What the Unity Cup Says About Philly Is Pretty Great

Vourvoulias: Play has started, and we’re seeing not just a beautiful game, but the heart of a city.
The Mexican Philadelphia Unity Cup team after its opening-night victory against the Vietnamese team. Photograph by Carlos Rojas

The Mexican Philadelphia Unity Cup team after its opening-night victory against the Vietnamese team. Photograph by Carlos Rojas

At its most basic, soccer doesn’t require much: A ball, something to mark the goal area, people to play with.

I’ve seen rags artfully wound into a sphere serving as the first, and everything from bottlecaps on bare dirt to paired street structures marking the second. It is the third item on that listing that cannot be jury-rigged.

Soccer demands people, arranged into teams to vie, then surge, toward a goal. And on any given Sunday in Philadelphia, from the Northeast down to South Philly, that demand is fulfilled as immigrants and neighborhood folks gather to play the beautiful game.

Earlier this year Mayor Jim Kenney announced that the city would arrange a World Cup–style tournament of the city’s community leagues, and at the end, the last team standing would receive the Philadelphia International Unity Cup.

“The Germans from Cannstatter in the Northeast playing the Mexicans in South Philly playing the Ghanaians of Southwest and so on,” Kenney told journalist Martín Martínez in March. “When you bring people together around one commonality, it’s the foundation for important cultural exchange and understanding that increases tolerance across the city.”

Now, I’ve sometimes been pretty critical of our mayor (I still haven’t forgiven him for the tax hike on my beloved Jarritos soda), but the Unity Cup is all brilliance and heart.

The tournament opened last Friday, September 9th, with two matches at Ramp playground on Solly Avenue, next to Father Judge High School: Mexico vs. Vietnam and U.S. vs. Ireland. Kenney was in attendance at the Mexico-Vietnam match, as was Mexican consul Alicia Kerber and many other spectators from the neighborhood and the Mexican and Vietnamese communities.

Mexico (green shirts) vs. Vietnam in the September 9th opener of the Philadelphia Unity Cup. Photograph by Manuel Portillo

Mexico (green shirts) vs. Vietnam in the September 9th opener of the Philadelphia Unity Cup. Photograph by Manuel Portillo

Manuel Portillo, the director for immigrant professionals at the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, described it as a really good game, and a friendly one. “What is great here is that these are neighborhood people playing. Just working people for whom soccer may be their only real pastime. They aren’t well known … but that is what makes this Cup tournament special.”

Carlos Rojas, who coached the Mexican team, echoed Portillo’s words. “The players are really excited about this event,” he said. “They are worthy representatives of the community — construction workers, restaurant workers, young people going to school because they want a better future — and they are giving this their all.”

His team is serious about getting as far in the tournament as they can, so Rojas holds training practices three times a week. “Thank God, our first match went well,” he said — Mexico won, 7-0. “We know that in upcoming games we’ll face tough competitors, but not impossible to beat. We’re here, and it is our dream to get to the finals. With hard work, and humility, we’ll get there.”

The crowd at the Mexico vs. Vietnam match. Photograph by Manuel Portillo

The crowd at the Mexico vs. Vietnam match. Photograph by Manuel Portillo

Tournament play last weekend continued on Saturday with matches between Ukraine and Guatemala, Lithuania and Argentina, Sierra Leone and Turkey, Senegal and Poland, Cape Verde and Haiti, India and. Puerto Rico, and Myanmar and Liberia. Competitors in Sunday’s matches were Honduras and Germany, Congo and Indonesia, Sudan and Bhutan, Spain and Colombia, Ivory Coast and Cambodia, Nigeria and Italy and Jamaica and South Korea. (For final markers on each, see the Unity Cup website.)

If you aren’t impressed by the sheer number of participating teams and the coordination required to pull this off, you really need to take a seat — I got tired simply typing that list.

The group stage matches alternate between the Solly Avenue playground, the South Philadelphia Supersite at 11th and Bigler streets, a site at North 11th and Cecil B. Moore, and another 900 West Hunting Park Avenue. It will continue this way every weekend until the knockout stage, when the matches will be played at pitches at LaSalle and Temple universities. The final, on November 5th, will be played Citizens Bank Park.

Naturally, not every game last weekend went off without a hitch.

Guatemala vs. Ukraine on September 10th. Photograph by Manuel Portillo

Guatemala vs. Ukraine on September 10th. Photograph by Manuel Portillo

According to Portillo, who attended the Ukraine vs. Guatemala match (Ukraine 3-2) at the South Philadelphia Supersite on Saturday, the game was decidedly less friendly than the opener. “It was pretty rough,” he said. “Players received three yellow cards, and there was stoppage time to see to injured players.”

And, although the openers were well attended, the Ukraine-Guatemala match was not, with only some 10 people rooting for the Guatemalans, and five for the Ukrainians, according to Portillo.

He blames the location. “Both the Guatemalan and Ukrainian communities are in the North and Northeast,” he said, “but the site is in the South, very far from home. I don’t understand why it was programmed that way. If the pitch had been around Bustleton Avenue, for example, a lot more people would have attended.”

But ultra-competitive play and complications are to be expected from a tournament that means so much to so many residents of the city.

The mayor, who stopped by the South Philadelphia Supersite on Saturday to check out one of the matches, noted that teams were really competitive but the games had a friendly atmosphere, according to spokesperson Ajeenah Amir.

I pressed to find out which team Kenney favored to win the Cup but, of course, got nowhere fast with that line of inquiry.

“[The mayor has] no favorites regarding a win for the cup,” Amir wrote in an email. “[He] is looking to see as many games as he can, and really looking forward to the championship game.”

Well, OK. Politicians will be politicians, after all. But this politician has struck a rare and powerfully resonant chord with his remarkably inclusive tournament.

“The city’s idea to hold this was a great idea,” Rojas said. Like the players of his team (and no doubt the players and trainers of the other teams), he says he is honored and incredibly grateful to take part in this citywide effort.

Still, he has a message for the Mexican community of Philadelphia: “We are aiming for the championship. If you come out and show your support, we can get there.”

One Unity cup, one city united.

Yes, we can get there, no matter which team wins.

For a schedule of games for this Saturday and Sunday, visit unitycup.phila.gov/schedule/.