The headline was impossible to ignore: A Philadelphia nonprofit that uses soccer as a pathway to education for inner-city kids won a major grant from the English Premier League.

But this wasn’t a case of one of global soccer’s biggest brands using charity work to plant its flag in America. How the Manayunk-based Starfinder Foundation got the money is a story in and of itself.

First, of course, was the Premier League’s decision that its International Development Fund would give grants to organizations across the Americas this year. It turned to a German entity called streetfootballworld, a membership organization that has managed development programs for FIFA, UEFA and other soccer organizations.

Starfinder already had a years-long relationship with Street Football World thanks to other projects, including participation in FIFA-run youth soccer festivals at recent men’s World Cups. So when the time came to submit proposals, Starfinder executive director Heidi Warren was ready.

Warren’s organization doesn’t just teach inner-city kids how to play soccer. It also offers a range of educational opportunities, from SAT preparation classes to one-on-one tutoring. Starfinder works with hundreds of students each year, including many from Philadelphia’s increasingly diverse immigrant populations.

The Premier League ended up granting 20,000 British pounds to Starfinder, equal to around $26,000. And it wasn’t a backdoor act of Premier League branding. That Starfinder is across town from Comcast, which bankrolls NBC’s vast spending on Premier League TV rights, is apparently just a coincidence.

“It did not come with any strings attached in that regard,” Warren said. “My sense is that the [Premier League’s] international development fund is truly intentional about being an international development fund, and I think that Street Football World’s role in it, from our side, gives that a lot more credibility, too. Because that is their purpose. They wouldn’t be doing it if it was a glorified marketing effort.”

Street Football World’s most famous project is Common Goal, an entity to which some famous soccer players donate 1 percent of their salaries. That money (plus funds from corporate sponsors and other donors) gets distributed to soccer-oriented nonprofits around the world. Manchester United star Juan Mata helped launch the project in 2017.

Last June, Starfinder received some of the money that Mata contributed. Those funds helped pay female coaches of Starfinder’s girls’ teams. Some of those coaches are graduates of Starfinder’s youth programs.

Other marquee players on board include U.S. women’s national team stars Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Heather O’Reilly. Union winger David Accam was the first player from Philadelphia to sign up. So far, players from three MLS teams and four NWSL teams have joined the effort.

Starfinder has two major fundraisers coming in the next few weeks: a cocktail reception and celebrity soccer game on Wednesday, and a charity tournament on the mornings of March 2 and 3. Unfortunately, the Feb. 27 event is the same night that the U.S. women’s national team plays in Chester. Starfinder scheduled its event well before U.S. Soccer booked Talen Energy Stadium, and by the time the game was announced, it was too late to move the fundraiser.

A study room at the Starfinder Foundation in Manayunk features an inspirational quote from all-time Brazilian soccer legend Pelé.
Jonathan Tannenwald / Staff
A study room at the Starfinder Foundation in Manayunk features an inspirational quote from all-time Brazilian soccer legend Pelé.