A tweenage American “diplobrat” with a disability finds her first international school travel team, in a country banning girls’ sports, sidelined by a nearby terrorist bombing that catapults them into the expat boys’ soccer league. There co-ed, multicultural teammates must overcome sexism, ableism, racism, homophobia and plagues of locusts in a unique “counter-terrorist” soccer season.
Drawing from the author’s actual experience after Al Qaeda’s first bombing, narrator PAISLEY finds a savvy group of girls to help navigate her new hometown. Her international girlsquad of sideliners includes superchill Saudi ZARA, confident African-American Muslim MALIKA, clever Canadian ALLIE, sassy military brat EMMA and talented, Arab-American gender non-conforming SHIRA. When they are teamed up with the boys — affable Eritrean 9th grader IBRAHIM, flirty class clown MO, and the Saudi coach’s salty son FAHAD — cultures collide and re-combine.
Having just begun to define their complex cultural and gender identities when terrorism reboots everything, they attempt to rebuild a team and a middle school life, meeting new, sometimes humorous obstacles at each turn. At first, they’re a running joke —a Saudi, an American and an Eritrean ran onto a soccer field — playing in sexist cliques until IBRAHIM breaks his foot. His injury and plea that teammates draw on each other’s strengths kick starts change. Coach’s desert team-building activities, practices in one another’s cultural backyards and a mutual desire to kick back against fear reconfigure the team dynamic, and milestones like crushes, group dates and first periods occur along the way.
Finally, in tournament play, the team’s abundance of girls turns asset. Through a double-jointed goal and MALIKA’s perfectly timed Ramadan menstrual period, diversity slays the day.
Victory is sweet, but short. Paisley’s brief epilogue reveals a second terrorist attack largely empties the school as families seek a safer location, and the team becomes a memory. Returning to the US later herself, she discovers her suburban high school classmates dismiss her experience as irrelevant — until September 11, 2001.