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Q & A with Mary Harvey

Former U.S. Women’s National Team goalkeeper and Director of Development for FIFA, Mary Harvey traveled to Jordan last month as a Sports Envoy with the U.S. Department of State’s Empowering Women and Girls Through Sports Initiative. Harvey spoke with about the importance of the program and the growth of women’s soccer in the Gulf region. Could you give a brief overview of the trip, beginning from when you were invited to go?

Mary Harvey: “We received an email from Pam Perkins at U.S. Soccer saying, ‘We have an envoy trip to Jordan,’ and, ‘Is anyone interested in going?’ I hit reply and said, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be an amazing trip,’ because here is what Jordan is doing to promote girls’ and women’s soccer and wrote all these things I knew: Prince Ali’s efforts, they’re hosting the Under-17 Women’s World Cup in 2015, they have a foundation called the Asian Football Development Project that’s investing in the Gulf and Middle East regions. They’re really doing a lot. I was like, this is a great opportunity, you should send somebody big like Mia or Brandi or Foudy. Then they came back and said, ‘Well, congratulations, you’re going.’ I was like, ‘No, no, you missed the point. Send someone, someone’s heard of!’ And they ended up sending me and I was obviously really excited that Danielle Slaton’s going. In preparation, the embassy in Jordan reached out to the Jordanian Football Association, as well as different schools in the area, public schools and universities, and put together a program for us. We then got on a conference and Danielle and I gave our input on different things. We asked for a couple things. The things we asked for were, we’d like to do something with the embassy’s kids themselves. We did that in Iraq and it seemed to be really appreciated. We also wanted to potentially have a round-table discussion with people in power to make decisions around access to sport for girls, and so they added that as well.” Those are really interesting requests. In the beginning it was more that you would just go to wherever they take you so for you to be able to say, ‘Hey, I want to speak to the people making decisions,’ how do you think that made this program different from other programs that you’ve been on and how might it affect other programs in the future?

MH: “I’m not sure. We tried to do that in Iraq, as well. It was complicated for other reasons. I’ve only been on two Envoy trips, I can’t really say. What was great was when we floated the idea with the embassy in Jordan, the personnel, the foreign service officers who were working with us, they got excited about it. They embraced the idea, which was great, because then it was like, OK, let’s go do it then.

“Ultimately, it’s about impact and follow-up. It’s great if you go for eight days and it’s wonderful and terrific but it’s about making an impression that will make change happen after we leave. It’s one thing talking to kids and working with kids and hopefully somehow that makes an impression and results in them exercising their right to play sport and asking for it, but also, they’re subject to decisions being made by others. We want to talk to those other people and answer questions they have and share with them our experiences about what it’s given us – all the gifts that playing organized sports have given to us as women.” In a lot of the pictures, there are a lot of girls and women looking at your gold medal. Do you take that with you on trips?

MH: “Lorrie (Fair) and I both did when we went to Iraq. We took our medals with us. Lorrie has two and I have one. And Danielle took her ‘platinum’ medal from 2000. You know, it’s this iconic thing. I looked up the history of Jordan in the Olympics and it’s a very big tae kwon do country. They’ve done well in that sport. And while soccer is about the World Cup, the Olympics is a very special thing. An Olympic medal is this iconic thing that makes even adults turn into kids. All the kids see it and then the adults come up and are like, ‘Can I see it?’ and they want to hold it and put it on. You never dream in a million years you might actually own one of those things and if you do, that’s the joy of having it. It’s not putting it somewhere, like on my wall. People say, ‘You should put it in a safe.’ No. It doesn’t provide any inspiration there. It provides inspiration hanging around an 8-year-old girl’s neck in Zarqa, Jordan. That’s what it should be used for.” What led you to accept your first Sports Envoy invitation and others invitations?

MH: “I can only speak for myself, because everybody has different reasons. You now, when I worked at FIFA, I was the director and ran the business unit that was completely dedicated to the development of the sport in all different forms, from referee development to coaching development to women’s football development. We were all very externally focused in parts of the world where development was needed, either for financial reasons or cultural reasons. That’s in my blood. The more international and the more need there is, I’m like a magnet to that stuff. It’s a big part of my DNA. I don’t do it for FIFA anymore, the opportunity to do it for my own country is just a gift. But it’s also where I can bring my perspective from what I learned at FIFA, maybe, to the Envoy part of it, where the wanting to meet the decision-makers comes from.” Is there an element of these trips that changes you a little bit every time you go on them?

MH: “What it enables you to do, even when you have experiences in these countries, it’s not the same when you go back and the reason is that they’re changing. We’re changing, they’re changing. Women’s soccer, globally, the growth rate, it’s not vertical but it’s quick. I remember doing an event for FIFA in 2005 where they sent me to the UAE to meet with Princess Haya, who is one of the Jordanian princesses and she was doing a women’s soccer exhibition in Dubai. Chelsea came down and they did an Arab All-Star team and it was the very first organized women’s soccer event in the Gulf region. And now, I come back in 2014 and I’m watching a tournament among four national teams, the Jordanian team is headed to the qualifiers for the Women’s World Cup next year two or three weeks from now in Vietnam and there are grassroots programs for girls’ soccer all over Jordan. So when you go back, it’s always new. You always learn something. When I go on these trips, I ask a lot of questions. They want to hear from me and I will provide that perspective and my testimony of what soccer has given me, but I’m more interested in finding out what things are like for them.”

Former U.S. WNT goalkeeper Mary Harvey looks on as a young girl from the Prince Ali Football Centers runs through a drill. What is a common theme that you get when you ask questions from the participants? Does that change from country to country and even from region to region within the country?

MH: “Within the same country, and I didn’t elaborate on this before, we met with sort of three different groups. Our days followed a rhythm in that respect. The first groups that we met with, and we met with three or four groups like this, they were public school kids. They call them government schools. We were up doing it in Zarqa, which had a lot of Syrian refugee kids going to that school. We went to a school that was run by UNRWA, it’s the UN relief agency that deals specifically with Palestinian refugees. They run a school. We did work at that school and those were all Palestinian kids, mostly. Then we did one for an NGO called Reclaimed Childhood. This was public-school type stuff, and these are kids that have limited exposure to playing, and they were about 12 or 13 years old. We were playing on, if you can imagine going to a public school where the playground is basically concrete that’s in somewhat a state of disrepair—there are schools in our country that resemble that, let’s be honest—and maybe a couple basketball hoops, but that’s it. We’re playing soccer out there. So we were deflating the balls so they’re not bouncing as much and the kids have more success playing with it. The second group we spoke to, this was not a clinic but we spoke to them. It was university students who were studying physical education. They’re studying to become PE teachers or private school teachers. The third group was the Prince Ali Center kids. This is a grassroots program of 375 kids nation-wide that is funded by the Jordanian Football Association under Prince Ali’s name. They meet three times a week and pay for them to have access. It’s an after-school program that these kids have access to. Those are the three different groups, so depending on who we were dealing with, we would have varying degrees of experience and exposure to the sport. The level was obviously very different and the perspective was different.” What do you hope the people you interact with take away from you and your experience, and what do you get from them?

MH: “What I get from them is oxygen, inspiration. Donna de Varona uses the word oxygen and I shamelessly nicked it from her because it is like getting oxygen, seeing how, even though we’re different, how much alike we are. Girls are saying, ‘My parents would prefer I focus on my studies and not so much on soccer’ I remember my dad and I having that discussion. What I get from them is humility. We are part of something much bigger than just what we did. It’s such a gift to be able to do these things because I get so much more out of it than I feel I’m giving and I learn a lot about Jordanians and Jordan, the country, the people, the culture. I learned a lot about it. It’s just a glimpse but I know so much more than I did before.

“Also, I love that not only are they committed to growing women’s soccer in Jordan, they want to pull the region with them. Palestine, Qatar, Bahrain, UAE, all of them; it’s also about the region and that’s wonderful. What we gave to them? I hope some inspiration, because everyone needs inspiration, right? Life is hard sometimes so inspiration is always good. I hope, a sense that they are entitled and it’s their right to play sports and to play soccer. It’s not for boys, it’s for them. It’s their country’s game and they’re entitled to play it as much as anybody else, if they want to. We also suggested to them that it’s also your right to ask to play it, and if they say no you ask again. And if they discourage you, you ask again. If that’s really what you want, it’s your right to ask for it.” Is there anything else that stands out from your trip?

MH: “I was told while I was there that FIFA offered offered Jordan to host either the Under-20 men or the Under-17 women and they chose the Under-17 women. That to me speaks volumes about where their heads are. This event for the Under-17s, this is a legacy-making, legacy-imparting opportunity and they know and that’s why they bid for it and that’s why they’re hosting it. To be a part of helping to spread the word about that is fantastic. Also, I would say that the people in the JFA—I worked with a lot of federations when I was at FIFA—the people in the Jordanian Football Association are on this. They have really good people working on this and they’re taking a very thoughtful approach to grassroots development. It was really terrific to see the quality of people they have working on this and their commitment to doing it.

“And I have to say, Danielle Slaton is incredible. We never played together because I stopped in ’96 and she started in 2000. What a positive life force that kid is. I loved working with her.”

Former U.S. WNT goalkeeper Harvey and defender Danielle Slaton share a traditional meal in Jordan during their time as Sports Envoys.