Leveling the playing field with soccer

Stefan Viragh ’11Stefan Viragh ’11 has always loved soccer. He has been playing the game since he was 4 years old. While a student at Wheaton, he played on the men’s varsity soccer team all four years. And the sociology major wrote his senior thesis on the globalization of soccer and how it has become a cultural phenomenon.

This year he took that love to a higher level by interning for seven months as a coach and team leader in Kampala, Uganda, for Soccer Without Borders. The nonprofit organization’s mission is to use soccer as a vehicle for positive change by inspiring personal growth in underserved youths in the United States and abroad. The ultimate goal is to lead youngsters to a brighter future.

“What I really love about soccer is the fact that it’s played all over the world and can be used as a tool to unite nations,” he says. “It can be played anywhere at anytime. Someone can make a goal by setting a pair of shoes a few feet apart and play from there. The simplicity and culture around the sport is so appealing.”

During his time in Uganda, Viragh says he could see the game breaking down barriers among children from conflicting ethnic groups. “With such war-torn lives, I was always surprised and grateful to see the kids working together on and off the field, as we sought to integrate as many cultures as possible. Every single one of the kids I worked with and saw everyday kept me smiling.”

In Uganda, Viragh lived in a compound with two other American former collegiate soccer-playing interns. They all worked with youths from ages 8 to 14 four days a week, awaking each morning at 6:30 a.m., and heading out to the soccer field by 7:30 a.m.

In addition to teaching youths about soccer and designing and implementing soccer programs, he taught English and life-skills classes covering a wide range of topics, including money management, hygiene, nutrition, manners, sex education and HIV/AIDS prevention. He also coordinated special events, and immersed himself in the local culture, customs, language and traditions to gain a better understanding of the people.

“The kids were all refugees from surrounding nations, which were once divided by civil war and genocide,” he says. “What they needed the most was the right guidance and teaching so they can lead successful lives. I have witnessed an immense growth in the children’s talent and knowledge. Nothing will make me happier than if all of these kids realize their full potential as human beings and take each step in a positive direction, full of confidence.”