer League there is only one black female in a coaching role and that is Briana Scurry who is an assistant.
Here is my story about my love for the game and how I plan to inspire black girls in the future to become players, coaches, owners, and ambassadors for the game of soccer.
I started playing soccer when I was 6 years old in Bakavu, Congo. The coach at the time who brought soccer to our community was from Senegal and he had aspirations to start a team for both boys and girls players. His main reason for starting the team was to keep us active and give us a chance to experience the love for the game of soccer that he also had. I really loved this team and I truly enjoyed my experience. But my life changed when my family moved to Brussels.
When I got to Belgium, I started running Track & Field with my brother who had won two 400 meter relay championships. I’d run for most of my childhood but soccer was always my first love. I’d never continue playing soccer after I left the Congo, but I’d always watch games and would be impressed by the passion that people in Europe have for the sport.
In 2012, I got back into soccer when I joined the Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia. I heard that they had a soccer ministry so I wanted to volunteer. I thought that it would be great to join and be around soccer not just as a spectator but also as a coach. I had no prior coaching knowledge, in fact the reason why I did it was to help the ministry and to keep myself busy. My husband Bruno, who is from Brazil, and loves soccer like the hundreds of millions of Brazilians around the world also volunteered. The program consisted of 150 black female soccer players between the age groups of U6 – U16 of which Bruno and I coached the U6 group totaling 36 players.
I did not have much knowledge on coaching, and I never really had that much playing experience either. The Ministry Director ended up creating a camp because eventually she had plans to start a travel team, so my husband and I went to help, and we were appointed as the directors of the camp. In 2014, we’d eventually leave Philadelphia for Panama. The following year I remember attending a Track & Field event with my daughter and speaking with the Principal of the school. He mentioned to me that they were looking for a soccer coach, so he introduced me to the Director of the Metropolitan School of Panama, Javier Wallace, who was from Texas. Fortunately, I had some videos that I had recorded in Philadelphia at the church of me coaching so I sent them to him.
He granted me an interview. I told him that I didn’t have any coaching diplomas, and that all that I had was my willingness, energy, and love for the sport and that I just wanted to teach children, especially girls. So he hired me. It was my first job coaching girls who had never been exposed to soccer on an organized level.
I remember that same year thanking Wallace again for the opportunity, but I wanted to learn more about soccer, so I asked him if there was any way that I could take online classes to be able to learn the methodology of soccer. I think of soccer as a science that no one can just wake-up one day and learn. It is like to become a doctor, scientist, or coach you need to have experience and learn from someone who can teach you how to do it. So he gave me the lead to the then National Soccer Coaches Association of America now the United Soccer Coaches. I reached out to them and they steered me towards taking the National Diploma, then this past July 2017, I completed the Advanced National Diploma.
What led my desire to coach was when I began volunteering at Enon. I looked at those girls who all came from different family structures, some from the inner-cities and some from the middle class as my fuel to want to reach more. I remember having a conversation with one of the girls. She asked me how many languages I spoke, I told her four, then I asked her if she wanted to learn a new language and if so why? She said yes and that she wanted to learn a new language so that she can help others if someone were ever to get lost in a foreign city. What brought me and my player together was soccer, but her answer got me thinking that soccer meant more to these girls, and that they looked at the game as also a cultural experience, so I wanted to teach more and reach more kids.
I set off on a mission to give them more confidence and instill passion. I wanted to help nurture these kids not only on the field but also off of the field. I told them that just because you may not be able to make a pass or dribble the ball now, then that doesn’t mean that you won’t be great in the future.
Growing up in the Congo and living in Belgium made me realize that soccer should be for everyone. But here in the US, it seems like it is just more for those who live in the suburbs. When I watch soccer here in the US and look into the stands during a National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) match, I don’t see that many black or brown skin girls on the field. In fact, black female players only make up 18% of the NWSL. So I wondered, how come? It reminded me the time that I did a camp and was the only black female coach at the camp. I realized that we are so few here while other communities are well represented. This reason was also a driving force as to why I wanted to coach the girls at Enon. I wanted to empower and lift them up to teach them that they can do anything that they set their minds too.
In Panama, the mentality towards girls playing soccer is more of a conservative approach than the US. So when I coached the girls in Panama, I wanted to rid them of the belief that soccer was only for boys. I wanted them to know that I am a woman who loves soccer and on the field I can wear sweats and teach the love of the game. But I wanted them to know that I am also a wife and a mom with two daughters, so when I am off of the field I too can be a girl.
I remember one day when I was walking to the school, I wasn’t coaching that day, but I went to pick up my daughters. I had on make-up, a strapless top, and my hair was down. I saw one of my players so she approached me, her name was Gabrielle and we exchanged greetings. Then she said “Coach are you ok? You look weird.” I replied what do you mean I look weird? “I mean you look very nice, I have just never seen you look like this before.” I thought to myself, wow, how observing young girls can be and by me dressing up, I felt like I had touched her femininity and that I was able to break the negative belief of what she had about soccer. I thought to myself, this is why I love coaching.
At the United Soccer Coaches Convention in January upon my return to Philadelphia I wanted to re-connect with Enon, so I had dinner with the leader of the ministry and we shared ideas. I had learned so much through coaching in Panama that I wanted to share my experiences with the ministry once more to inspire the new generation of young ladies. Seeing all of the little girls who looked just like me made it everlasting and so deep that I really enjoyed coaching the first go around.
I don’t have a program with an official name or cool logo, it’s just me, Joelle, a Congolese woman, a wife, a mother of two with my heart and willingness to travel to make anything possible to help girls in soccer. Sharing my experiences globally enabled me to share various soccer cultures across borders. I thought to myself lets teach these girls something new, let’s get them excited, let us give them confidence and fill them in on how fun soccer can be.
I wanted to instill the word team not just from the player prospective, but also from a coaching staff prospective. I am planning to continue to build relationships worldwide with organizations whose focus is on inspiring black and brown girls worldwide. We are in the process of setting up a network of coaches from Panama to the Congo to develop a soccer culture exchange geared toward girls in under-served areas. Many countries have neglected this segment of the soccer population, so we want to empower girls everywhere.