The Seattle Sounders FC, a Major League Soccer expansion team, will be the obvious underdogs when they take the field tonight against world champion FC Barcelona. But this sold-out battle in Seattle is about far more than soccer—or as the visiting team would call it, football. Both teams share the much larger goal of kicking malaria out of Africa.
"I think soccer is the best way to sensitize people about malaria," Sanna Nyassi, a midfielder for the Sounders, told The Seattle Times. "It's the most popular game in the world. It’s going to make a very big difference."
Nyassi suffered through more than one bout of malaria while growing up in his home country of Gambia. He now campaigns to keep others protected from the parasite that kills about 1 million people, mostly children, every year.
"I was so lucky to survive it," he told the Times. "Some people couldn’t."
Meanwhile, Nyassi's opponents have teamed up with the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the same effort. FC Barcelona recently began wearing a logo for the Gates Foundation-funded United Against Malaria on its warm-ups. The team also pays the United Nations Children’s Fund nearly $2 million to sport UNICEF’s letters on their chests during game time, according to another Times story. (The Sounders, in contrast, receive $4 million a season to emblazon their fluorescent green jerseys with "Xbox 360 LIVE.")
"For Barca, our motto for 110 years has been 'More Than a Club,'" Dr. Marta Segu, the executive director of the FC Barcelona Foundation, which coordinates the club’s humanitarian efforts, told The New York Times. "We have a responsibility with society around the world."
With his team's success in Europe and the sport's growing popularity around the world, their malaria message is spreading. Tonight, the big screen in Seattle’s Qwest Field will feature messages about the deadly disease. And, under the lead of the Gates Foundation, malaria information will soon be shared via text messages, as well as online through a project that asks people to "pass the ball," Gabrielle Fitzgerald, senior program officer at the Gates Foundation, told The Seattle Times.
Even Seattle’s local artists are getting into the spirit of tonight's friendly competition. Renowned glassblower, Dale Chihuly, has created a "striking silvered cylinder emblazoned with the FC Barcelona crest," according to MLSnet.com, which will be auctioned off to support foundations that are combating malaria.
By the end of 2010, the year the World Cup will be held in South Africa, the United Nations wants to see universal access across Africa to malaria medicine and mosquito nets. The end goal is near-zero deaths by 2015. That would mean hundreds of thousands more kids growing up healthy, and kicking soccer balls into nets—of the more loosely woven kind.
Picture of FC Barcelona player by amnesia x via Flickr