There is a lot of buzz and excitement around Atlanta United, one of two new expansion clubs playing in Major League Soccer (MLS) this season. However, along with United taking its first steps into the professional realm, something is happening at grassroots level that is uniting Atlanta.
Station Soccer is the world’s first soccer field built inside a train station. Unveiled in October 2016, the station is a project by Soccer in the Streets supported by the Atlanta United Foundation, MARTA (the city’s principal public transport operator), GreenFields and Musco Lighting.
The brainchild of Sanjay Patel, a board member with the organisation, Station Soccer is much more than a football pitch embedded in the Five Points Marta station in downtown Atlanta.
“It’s integration on a youth and adult level,” said Patel speaking with FIFA.com. “We’re able to do social impact soccer. Something where adults can play here. 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, and now they have a transit hub to use to get home and play other teams away.”
Everything Soccer in the Streets does is centred around the belief that soccer has the ability to transform people on a social level and bring community into their lives. For example, Life Works, a project supported by FIFA and its Football for Hope funding, is a Soccer in the Streets program that targets underserved youth who are in need of opportunities to become self-sufficient and develop skills that will lead to future employment. Through year round soccer programming, combined with off-the-field training sessions focused on employability, Life Works helps develop the next generation of leaders.
“We built this facility here first of all with a soccer-centric view to life on it, and I think the biggest change we’ve seen which was unexpected was a social impact that it’s having of being a green space in an urban area on the communities around it,” said Soccer in the Streets Executive Director Phil Hill.
Patel and Hill said they have been approached by various non-soccer parties, including music groups, film projects, health and fitness programs. The station at Five Points is located in a central area of the city, encompassing many of the downtown communities and westside communities where families live.
“The story now changes to green spaces stations to not necessarily just soccer stations,” said Hill. “This facility acts as a hub for bringing the kids in for games, for tournaments and for training sessions. That plays more into the model of expanding this beyond one station to another nine stations.”
Communities coming together
For Hill and Patel, the vision beyond Five Points station to ten MARTA stations is all about giving people easier access and opportunities to play football, but also one based upon bringing communities together.
“You could have a latino community coming down here to play with an African-American community to play with a refugee community that’s come in from Clarkston over on the east side,” said Hill. “It’s really just a mash-up of soccer and life. It’s sort of taken on a life of its own since we opened just this one.”
The social impact of Station Soccer has been clear since day one of its launch.
“Every time you come here, something different happens,” said Patel. “On the day of the launch, I came back in the evening and a girl ran up to the gate and she was wearing an Atlanta United Foundation shirt and she’s shouting to someone behind her, who happened to be her mother, saying, ‘This is where it happened’.
“The girl had been here during the day, and I went over to talk to her and her mother, and her mother said this girl came home that day from being here, and she will not stop talking about how she wants to be a professional soccer player, and has brought me here to show me where she had the best day of her life.”
This is part of FIFA.com's ongoing series highlighting NGOs that are part of Football for Hope, FIFA’s global initiative to help improve the lives of young people through football.