The Congolese Madame Minster Thérèse Lukenge's visit to Indianapolis on April 30 put the figurative cherry on top of an epic month of Indiana soccer history.
Of course the month began with an ambitious Indy Eleven pre-season, followed by a fabulous players' ball to celebrate the inaugural season, which kicked off April 12.
Ever engaged with community relations opportunities, Indy Eleven staffers Guy-Jo Gordon and John Koluder responded to a Brickyard Battalion member's suggestion that Lukenge's visit represented a great chance to introduce the Eleven brand to Central African soccer fans. Upon arrival at the International School of Indiana, bearing gifts of team scarves for the madam minister, Gordon and Koluder found Lukenge to be a passionate supporter of the Tout Puissant Mazembe club from Lubumbashi.
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"Sports, first of all, breaks the barriers," Lukenge commented in an interview following the exchange of the scarves. In addition to serving as minister of the environment, mining and education departments (among others), the minster, who earned a degree in nuclear chemistry in Belgium, served as minister of sport.
"When they are playing, all they see is rolling ball. Then they look for victory, so they take everybody who is on their team ... to reach the same goal. So when they win, they are happy, so they are not inclined on doing any other kind of violence.
Lukenge's host, Faustin N'Tala, a soccer nut in his own right, suggested that Mazembe travel to the U.S. for a friendly game against the U.S.
Indy Eleven President Peter Wilt later commented that he does not foresee a match in the immediate future.
"I believe it would be overly optimistic to think there would be any friendly games between the clubs in the near future," he emailed Tuesday. "I would hate to set any false expectations for your readers as this is a lower priority for us with huge challenges that would sap our limited human and economic resources."
Some restraint may be well advised. On May 12, the international Herald newspaper carried the following headline: "Deadly stampede at title-deciding football match in DR Congo sees at least 15 killed and dozens injured after police fire tear gas." The incident unfolded in Kinshasa where the scene at a stadium packed well beyond its 30,000-person-capacity devolved into chaos. The Mazembe team was playing in the tournament, but it was not on the club's Lubumbashi home turf.
Tragedy is not new to Lukenge. It just renews her resolve for future improvements.
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"I'd ask the government of the United States to accompany us ... in the establishment of democracy, in the transparency of elections," Lukenge said during her visit. "Those are fundamental elements for a long-lasting peace. We have American companies. We'd like to have more investment, but first thing is: There has to be peace. We have a lot of things we can lean from the American people, and you have a lot of things you can learn from us."
Even if a Mazmebe/Indy Eleven game does not unfold as the first meeting of an American and African club, the seeds of international exchange have been planted.
Before bidding adieu to her scarf-carrying denizens of soccer democracy, Lukenge commented (with a tone that was mostly - but not all - humorous) that Indy Eleven's canine mascot, Zeke, would be no match for her Mazembe Crocodile. In short: the Democratic Republic of Congo is ready to play whenever Indy Eleven is ready for the adventure.
All global politics aside ...
Here in Indianapolis, urban supporters from Big Car, Downtown Indy Inc. and Indy Eleven are working to support an inner-city league designed to foster neighborhood pride.
The Indy City Futbol jerseys, emblazoned with European football-style crests by designer Ross Shafer, will represent neighborhoods throughout Indy's urban core.
"We're hoping this league not only facilitates the fun and camaraderie that soccer brings to its players, but the kind of community engagement that can only come from getting out and being present with your neighbors," Jordan Updike, the league's director, said in a press release.
The games will be played Downtown Wednesdays at White River State Park June 4-Aug. 20.