As the train pulled into the Elmers End station, just south of London, Sanjay Patel saw the British kids getting off to play on nearby soccer fields. The memory prompted him to think about how soccer was primarily “a white, middle-class game” for children growing up back home in Atlanta. “In the U.K. you never had to pay to play,” he told Global Atlanta.
What began as a random insight soon became for Mr. Patel a call to action. Having moved to Atlanta in 1999 to be closer to members of his family who had moved here in the 1970s, he was well aware of the city’s limited public transportation and the difficulties presented by some communities to take advantage of the city’s green spaces.
This was especially true for residents of underserved communities. As a real estate developer, he couldn’t help but notice how this inaccessibility to a fully developed, citywide public transportation system limited the sorts of opportunities he had taken for granted growing up in London, and that British kids enjoy today.
He carried his childhood love of the game across the Atlantic to Atlanta and became involved with the Soccer in the Streets organization, which had been started in the late 1980s to develop both soccer and social skills of youth from inner city neighborhoods. Since its inception, the program has sought out underserved youths to provide opportunities for them to become self-sufficient and develop skills that would lead to future employment.
He now calls the concept “social impact soccer,” and in an interview with FIFA.com added “Where it’s normally pay-to-play and a business enterprise, this is a social impact enterprise and youth can play for free like they would anywhere in the world…”
Mr. Patel is getting some well-deserved recognition these days, not just for his support of Soccer in the Streets where he has been a board member since 2010, but for his success in transforming his random insight of a “Soccer Station” at the Elmers End station into the reality of a miniature soccer pitch at an Atlanta subway station.
The U.S. Soccer Foundation, a non-profit headquartered in Washington to establish programs with the purpose of helping children embrace an active and healthy lifestyle while nurturing their personal growth beyond sports, announced that the Atlanta-based Soccer in the Streets won its 2017 Urban Soccer Symposium Innovation Award on Monday, May 1.
Soccer in the Streets won the award, according to the foundation’s announcement, “for its work launching the ‘Station Soccer Club Program’,” and its vision of bringing soccer to urban areas in Atlanta by developing a network of mini soccer fields and program sites clustered inside or around transportation hubs.
Mr. Patel began the work of realizing his vision three years ago by approaching the Atlanta United Foundation, the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), Greenfields USA, a supplier of artificial turf, as well as Soccer in the Streets. He credits the critical support of Amanda Rhein, director of transit oriented development at MARTA, and Darren Eales, president, Atlanta United FC, with helping him to make his vision a reality.
The first field to have been built is at the plaza level of the FIVE POINTS MARTA station. Arthur Blank, owner of the Atlanta Falcons and the Major League Soccer franchise, Atlanta United FC, attended a formal opening ceremony at the field on Oct. 27 last year.
“After the initial pilot is completed this spring, Soccer in the Streets plans to expand the network to ten Station Soccer Club Programs (completed over the next three years) to create the first even public transit-based soccer league,” the enthusiastic announcement also said.
“Just think of a youth team from College Park playing against a team from East Lake,” an equally enthusiastic Mr. Patel said, while asking Global Atlanta to imagine the impact that Soccer Stations are to have throughout the city.
Already last year Soccer in the Streets provide more than 4,500 children with after school soccer-based educational programs. Now at the Station Soccer location at FIVE POINTS it is running pay-to-play adult leagues, providing a source for developmental youth coaching and generating funds for free youth programming.
Is it too much to envision Soccer Stations providing a farm team for future Atlanta United players? To learn more about the future of the programs inspired by the Soccer Station initiative, the Urban Land Institute is to hold an on-field briefing at 3:30 p.m. on Monday, May 15.
Mr. Patel may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org