Have you ever traveled over 24 hours on a plane without your parents? That’s exactly what Njabulo Ndluvu did last month. Ndluvu, a tall, athletic boy from South Africa, journeyed with his teammates from their home country to attend the Danone Nations Cup in New Jersey. And that’s not even the furthest distance: kids from Indonesia traveled 26 hours and 10,000 miles by plane to get to the competition! Since 2000, the DNC, an international soccer tournament, has been organized by Danone, a French company. In the U.S. Danone is better known as the company that sells Dannon Yogurt.
The tournament, which took place from September 21 through September 24th, gave boys and girls ages 10 through 12 the chance to represent their country in the soccer competition. The games leading to the final matches took place at Red Bull Training Facility in Whippany, New Jersey and the finals were at Red Bull Arena in nearby Harrison.
Thirty-two boys teams and six girls teams from 33 different countries and five continents competed in the tournament. Among the countries: Belgium, Canada, China, England, Indonesia, Poland, Senegal, the United Arab Emirates, and the U.S.
This was the first time that the Danone Nations Cup took place in the U.S. This was also the first time that girls were invited to participate in this event. Abby Wambach, the former U.S. soccer great who led her team to the 2015 World Cup title, was the ambassador of the event. “My challenge to all girls is to never stop believing in yourself,” she said. “Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do something.”
The theme of DNC was “believe in your dreams." When asked about believing in her dream as a kid, Wambach said that “going to different countries and playing soccer allowed me to see that I was experiencing something that was bigger than me.” Another theme was fair play, and it was imprinted on every jersey. Sportsmanship was seen throughout the event. For example, the boys from the Netherlands were seen cheering on the U.S. girls.
Emmanuel Faber, the CEO of Danone, said that hard work, excellence, and “being your best self” are important values of the tournament. “There’s a lot of teamwork, too,” he said. “You wouldn’t be there if you weren’t part of great teams.”
Each of the national teams were chosen differently. In South Africa, school teams competed against each other for the chance to come to New Jersey. The winning team was from Mophela Primary School in Durban, and they’ve been on the school team together for three years. According to Francois Trudel, the organizer for both of the Canadian teams, his nation had three camps— in Alberta, Toronto, and Quebec. The best out of more than 400 players were chosen for the team. Since they were from all different parts of Canada, they only practiced together for three days before coming to the U.S. For the U.S. team, several Floridian club teams were invited to compete at the ESPN Arena in Orlando, Florida. From among those teams, organizers chose the best players for the squads (one for boys, one for girls). Benjamin Cremaschi, a blonde boy with a shag hair cut and an easygoing style who is fluent in Spanish, was the captain of the U.S. boys team, and he said that one of the other kids on his team played for the same club as him. In total, 2.5 million kids from around the world tried out for 500 spots on the Danone teams.
The games were each twenty minutes long and generally not very high scoring; some were decided by penalty kicks. Temperatures were pushing 90 degrees at the Red Bull Training Facility. As some players walked off the fields they dumped water on their heads. Others tried to find shade to cool down in.
The final four teams to vie for the championship were the Brazilian and Canadian girls, and the Argentinian and Mexican boys. The Brazilian girls took the title 3-2 in penalty kicks and the Mexico boys won 2-0. The U.S. girls beat France to take third place, and the boys finished in 18th place. As for Njabulo Ndluvu and the rest of his South African team, they finished 27th. But this tournament wasn’t about your ranking; it was about open-mindedness, respect, and fair play.
Photographs courtesy of Danone Nations Cup