Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Ivorian boy find soccer in the city

By Adam Flango
Copy edited and produced by Hilary Johnson

Walking through the neighborhoods of Harlem and Washington Heights in New York City does not evoke thoughts of soccer, known around the world as the beautiful game. But squeezed in between basketball courts and roads are open fields where children can learn to love the game or to simply try to fit in—children like Mohamed.
Players take the field for a game at the Uptown Soccer
Academy in Manhatten / Uptown Soccer Academy

After immigrating to the United States from Ivory Coast, Mohamed did not quite fit in. He did not speak English, just the French of his homeland. His parents did not aid the language barrier either ­—neither spoke English.

But on the pitch, the language of soccer is louder and more distinct than any dialect. Moses had grown up playing in the dirt fields in his native Ivory Coast. He did not attend any of the soccer academies in the country’s largest city, Abidjan, but instead played with friends locally.

So when he arrived in New York at age 10, he and his family sought out a local organization that is commonly passed through families by word of mouth. It was called the Uptown Soccer Academy.

David Sykes was born in the soccer-crazy country of England. He adapted a passion and proficiency in the game and was soon playing and coaching across the world.

In 2004, he traveled to Africa for six months to help spread awareness of HIV/AIDS through the easiest medium: playing soccer. He spent time in countries in both East and West Africa and was amazed at the dedication that people with such few resources have to the game.

“Everywhere we went, especially in West Africa, everyone was playing,” Sykes said through the phone in a slight British accent. “It was amazing for us to see the length people will go to play.”
Students and instructors vigorously run for the
ball. / Uptown Soccer Academy

Ivory Coast is situated in the heart of the soccer loving nations of West Africa. But there are several contributing factors that have made it difficult for Ivorian children and teenagers to develop on the pitch.

With an unstable political climate for years, the omnipresence of danger has hampered athletic development.

There are, however, still some soccer academies that produce top-level talent in Ivory Coast. The Académie Sportive des Employés de Commerce Mimosas, often referred to as ASEC Mimosas, has had an advanced and successful system in place since 1948. ASEC has produced current Ivorian national team starters Gervinho, Salomon Kalou and Yaya Toure, the 2011 African Footballer of the Year.

In many circles, Ivory Coast is considered the crown jewel of African football. But in a country where there are still limited opportunities relative to the high demand for places at academies, soccer players seek other avenues.

Sykes said that some of his players from Africa worried about foreign soccer academies. They had heard stories about different players being shipped away and losing all contact with their families with no guarantee of soccer fame or glory.

Other players left their country with their families in hopes of starting anew. But in the United States, where soccer takes a back seat to other sports, it can be difficult to find a club, particularly in large metropolitan cities.

So when Sykes came over to the United States to earn his master’s degree, he also started the Uptown Soccer Academy. It is an academy for children primarily ages 7-14 and is open to everyone, regardless of their skill level. For some players, it is simply a way to enjoy the game and exercise. For the more serious players, like Mohamed, it has helped to be a feeder system to club teams around the city.

“We now just run it as a training program,” said Sykes. “We have training four times a week.”
The academy also provides scholarships or financial aid to kids that wish to play club soccer but cannot afford it.
The instructor and students gather
in a huddle before the start of a game.
/ Uptown Soccer Academy.

But for Mohamed the academy offered much more than that. The ten-year old had only been in the country a few weeks when his a family member, brought him to the academy.

“He didn’t speak any English,” said Sykes. “He knew soccer vocabulary English before regular English.”

The game was also instrumental in helping transition Mohamed from his home country to New York, perhaps the most distinctly different place he could imagine.

“Soccer is more than just playing a sport for him,” said Sykes. “It was instrumental in helping him feel comfortable in a new environment.”

Mohamed had found a home, a place where he can play the game that he loved. In sports, respect is often earned based solely on your performance. Mohamed had skills that were highly developed compared to other players.

“He was immediately one of the stronger players,” Sykes said. “Kids always respected that.”

Now Mohamed has transitioned from the Uptown Soccer Academy to club teams in New York. It’s a far cry from Ivory Coast, but it is an opportunity to play the beautiful game.

And for teenage boys, particularly boys from Africa, that is all that they want.

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