Oakland Roots player Memo Diaz has been leading the team for the last two years but he's been recently stuck inside his house watching the World Cup, like many other Oaklanders. Credit: Memo Diaz and Oakland Roots

Restaurants and bars all over Oakland have been packed in the early morning hours for the past two weeks, filled with soccer fans watching and talking about the World Cup. But one group of people who have kept an especially close eye on the proceedings in Qatar are members of the Oakland Roots and Oakland Soul soccer teams. Founded in 2018, the Roots are part of the second division USL Championship, and the Soul will start playing next spring in the USL W League. Both are purpose-driven teams who see their mission as building community, in addition to entertaining their fans.

Roots and Soul staff, coaches, and players know the World Cup is a great way to introduce more people to their sport—especially in a multicultural and immigrant-rich city like Oakland. We spoke with a Roots player, one of the Roots’ founders, and the Soul’s director of operations to hear about who they’re rooting for, moments that have thrilled or shocked them, and how they see the cup relating to the work they do in Oakland. 

Memo Diaz is an attacking wing player for the Roots. The 27-year-old originally from border towns in New Mexico and Texas started playing for Oakland two years ago and has quickly become one of its stars. Diaz, who lives with his wife in the East Bay, is spending the offseason working out and watching as much of the World Cup as he can. 

Jenna Lamb is the director of women’s soccer operations for the Oakland Soul, the Bay Area’s first professional women’s soccer team. A former varsity player for Dickinson College, Lamb has worked for the New Zealand national women’s soccer team and Santa Clara University. She’s made time nearly every day to catch up on the competition in Qatar.

Mike Geddes is a former BBC soccer reporter who attended the World Cups in South Korea-Japan and Germany in the 2000s. For the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Geddes worked for a nonprofit building soccer fields with FIFA. He co-founded Roots with Edreece Arghandiwal and others, and has been keeping up with his home country of England during the World Cup. 

All conversations have been edited for clarity and length. 

Memo Diaz

Memo Diaz will be playing for the Oakland Roots for the third straight year in 2023. Credit: Memo Diaz and Oakland Roots

You’re Mexican American. Which team did you support in this year’s Cup—Mexico, the United States, or both? And did you decide on that support because of your parents? 

I support both. And Canada. But usually I lean toward Mexico because my parents grew up there. My dad grew up in Mexico City and my mom in Juarez, which is on the border with El Paso, where I was born. I actually grew up in Anthony, New Mexico, which is like 15 minutes from El Paso. 

A lot of my family lived in El Paso in the 1930s and 40s. Tell me about growing up there as a Mexican American and how that translates to your World Cup affinity.

It has changed over the years. When I was little, the other guys from where I’m from were all hardcore Mexico fans and against the US. But as I became a pro player and grew up, I was like, “Yeah, like why not like the US too? I can root for them and watch both of their games.” 

From the perspective of a player, how do you feel about this year’s US and Mexico teams? How do you think they played?

The big difference between both teams is age. Mexico wanted to go with experienced players and had some young guys that could have made a difference. If more young guys had played, I feel like they would’ve advanced from the group stage. 

The US played with all young guys and it proved my point. You could tell their work ethic was better than those of their older guys. That’s what made the difference between the US advancing and not Mexico. 

Mexico took a bet on experience, which in the modern game, especially at the World Cup, can hurt you. Raul Jimenez for Mexico was not old but he hadn’t touched the ball in like two months. Coaches have a lot to do with those decisions.

How are you watching the games here in Oakland?

I’m going crazy here. I’m in the apartment watching one game on the phone and watching the other on the TV.

Have you been to any cafes or restaurants showing the World Cup? 

Not at all. For the Mexico games, my wife India and I were able to be back home for Thanksgiving week, so for the Mexico games, we were with the family. But other than that we’ve been here in Oakland and in the apartment. I go and work out between games and then just come back, and watch the next game. It’s nice out here. But my wife is like, “You don’t even wake up early to make me coffee but now you wanna wake up at seven to watch the soccer game?”

Did you get up for any of the 2 a.m. or 5 a.m. matches? 

Not for those.

At least you can say, “Hey, this is my job!”

[Laughing] Yeah, I was like, “Hey, I’m working right now. I’m watching film!”

Memo Diaz and his wife India attended a World Cup preliminary match this year, rooting for the Mexican team. Credit: Memo Diaz.

Are there any players or moments that resonated with you during the cup?

I try to pick up as much as I can from any player in any game that I’m watching. Obviously, I’ll focus more on my position, which is wing back. Alphonso Davis was killing it for Canada. 

Did you watch the world cup as a kid, and do you have any memories of it? 

When I was in high school—2014 was my senior year—I believe, our soccer coach would set up a TV in the boys’ locker room and we would go in and out of classes and watch the World Cup games. If we didn’t have anything to do in class we would just stay there the whole game. 

So who do you think is gonna win? 

Brazil’s looking good. Argentina’s looking good. I feel like Brazil has a good chance. They’re pretty good all around. Croatia’s looking good. They had a hard time getting out of the group, but I feel like they’ll make a run for it as well. And they continue to be good because they made the final last time. 

Jenna Lamb

Former Dickinson varsity soccer player Jenna Lamb leads the Oakland Soul’s efforts to connect with fans ahead of the team’s debut next year. Credit: Oakland Roots and Oakland Soul.

How do you feel about this particular World Cup and how it’s going? And how do you see the U.S. men’s and women’s soccer programs in relation to each other?

It’s super exciting. I was devastated when we didn’t qualify for the last men’s World Cup. I am equally excited about the men’s and women’s World Cups. I think they both do such incredible things to boost the momentum of the sport in the United States. We’ve seen that the success of the women’s team has created such a tide here and has been incredible to watch and be a part of. On the men’s side, every time they win a game or score a goal, I think new soccer fans are born. So I’m very appreciative of that.

This year’s cup is obviously an interesting one with location and controversies. But at the end of the day, on the field, it has been a uniting thing. I feel like I can talk to anybody on the street in Oakland about the World Cup or what country they are rooting for. That’s a ton of fun. And then obviously at work, it’s just chaos. We have all kinds of drama going on in the office with people’s loyalties. It’s such a connecting global event and I’ve really enjoyed having it over the holidays.

Tell me a little bit about this drama. What’s going on? 

Well, we have some American fans. We have some Mexican fans. We have some English fans. German fans. So it’s been chaos with these groups. We have games on the TV in the office and if it’s a close match or if somebody has skin in the game it can be, uh, tumultuous. Mexico’s knockout was devastating to a good chunk of our office. So it’s something we can joke about and chat about and it’s always going on in the morning, which is super nice. 

Throughout the World Cup, Oakland Roots and Soul staffers have been getting into wholesome but spirited arguments at their Fruitvale neighborhood office. From left, Josiah Schell and Jesus Munoz, fan development account executives, marketing manager Allison Pulido, sales manager CJ LaRoche, and people operations manager Max Stadler. Credit: Jenna Lamb

Have you had any interesting interactions with people around Oakland involving the World Cup? 

Yeah, even today I got into an Uber on the way here and I exclaimed in the car, “Oh my God, I can’t believe Cameroon beat Brazil. It’s amazing.” And the driver and I started talking about it. He’s from Rwanda, which is where my sister used to work. We ended up talking for a long time about soccer, the United States, and why soccer is or isn’t popular. I don’t think we ever would’ve gotten on that topic had it not been for the common language of a World Cup upset.

Are there any moments from a particular match that stand out to you? 

On the sporting side, the first match where the Ecuadorian goal was called offside, I learned a little bit more about the nuances of the offsides rule. I’m not sure I ever really knew that it was two defenders behind the ball and not just one, because you never really think about the goalkeeper. [Editor’s note: Lamb is referring to the disallowed goal in the third minute of the game when an Ecuadorian player was ruled offside.] So I was gobsmacked to be like “Wow, I guess game one and I already learned something.” 

The Christian Pulisic goal that put the US forward was huge. 

And every tense nail-biting minute of the England-USA game. I was watching with non-soccer fans and explaining offsides and trying to talk them through what fouls were and why everyone’s so dramatic. It was super fun.

What do you think about the human rights issues and protests? 

I think it’s really great to see that people are using their platform. I feel like there has been such a historic pattern of athletes being asked to stay in their lane. But there’s also such a rich history of civil rights and sports going hand in hand with social justice. I think bringing that to the global stage is incredibly powerful. I have been touched to see the creative, unique, and powerful things people have done to make their opinion known.

It’s really disappointing that we’re even at this point, right? The things that happened that led to the World Cup being hosted in Qatar and the people that died to make it happen are horrific. Human rights violations really can’t be understated. But the fact that people are continuing the conversation and pushing for change is really powerful. The universal language of the fans rushing the field with the rainbow flag and the double-sided jersey was huge. 

It’s also interesting to see the embrace of culture go hand in hand with human rights activism. You see people wearing headscarves and they’re selling them in every team color now. And the Qataris feel a sense of pride to see people embracing that. But on the other side, people are putting their foot down about some of the bigger issues to try to make progress. 

Are there any tangible benefits for the Roots and Soul teams coming out of this cup?

Yeah, I believe the engagement we’re getting from a lot of the watch parties has been huge. We try to have a presence at the Oakland Athletic Club. We’ve had representatives at all the US games there. We’re hosting our own watch parties on Dec. 10 for one of the quarterfinals and the final on Dec. 18. I think getting people out of bed that early to watch soccer is huge. The watch parties are at Plank and Line 51. 

I think it also just kind of rejuvenates the community. I’ve had people reach out asking, “Hey, can we do something around the World Cup? How about the women’s World Cup next summer?” So I think it gets everybody talking about soccer and gets the buzz going.

And learning from this World Cup and how it ties into the Roots and then applying all of that to the women’s World Cup and Soul this summer will be awesome because that kicks off right as our season will be finishing up and runs through the rest of the summer. I’m super excited about the potential of the women’s Australian-New Zealand World Cup. 

Who do you think will win this tournament?

I have Brazil winning it all. Brazil versus France. France looks good. I mean, even though half of their roster is in the injured reserve squad, it is also excellent. 

Mike Geddes

Mike Geddes and his wife and one of their children attend a team game this year. Credit: Mike Geddes.

You attended several World Cups working as a BBC reporter. How is this one similar and different? 

In 2010, the premise was that this was a World Cup for a whole region, Africa, and it was going to change people’s perceptions. Living and working there, you really did feel that people’s perceptions of South Africa and Africa in general changed during that World Cup for the better. People went to the country and experienced it and had a great time and were very positive. There’s obvious parallels with the intentions around why Qatar wanted the World Cup so badly. I don’t know if it’s gonna have the same kind of impact, to be honest with you. There are a lot of other challenges and issues around that. I guess the difference is that South Africa already had a very deep soccer culture and stadiums that supported a local league.

Tell me about your work in South Africa.

We were working on the official social legacy campaign of the World Cup, which was called Football for Hope, a nonprofit that worked with FIFA and the local organizing committee to create community development programs. The major project was called 20 Centers for 2010, which involves building centers of education, public health, and soccer in countries around Africa. 

Most of my work was building soccer fields as a way to energize and revitalize communities. In that part of the world, the soccer field brings people together. It’s a safe community space and you can use that to do all sorts of other things for uplifting communities. I was really proud of that and enjoyed working on it. You can go to Rwanda today and visit the center we built as part of that program. Oftentimes people talk about the legacies of these events and that’s one that actually did something.

How did you end up moving away from reporting and into doing work with an official soccer organization? 

When I was a reporter, I was traveling the world and going to World Cups and covering the games. I gradually became part of this whole other movement of people using the game to assess social change. We estimate 4 billion people are connected by this game. There’s almost no other human social phenomenon that has the same scale. So it’s a very powerful force, whether you like the game or not. 

In 2003, I went to South Africa when they were bidding for the World Cup to make some documentaries about soccer. I helped tell the story of a particular player who’d come from the townships of South Africa and was playing in the Netherlands. I got really fascinated by this plan they had for bringing the World Cup to South Africa. And I decided then that I was gonna work on that World Cup. So what’s led to me quitting my job as a reporter and becoming a non-profit worker. I always knew that was where I wanted to be, in that World Cup.

Geddes and his family have incorporated well into the Oakland culture of diversity, he told The Oaklandside. Credit: Mike Geddes

Now you work for the Roots. Is that the next natural step? 

Yeah, it’s very connected. When I was working for the BBC, I was very passionate about the power that the sport had but I was frustrated by the fact that there didn’t seem to be any connection between the business of soccer and the responsibility of the business. It continued getting wealthier and concentrating wealth in a smaller percentage of the participants. And yet there was no corresponding increase in value in the communities where this game is so powerful. So I got very interested in rethinking the business model of soccer in a way that can make it more sustainable and embed the social purpose in the middle of it. I was involved with a soccer team in Lisotho, which is a small country in the middle of South Africa, called Kick for Life. Over the course of about 10 years, it went from being a program for street kids where we built a football center and grew and they became a professional soccer team. It was very successful because they had something at the heart of that organization that was more than just money. It was for a social purpose. 

When I moved to Oakland and met the other co-founders of the Roots who told me about their vision, I said, “Yeah, I’ve seen that that can work.” And at the very first public discussion we had in Oakland about the concept of purpose-driven soccer, one of those girls from Lutu, who at that time had a scholarship to play in the states, actually came and spoke about the power of soccer. So for me, it was a very connected journey I took. 

Is the World Cup helping build the Roots’ fan base?

We’re trying to talk to as many soccer fans as we can and let them know that, “Hey, there’s a team here,” and let them know it’s about more than just soccer, it’s also about social purpose. We’re already looking ahead to 2026, when the US will be hosting the next men’s World Cup with Mexico and Canada. We are part of something called Common Goal with other clubs thinking about how to make it a more inclusive place for LGBTQ+ communities. 

What teams are you rooting for?

I’m English, so I’m obviously interested in how the English team does, but I’m also just very interested in the smaller teams. That includes the USA, obviously not a small nation, but they’re young in football pedigree terms. I really like their team. The US looks different than in the past, in terms of the types of players that they now have. They’re really creative attacking players who are playing in the top clubs in Europe. And I’m biased because two of them play for my team, Leeds.

Do you think that England can win? Do you want to even say that out loud? 

Haha! I think they can, but I don’t think they will. England has a coach who has done something incredible, which is to change the culture of our national team, which was, basically a kind of laughing stock for a long time and very toxic. He’s done an incredible job to bring through really exciting players. I just don’t think he’s a good enough coach to win it. But at the same time, you never know. We’ve probably got a decent shot. 

Who do you predict will play in the final?

I would say France and Brazil. I think they’re the two best teams. Then I think the dark horse is Morocco. It is an excellent, excellent team and I think they’re gonna surprise a few people.

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.