UA Kicks Off World Soccer Study-Abroad Program


The worldwide popularity of soccer makes for an automatic exchange of cultures during international competitions.

While the rules remain the same on the pitch, fans around the globe show their devotion in different ways, to the point that close observation of a nation's soccer culture can reveal much about the country and its people.

A new University of Arizona study-abroad program created by the College of Humanities offers students an opportunity to learn about soccer in a global context, combined with a cultural introduction to the locations hosting some of the world's biggest soccer tournaments each summer.

"The Arizona World Soccer Program is a prime example of how universities can share the universal love of sports to encourage intercultural competence among students," says Harmony DeFazio, director of UA Study Abroad and executive director of the UA Global Mobility Lab. "It gives students the opportunity to fulfill requirements and have a global experience where some of the most exciting sporting events in the world are taking place. It's a win-win."

The Arizona World Soccer Program kicks off in Moscow this summer, in connection with the men's FIFA World Cup tournament. Future locations include Paris in 2019 for the Women's FIFA World Cup and Munich in 2020 for the Men's European Championship.  

DeFazio says the program connects the general education credits students require with something many of them love: sports. It was made possible, in part, by a longstanding relationship with the GRINT Centre for Education and Culture, the host of the Arizona in Russia study-abroad program. GRINT is providing logistical, instructional and housing support in Moscow for summer 2018.

Developing a study-abroad opportunity through the Arizona World Soccer Program is a natural extension of the UA's global soccer general education course (HUMS 376), says College of Humanities Dean Alain-Philippe Durand, who created the course in 2014.

"As a Frenchman, I know, of course, about soccer and am a fan, but from the moment I moved to America many years ago, I quickly noticed the passion that Americans have for sports, athletics, especially at universities," Durand says. "I wanted to create a study-abroad program that could touch on that passion for sports and at the same time teach students about intercultural competence and the many other important themes that soccer conveys: pacifism, imperialism, colonialism, national identities, race, politics, economics, gender and globalization. This was a natural to me."

Where Culture and Sport Meet

Students will study the history and significance of soccer around the world, along with the culture of the host country. The combination will give them an interdisciplinary look at the intricacies of the sport and its fans. In Moscow, students will have the opportunity to attend up to two matches, although tickets are not guaranteed and students must purchase them separately.

"The nice thing about sports, especially in the Soviet-American context, is there are so many angles that come together," says Benjamin Jens, assistant professor of Russian and Slavic studies, who will lead the 2018 program. "International athletics can be seen as a huge component of the politics and history. Sporting events are tied in with politics and society, and we can dig deeper into the country based on that."

Students with no prior knowledge of Russian are especially encouraged to apply for the program, which is taught entirely in English. However, during the first week online, instruction on basic communication, phrases, customs and etiquette will prepare students for the four weeks in Moscow. Excursions will include a Moscow city walking tour and visits to the Kremlin, Tretiyakov Gallery, Moscow Circus, Kremlin Ballet and a Kuskovo classical music performance.

"Russia will pull out all the stops to show the world what it can do," Jens says. "It's a national prestige moment, like the Olympics, and they're looking to put on a good show."

Praise Zenenga, director of the UA's Africana studies program, says soccer is an important part of life in his native Zimbabwe. 

"Soccer is not only interdisciplinary, but it's all pervasive," says Zenenga, who will lead the 2019 study-abroad trip. "It touches every facet of life: religion, society, culture. It carries the culture and cultural values particular to a specific locality. It becomes an expression of identity, whether it's local, regional or national."

An Undercurrent of Politics

In many African countries, Zenenga says, soccer is very much tied to religion and spiritual beliefs. In some countries, opposition politics can hide behind soccer fandom. The colors of a team can become sacred, but they also can become an avenue for expressing political viewpoints.

"We hope to expand on students' horizons in terms of the interdisciplinary nature of soccer, the cultural values that it carries and how it's become an expression of identity," Zenenga says.

In his research, Zenenga has written about the parallels between soccer and drama in terms of the emotions both can evoke in spectators. Both offer tension, conflict, rising and falling action, and climax. Great performers in either realm can become national heroes. The atmosphere surrounding major competition will deepen students' understanding of soccer's cultural power, Zenenga says. 

"It's about more than the event itself," he says. "It's about the atmosphere that goes along with it. To be in that space, experiencing everything, is very important." 

With Tucson's rising soccer scene, including the FC Tucson squad and the annual Major League Soccer spring training that will bring 11 teams to compete from Feb. 3-24, the Arizona World Soccer Program arrives at an opportune time.

"I'd like to think this program will be a very good connection with our vibrant soccer scene in Tucson, to connect the local with the global," Zenenga says.

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