It was coming up on 7:30 p.m. at the inaugural event for the Beyond Soccer Series, a global organization focused on community development through sport, and some of the attendees were growing restless between gratis slurps of Johnny (not Evans) and José (not Mourinho).
"Are you going to be showing the U.S. women's game?" one guest asked Mike Geddes, the master of ceremonies. The United States' first World Cup knockout match was set to start squarely in the middle of the evening's discussion panels.
"You're feeling the pressure now! You don't have a choice," said a beaming, properly-built man to the emcee at his right.
That man was Patrick Vieira, a legend in most countries on earth. Born in Senegal but a French international, he won the World Cup and the European Championship, as well as seven total league titles at the club level between England and Italy. These days, he's the director of youth development at Manchester City.
Soccer was the reason Vieira came to Manhattan that evening, speaking alongside Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber, UNICEF's Caryl Stern, Patrick Gaston of the Western Union Foundation, and New York City FC's own John Eli Brovsky. The panels were not interested, however, in discussing the kind of soccer we scream at on television, or drink in from the Yankee Stadium bleachers whilst brushing off blue smoke residue between chantings of "Hey, Baby..."
Instead, the talks focused on the kind of soccer Vieira grew up playing on the streets of Dakar, where the game is something you clutch, a life-giving force that has spread throughout the world further and more profoundly than any religion ever could.
The event set out to explore the universal power of sport to bring people together, to empower them, and to destroy the man-made barriers that deny those people access to education, an escape from violence, and a fair chance to succeed as a global citizen.
Welcome to Football Sans Frontières.
"Soccer is normalcy," remarked Stern, whose role as the CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF has exposed her, as plainly as can be, to soccer's borderless, immaterial oneness. In the poorest, most marginalized areas of the world in which 'normalcy' is a dream deferred, "they don't have television, they don't have newspapers," she continued, "but they know soccer!"
Even for the recently initiated, it's difficult to deny soccer's role as a universal language, the ultimate form of gift exchange constantly replenishing itself. It's a spiritual oblation held close, but really, it's the thing you share.
And how could you not?
Added Patrick Gaston of the Western Union Foundation: "Football is a vehicle for connecting to people in an important way around the world." No doubt-- Gaston became acquainted with Vieira through Western Union's "Pass Fund," which struck up a partnership with the UEFA Europa League tournament to donate the resources to fund one day of education for an underprivileged child for every completed pass in that competition.
That's nearly 200,000 per year. They've turned passing into power.
Commissioner Garber was eager to assert MLS's role in global human development through sports. His goal? "[T]o improve the lives of the people we touch every day." With far too many stories of domestic violence, drunken lunacy, and general non-chivalry emanating from the pro sports world in a constant loop, Garber issued a challenge for other professional leagues to set a better example and do more for their communities. "The other leagues can do more. The players can do more."
So, how about a 'morality clause' for MLS players?
"It's in our collective bargaining agreement," the commissioner said with a grin, no small nod to the MLS labor standoff that nearly postponed the start of the 2015 season.
Jeb Brovsky, the youngest member of the evening's discussions by more than twenty years, may have the rest of the panelists beat-- he started his own non-profit foundation, Peace Pandemic, when he was still an undergraduate at Notre Dame. His aim from the outset was to educate young people, as he tells it, "not only on the game and the beauty of it, but also about domestic violence, especially towards women, physically and structurally."
Peace Pandemic has worked within communities across the U.S. and Canada, and as far away as Liberia and India. Brovsky promises far more cities to come.
I know. I know. Sorry, folks, but he's married.
"A lot of countries that we go to still only allow the boys to go to the best schools, and the girls have to go work in the fields at 5 a.m.," Brovsky continued. "It's a global phenomenon that needs to be addressed, and not just politically. Soccer has its own politics, because it touches every corner of the world."
With so many new opportunities for engagement now that MLS and City Football Group have expanded into New York, the work is only beginning, but the unprecedented sharing of resources removes all limits on what can be accomplished.
So, did Brovsky, who told me that he idolized Vieira growing up (plus Roy Keane!) feel any nerves about going back-and-forth alongside one of his boyhood heroes?
Perhaps it didn't help that the emcee introduced them together as "two legends of soccer."
Upon hearing this, I immediately looked over to Jeb, seated just to my left, and smiled amusedly.
His face was stoic as he whispered his reply:
"I'm a legend."
So he is. May it continue.