LANCASTER, Pa. (WHTM) – Every Saturday since Sept. 9 multiple soccer teams have gathered in Lancaster to compete in the Unity Cup. The players don’t all speak the same language and they all have different backgrounds, but they are connected through their love for soccer.
“We are an area that has so many amazing immigrant and refugee communities and soccer is the universal language that kind of unites them all,” said Matthew Johnson, an organizer of the tournament with Church World Service Lancaster.
There are 16 countries/regions competing for the Unity Cup with every continent, except for Australia and Antarctica, represented. This is the first year the “World-Cup style” event has ever been held in Lancaster and the Unity Cup is already making a huge impact.
In the Unity Cup, it doesn’t matter your level of education, where you are from, what hardships you have faced, or even if you’ve ever kicked a soccer ball. All that is asked of you is that you show up, try, support your teammates and show friendly competition.
“Everyone can join,” said Benjamin Emmanuel, Team Congo’s captain. “It doesn’t matter if you’re skilled or not because we want to have fun and want everyone to have fun as well. Everyone is welcome.”
Emmanuel was born in Congo and became a refugee in Uganda. Through Church World Service (CWS), Emmanuel came to Lancaster with his family in 2016. He played a lot of soccer with his brother and while they were out playing they met another boy who was from Uganda and spoke the same language as Emmanuel. They started a soccer team and slowly others began to join them.
Now, Emmanuel works with CWS. When greeting new families in Lancaster, he recruits them to his soccer team to make them feel welcome.
“You don’t know what a person is going through at his house or apartment, but if there is a tournament like this, we feel relief sometimes,” Emmanuel said. “[I] go to soccer to get my brain out of anything. So, it’s important to the community.”
Johnson said CWS thought about adding different elements to the Unity Cup to help immigrants and refugees, like voter registration or community team building, but has decided not to. This is because they want the Unity Cup to remain the place where people can go to escape for a little while and just have fun.
“Soccer is beautiful because for 50 minutes you just get to play and you’re not thinking about your bills or you’re not thinking about like all the other stuff going on,” Johnson said. “You just play the game and it’s fun and you’re getting together.”
For Team Mexico’s captain Jaime Guzman Gonzalez the Unity Cup is a time to connect with his loved ones through a sport that is important to his culture. Gonzalez’s parents live in Elizabethtown and they come to almost every game and his girlfriend is at every match, proudly waving a Mexican flag.
Gonzalez’s team consists of mostly guys he plays pickup with every Wednesday. His two brothers and his cousin also play for Team Mexico.
“Most of the guys, we’ve been playing together probably for about four or five years straight now,” said Gonzalez.
Gonzalez’s father crossed the border when he was five years old and his family spent time in California and Texas before settling in Lancaster. Gonzalez just became a United States citizen two years ago.
“My story isn’t crazy like some of these other people that I’ve spoken to or have gotten to know,” Gonzalez said. “It’s pretty crazy how different, but very similar, our stories can be.”
Gonzalez says his team was hoping to win the Unity Cup in part because of how important soccer is to Mexico and the fact that the country’s national team hasn’t had much success in the World Cup.
“Soccer means everything,” Gonzalez said. “To Mexico, it’s always the national sport, I would say. We love watching every four years, we always come short. Hopefully, we were trying to win the Unity Cup and raise the championship since the big National team can’t do it”
The Unity Cup has two more playing days left until the final. Matches will be held on the next two Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. at Roberto Clemente Field. The final will be held on Nov. 4 with details to be released closer to the date.
“We don’t know what you have been through, but if we are together we’ll play,” Emmanuel said. “This makes you make your mind free and it helps us to spend time together.”
While the Unity Cup closes in on naming its first-ever winner, Emmanuel plans to keep working on not only his soccer skills but his Spanish as well.
“Another thing about this Unity Cup [is] I’m learning a little bit of Spanish,” Emmanuel said. “¿Cómo estás?; bien.”