What is a friendly?

Chances are good that you know what a friendly is, but what words would you use to define it?

A quick roundup of terms and interpretations yields a variety of words and language that paints broad strokes, and that’s ok. It’s an “exhibition.” A “demonstration.” A “preseason game” or “warm-up match.” If you said that a friendly is “a game where nothing is really on the line and your standing won’t be impacted whether you win or lose,” you wouldn’t be wrong.

But would you be right?

By definition, yes, but what about by interpretation?

This is what makes a friendly such an interesting topic, especially for us at WorldStrides Sports. There’s so much more to it than winning or losing, than counting or not counting. Indeed, friendlies are exhibitions and demonstrations, but they’re certainly more than an exhibition or a demonstration of the sport itself, right?

Friendlies carry a weight and standing outside of the table and beyond qualification requirements. Friendlies present a new opportunity for all involved – the club, the manager, the players, the supporters. It’s a chance to mix things up, a laboratory to experiment. Playing in a game designated as friendly might take some pressure off from earning a winning result, but that doesn’t remove the competitive feeling. Friendly or not, at almost every level, you want your side or the side your rooting for to win, even if it doesn’t “matter.”

What does matter then? Friendlies give teams a wonderful lens that enhances the spirit of the meeting. We see this all the time on our programs. There’s a certain buzz about playing outside of a usual league or schedule, away from the competition usually encountered. This special energy that teams bring to a friendly is…different. There’s something about a friendly that turns some of the focus directed at an opponent and shifts it to a more internal place, and we’d argue that this shift puts a unique spotlight on a team’s chemistry and camaraderie.

You could say that there’s less pressure to conquer an opponent and more freedom to test yourselves. You could say that there’s less pressure to stick to what works and more liberty to see what happens. You could give that defender a chance to play striker or give your keeper the chance to play on the field.

We certainly see this when our players travel abroad, and then some. Taking a friendly to the international level tests and enlightens our players in profound ways that stay with them forever.

Friendlies teach us what it means to be a host and a guest.
Friendlies challenge our assumptions to reveal deeper truths.
Friendlies build new bridges that connect people through experience.
Friendlies show us what is universal about a sport and what is unique about the players who play it.
Friendlies tell us that we grow outside of our comfort zones.

It turns out that friendlies count for a lot.

This holiday season – the one that’s happening this time, during this year – could use a “friendlies” interpretation. When we look back on this year, through the lens of our sports and our roles in them, it’s easy see where things were disrupted, where things weren’t normal, where things were different. Does that mean they didn’t count? That they didn’t matter?

We were tested and challenged. We lived with being uncomfortable. We submitted to rules we didn’t write. We found joy where we could with what made us happy, and for many of us, that required a deep look within. We had to try new ways, we had to mix things up. We had to work together in a new environment, and determine what matters most.

As a result, and much like a friendly experience, we grew because of it – and that will last longer and feel deeper than any game that “counts” or “matters.”

Tour Director Spotlight: Alethea Brown

Meet Alethea Brown, Tour Director for WorldStrides Sports!

How long have you been a Tour Director with WorldStrides Sports?
I have had the pleasure of working with WorldStrides on two occasions for American groups visiting France.

What do you like most about your job?
I thoroughly enjoyed the daily challenge of meeting my groups’ expectations by replying to their requests and wishes before they could even ask. I like surprising the group with wishes they thought would have been impossible due to logistic matters or availability. I take note of the fine detail with regard to the nature of the group. I do research before they come, to find out where they come from, what is specific about where they are from, the club and its history, ranking and achievements. I memorize groups’ names as soon as possible.

Tell us a bit about your professional background – what led you to your role as a Tour Director?
I started off studying hotel management in Germany and worked at the Munich Park Hilton Hotel. I learned all about customer relations, satisfying the simplest to the most difficult requests. It’s all about being up close and personal, yet keeping very discrete and knowing one’s place, anticipating situations and then reacting upon them. Never to let on that you are paddling for dear life down under, while the water is all still and calm where the client is. Unfortunately, circumstances had it that I was not able to follow the tourism field. I worked in an international logistics company in both Germany and France for 4 years and then in an international aeronautical company in France for over 12 years. My interaction with people from all walks of life in these industries taught me how to adapt to different work codes, cultures and traditions. I longed for a change and to broaden my horizons until I was asked to accompany sports teams. I left my office job and took on the job as a tour director and have had several incredible experiences since. Traveling and spending time with groups also allows me travel and to learn more about the country my group is from. I take along each lesson in experiences to each new group.

What do you see in American soccer players that strikes you as unique?
So far I have only traveled with female soccer players from the US and I remain impressed by the approach the staff has with regard to the sport and what it could bring to young girls and older female players. Commonly a sport for boys and men, it strikes me as there is much more to it than just a girl kicking a ball. The sport offers voice, personal growth, and empowerment to young girls and women. About soccer in the US, I find it unique that the young players can train in a school team, in a club team and also have a personal trainer. This is something I have not heard of anywhere else.

What do you think American soccer players realize about the sport once they’ve seen it in another country?
I have been told that most American players realize that the rest of the world is engulfed in soccer. That it is everywhere and everyone talks a soccer language and possibly sees a future in it.

If you could put together a dream international soccer tour, with an unlimited budget, for yourself and your friends/family, where would you go and what would you make sure to include?
I would like to be able to put together a team of 16 players from all over the world with one player from a chosen country such as the US, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Nigeria, and South Africa. (Players from NZ, CH and AUS are too far out.) I was fortunate to be a team liaison officer for the German National Team during the 2018 World Cup and it left me strong memories and I gathered so much experience from this one event.

I would have local substitute players in each country join the team. My international female soccer team of 16 players would travel to the countries they have been chosen from. They would attend training sessions and participate in workshops with local clubs. They would play one friendly match and would act as global ambassadors in each country. Each theme would be based on the country they would be visiting. This would shine light on female soccer, as they still remain in the shadow of male players. We will inform the local media and have the entire adventure covered on Instagram. In addition to bigger international sponsors, I would seek out one company in each country to follow the team giving them exposure. It would be a company which has suffered due to the 2020 COVID pandemic. I would love for young girls to know that they have their place on a soccer field. In many countries sport is often the only way for girls or women to express themselves.

Any additional anecdotes or stories that you’d like to share about your experience as a Tour Director?
I once had a tour group from South Africa. It was during a time when the farmers were striking all over France. We were not able to get to the game on time and it was canceled. I had to come up with a plan real fast to compensate for this mishap. I made a few calls and managed to drive the group to a very popular club at their facilities. The initial idea was to tour their facility and learn about their club. The professional players were about to leave for a training camp, but when they heard of my group visiting they came over and met with the young players. The jaws dropped and the boys could hardly believe their luck, meeting and shaking hands and exchanging with the professional players they have only seen on the television before. I was very happy that my quick reaction solved a problem in such a pleasant way. We left the club with many good memories.

Tour Director Spotlight: David Lewis

Meet David Lewis, WorldStrides Sports Tour Director!

How long have you been a Tour Director with WorldStrides Sports?
I have been a tour director for 23 years, of which five years have been with Worldstrides Sports.

What do you like most about your job?
I love being involved with the day-to-day running of itineraries, and making sure everything runs as smoothly as possible, plus joining in with the camaraderie of the group, whether it’s going in goal in practice matches or advising what to do when there’s free time.

I like to see teams express themselves, and have fun learning new things. I love showing them around the hidden gems or iconic places we visit — helping and also learning from my guests.

I like to say that “We all have books inside of us, so let’s fill some pages together.”

Finally, I like to encourage everyone to become a traveler, not a tourist. The way I see it, travelers embrace the country they visit, while tourists want their own country abroad.

Tell us a bit about your professional background – what led you to your role as a Tour Director?
I have always had a passion for travel. From an early age, my father took me backpacking around Europe, so after college, I joined the Merchant Navy and traveled to exotic places for five years. I then joined the police service to help serve the public. I also played various sports including soccer, rugby, cricket, and golf.

I left the police service after 15 years to carry on my passion of looking after people, learning about new cultures and history, meeting people, and traveling, which I’ve now been doing for 23 years.

I have taken groups all over the world and have been lucky to visit over 100 countries, plus 38 states of America. I have led groups on sports tours in the U.K., Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the West Indies.

What do you see in American soccer players that strikes you as unique?
It’s obvious from the first training session that I watch, it is the high fitness levels and the fast speed in which they play the game. They show passion that shines through, but it’s not always about speed – it’s knowing when to give that final ball as it only takes a second to score a goal.

What do you think American soccer players realize about the sport once they’ve seen it in another country?
I believe they see it’s more physical than they are used to, but soon they realize they can compete at the highest level and win.

If you could put together a dream international soccer tour (with an unlimited budget) for yourself and your friends/family, where would you go and what would you make sure to include?
I am always asked which is my favorite country, and it’s hard as all countries are different and offer so much diversity. I have enjoyed every country I have ever visited!

My dream international soccer tour would have to be a World Cup of Soccer. I went to the 2006 World Cup in Germany and the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France, but as I love traveling around the USA so much, I would choose a World Cup of Soccer in the USA.

America is so vast and there is only so much we could do and take in.

We would need to have a three- or four-week tour, starting in New York. We’d visit Ground Zero, Union Station, U.N. Building, and take a ferry ride past the Statue of Liberty onto Ellis Island to see the history of immigrants coming to America.

Then a visit to Strawberry Fields in Central Park to pay respects to John Lennon. Visit the Empire State Building and Times Square. Shop on Fifth Avenue. Eat in Greenwich Village, watch soccer games in local restaurants in the lower east side of Manhattan, and take an evening ride across to Hoboken for an amazing evening view of the iconic New York skyline. Ride the subway.

Next, onto Washington, D.C., where we’d visit the White House and the monuments, Capitol Hill, Smithsonian, and Georgetown, then watch a game in one of the stadiums.

I would then fly to Atlanta to visit Martin Luther King Junior’s church and graves and see CNN building and Olympic Park. A visit to the Cyclorama, one of only three left in the world depicting scenes of the American Civil War. See where Margaret Mitchell lived and wrote Gone with the Wind, then visit the beautiful Fox Theatre and its art deco design. Eat in Buckhead, uptown or downtown Atlanta, then watch a game in the city.

Then to Nashville to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame, Grand Ole Opry, Broadway Avenue honky tonks, Studio B of RCA records where the great Elvis, Dolly Parton, Don Gibson, Charlie Pride, Jim Reeves, Roy Orbison, Everly Brothers and many more recorded, then watch a game at the Nissan Stadium.

Memphis is next to see Graceland, Rock and Soul music, Sun Records, Beale Street and the Mississippi River. Of course, I’d eat BBQ along the way.

It’s now onto New Orleans to admire the beautiful French-inspired city and the wonderful garden district. Step foot on Bourbon Street to hear all kinds of music. Take a tour of the swamps or just amble around the French Quarter, marveling at all the different sights, smells, architecture, and the warmth of the local people. The food is outstanding and there are many amazing eateries.

From here I would fly to Orlando, Florida and visit a theme park or two, and watch some games. Visit Miami and South Beach and watch a game there, then have a slow meander down to Key West to visit Ernest Hemingway’s house and see the most southern tip of the USA.

Then onto Fort Myers, where Ford and Edison have their museum before relaxing on a beach somewhere near Clearwater before flying home.

America is such a giant country, there is so much to see and do! I have to say that the American people that I have met have been some of the nicest people you could ever wish to meet.

What was it like to lead your first tour since the global shutdown?

From day one of the pandemic, when we were all frightened of this invisible disease and traveling stopped, I realised I wanted to help, so I worked as a contact tracer throughout the pandemic for our Wales NHS. It was hard but rewarding to feel that I was helping in a small way.

I was so delighted and privileged to be given my first tour this year with Worldstrides in March! We had to stick with all the safety protocols to try and keep everyone safe, but the joy and enthusiasm of all guests traveling again was amazing. It’s wonderful and exciting when you realise how lucky you are to be able to travel again.

Any additional stories that you’d like to share about your experience as a Tour Director?
I have a couple. I remember going in goal and trying to show off my skills, but as I am a little older than the teams I look after, I didn’t realize how hard they hit the ball! I would still try and dive for every ball but it takes me a lot longer to get back off the floor.

One of my groups had to train indoors due to bad weather and at the end of it the team put on a dance record where they were doing a dance routine and I joined in at the end of the line. The final act was to dance and hop like a bunny rabbit and I am giving it my all. What I didn’t realize is that some members of the group were filming me and it went viral!

Or my first tour with Worldstrides Sports, I had a group and we visited the Manchester United, Liverpool FC, and Manchester City stadiums and their souvenir shops. The day we were due to see an actual live premier league game, they all came down in their different tops, scarfs, and hats to get on the bus, but unfortunately, it was Burnley versus Everton and it’s a big no-no in this country for safety reasons to wear different colors of teams that you are not watching.

I had to ask nicely, explaining the reasons, and they all had to get changed again. I now mention this in my welcome meeting!

Program Spotlight – Maryland State Youth Soccer Association

Catching up with Flo Egan, Executive Director of Maryland State Youth Soccer Association, and a WorldStrides Sports partner for 22 years. In the photo below, Flo and Eric McAleer, Senior Vice President at WorldStrides, are signing our latest three-year contract.

First, we hope you and your family are safe and healthy. Can you let us know how you and your staff at MSYSA have adapted to the pandemic?
The staff at MSYSA have worked hard learning to adjust to the ever changing world we have found ourselves in. We strive each day to create new and sometimes different ways to serve all the members of our association. We have found ways to be able to continue to work both remotely and within our new office space. We continue to keep ourselves and others safe by following safety protocols that are currently in place.

MSYSA ODP has traveled with WorldStrides Sports on an annual basis for 22 years now. What does the international program offer MSYSA ODP and what benefits has it provided to the MSYSA community?
Worldstrides Sports has become a trusted partner of MSYSA throughout the years, providing a first class experience for all our players and families. Worldstrides Sports has offered the ODP players/families of MSYSA the opportunity to experience the world’s game through the eyes of various cultures across the globe. Learning to embrace the customs, traditions and even cuisines of different countries has provided a unique experience for young players as they continue to pursue their dreams.

In your position, you have been able to travel around the world for soccer. What is your favorite destination and why?
It is so hard to decide which destination I would choose as my favorite. The team I once traveled with enjoyed a trip several years back that took us into 5 different countries within 1 day (England, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany) that was incredibly fun!  Watching our players experience the atmosphere and community when attending professional games, meet and greets with players, and touring stadiums, created many lasting friendships and wonderful memories that has continued once back home.

We are very much looking forward to the world getting back to normal so that we can get back to doing the things we love doing more freely. What things, both professionally for MSYSA and personally, are you looking forward to?
Through our partnership with Worldstrides Sports, we are looking forward to offering the international experience of the beautiful game to our newest ODP players and returning players as well. Once the Worldstrides Sports team has deemed travel safe again, we look forward to that piece of “normalcy” for our families allowing all to create new memories.

We’re excited to announce that this past year MSYSA signed to renew their partnership with WorldStrides Sports to be your exclusive international travel provider. Can you talk about some of the reasons why you chose to partner with WorldStrides Sports?
MSYSA has chosen Worldstrides Sports as their partner for international travel for a multitude of reasons:

The professionalism of their staff is second to none.
The length the Worldstrides Sports team goes to making the experience the best it can.
Coordinating the details of each itinerary and willingness to work through any unexpected circumstances that could potentially arise.
Worldstrides places safety of their partners at the top of their list in all areas.
The variety of different destinations for teams allow our returning players to travel to  different countries from year to year.
The flexibility that Worldstrides has in working with MSYSA and being open to any changes or updates that we recommend allows the partnership to grow stronger throughout the years.

Thank you, Flo! We wish you and MSYSA the best of health and happiness for all of your players, coaches, parents, referees, and volunteers.