“This is the whole world represented in this field. People from Latin America, Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and different parts of the United States,” says soccer enthusiast Ryan Anderson. “Isn’t it amazing?” he asks, pointing at all the people from different countries playing soccer on the Near West Field on the UW-Madison campus. “This is the most diverse and inclusive community in Madison. People from different parts of the world and the United States come here every afternoon to play soccer.”
After being closed for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, UW-Madison’s Near West field, an outdoor facility with synthetic turf, is once again open for pickup games. Every afternoon this summer, around 5 pm, a collection of people from around the world gathered as they did in pre-COVID times for pickup soccer games. People aged 15 to 40 show up at the field not knowing who they are going to be playing with. There is no referee to enforce rules, yet they love the organic structure of the games.
Ryan Anderson has been playing on this field every summer and fall since the facility opened. “If you are new to Madison, this is the place to make friends. You don’t need to learn a new language. The only language spoken here is soccer,” he says. Based on his own experience Ryan says that baseball and American football are not as inclusive.
Dante Viscarra, a UW-Madison alumnus, puts it this way: “The field is very cosmopolitan. You don’t need to learn a language. On the field soccer is the international language that unites this community.” It does not matter what your profession is, he says. Whether you are a doctor, an entrepreneur, or a student, you are welcome to play. “It is therapy. The nice thing about it is the community’s participation. Many people meet after the game and make friends.”
Olajuwon from Nigeria says he comes to this field every weekday and is excited to play here. “These pickup soccer games are very important to the community. It helps us physically and mentally, and more importantly, it unites us,” he says. “People respect each other. There might be arguments among players, but they always resolve it within a minute.”
Another Nigerian immigrant, Jonathon, says pickup games help him escape from the stresses of everyday life. “Soccer is the second religion in Nigeria, and I love playing it. I’ve met a lot of people,” he says.
“I love this community,” says Leo Mendoza. “It is very fun to play soccer with the community we have created here. It is one of the important parts of my life.”
Elkin Thao is from Wisconsin and transferred to UW-Madison last year. Due to the pandemic, he did not have the opportunity to play soccer, so these games have provided a welcome outlet.
“It’s a nice way to get exercise and meet more people,” Thao says. “I feel like I’m part of a community again. It’s something I always look forward to when I’m not working. It’s super cool to see people speaking different languages that I don’t understand. And it’s fun to see how soccer brings people from different backgrounds together, as it always has done around the world.”
Bulat Schamiloglu, a UW Madison student from Chicago’s north side, says playing soccer here is therapy. “We come here to see all the different ethnicities playing together,” he says. “The best part is community. The more you come, the more friends you make. I’ve met a lot of people, from Madison, Nigeria, China and Saudi Arabia.”
Carlos Duarte from Honduras is known on this field as Marcelo, after the Brazilian soccer star who plays for popular Spanish soccer club Real Madrid. People around him debate whether it is his looks or his skills that have earned him the name one of the world’s most iconic soccer legends. He says he has made more than 20 friends while playing soccer on this field.
UW-Madison graduate student Jayer Fernandes says the pickup games here are inclusive and organized. Remarkably, they seem to have evolved that way naturally, without any formal structure beyond the rules of the game. Jayer is from India and has been playing on this field since its opening. “It’s good to see high-schoolers, college students, and older people playing together,” he says.
Anyone in the area is welcome to come by the Near West Fields, on the west side of the UW Campus on Observatory Drive, at 5 pm to jump into a game.