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Soccer scores with bringing people together

Beacon archive | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 4, 2013: Moving to a new town or city can be a daunting experience for anybody; friends and family have often been left behind with little to no knowledge of where the path ahead may lead. So imagine the difficulty for those arriving from different countries; having to navigate a new language, traverse a new culture and in some cases learn how to drive on the opposite side of the road.

For a large group of people, however, there is one way to make this transition slightly smoother, one thing that binds cultures from almost every corner of the globe: soccer.

The game, played by approximately 280 million people worldwide and familiar to a whole host more, has the ability to tear down those impassable barriers, especially those big friendly pillars of Midwest St. Louis.

"Any corner, of any street, of any country will have a group of kids kicking a ball around,” said Mohammad Khoroushi, a 58-year-old Iranian citizen who moved to the U.S. in the mid-‘80s and now resides in south St. Louis. “It’s the one language that everybody speaks.”

Khoroushi, who escaped the violence that gripped his homeland after the abdication of the shah in 1979, explained the difficulties of moving across such varied cultures.

"When I first came to the United States my English was terrible, I mean terrible, I couldn’t understand anything,” said Khoroushi. “Luckily for me I had a cousin here who helped me, took me along to some of the small-sided soccer games where I met a lot of people in similar situations but from all kinds of different places.”

Perhaps the best place in St. Louis to witness this melting pot is St. Louis Pick Up Soccer. The group, started roughly three years ago by 4-5 local people who enjoyed playing soccer, quickly gained popularity further afield.

"It started with a small email list, just me and a group of friends who used to go out and play on Thursday evenings,” said Vin Ko, founder of St. Louis Pick Up Soccer. "After we created a Facebook page, its popularity just spiraled, now we have over 1,300 members with several games being played a day across the city.”

A large proportion of these members are international students or immigrants, who come to play in the make-up games dotted across the city.

"We have members from all over the world such as Britain, France, Spain and places as far off as Mongolia, Iraq and Vietnam,” said Ko.

One regular member is Frenchmen and former professional soccer player Mathieu Pecastaing. Pecastaing, a central/defensive midfielder started his playing career for his hometown Ligue 1 Nice before hopping over the Pyrenees enjoying spells at Spanish clubs Elche and Benidorm. After a career-ending injury, Pecastaing came to the U.S. in the hope of training as an airline pilot.

"When I first arrived in St. Louis I didn’t know anybody,” said Pecastaing in an interview. “I checked the local soccer scene and got involved with pick-up; the guys there were great and really helped me to settle in the area.”

Juan Luis Dominguez, a native of Cali, Colombia, who moved to St. Louis in 2007 is yet another example of how soccer can help ease that cultural transition. Dominguez came to the U.S. to escape a life of poverty and ruin, after losing two brothers to drug-related violence. Miami became his hometown, and soccer his refuge.

"Miami was a different beast for me, I mean there were a lot of Hispanics which helped, but money man, that was a real issue,” Dominguez said. "Playing soccer out on the fields helped me escape those worries. All of us guys — Guatemalans, Mexicans, Peruvians — we were all in similar situations but for those few hours, we just didn’t have to worry about it.

New Dimensions Soccer

Perhaps St. Louis’ finest example of soccer being used for cultural assimilation is the community outreach program, New Dimensions Soccer. Started by Tom Michler and Tim Tettambel in 2004, the non-profit organization was the result of a factors in the St. Louis community.

"Tim and I recognized that not all new kids to St. Louis would have the chance to play, the environment just wasn’t conducive for it,” said Michler, director of New Dimensions Soccer Corporation. “Kids in the city needed some kind of program or access to play, especially the growing number of international kids to the area.”

The New Dimensions organization provides this access through a range of soccer tournaments, leagues, outdoor and indoor practices all aimed at building character in the youth as well as integrating immigrant communities into the local area through soccer. Children from as far away as Iraq and southern Africa to South America and Eastern Europe can be seen on the playing fields.

"Soccer is the perfect fit. It has a universal identity with so many different cultures that we are able to use it as a book to assimilate them into the St. Louis culture,” said Michler “Not only that but it gives our home town kids exposure to diversity.”

Provided Tony Whelan recently visited the youngsters at New Dimensions.
Credit Beacon archives | 2013
Tony Whelan recently visited the youngsters at New Dimensions.

After working closely with Tony Whelan from Manchester United and youth directors Michler uses the close-knit, 4-on-4 model to introduce youth to the game.

"This system allows players to frequently touch the ball and score a lot of goals,” said Michler. "No fear, no pressure, just a bunch of fun."

Michler’s goal of creating a diverse, welcoming community stems from a trip to Chicago made with his son’s CYC baseball team. The playing field, once a haven for drug activity and gang violence, was transformed by the actions of a single man. Picking up the syringes and broken glass, piece by piece, Bob Muzikowski was able to take back the green space and in the process, created one of the best little league systems in the country and inspire the Keanu Reeves featured film Hardball.

"We went out and walked around the neighborhood and that’s what sparked it for me,” said Michler. "I knew we could do the same thing through soccer in St. Louis. Growing up I’ve noticed a change here and I can’t have my kids growing up in a world that shuns diversity."

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