If you were a fan sitting in the stands when Coldwater hosted Battle Creek Central in a conference boys’ soccer match, chances are you heard at least four languages on the field.
The victorious Cardinals featured nine players of Arabic decent and one Austrian exchange student. The visiting Bearcats had less than a handful of American-born players on a roster that includes student-athletes from Burma, Mexico and Nigeria.
It should come as no surprise that the sport known globally as ‘football’ draws a unique collection of ethnicities and cultures to prep soccer fields. After all, it’s the most popular sport in the world.
Juan Valencia is originally from Mexico, having moved to the United States nine years ago. The Battle Creek Central senior midfielder said that soccer was a big part of his upbringing.
“My family is into soccer, so I’ve been playing soccer since I was a little kid. It’s like the only sport you can play basically,” Valencia said. “Sometimes, when you are coming out here, you are scared because you don’t know the language. You basically don’t know how to speak for yourself, and you can get used to it. But you don’t have to speak in soccer, you just need to know how to play.”
CULTURES COLLIDE AT BCC
The meeting of cultures is nothing new at Battle Creek Central, which has long featured one of the most diverse student populations in the area. But the ability of the Bearcats’ soccer team to come together and click took time.
“I think for me my first year that was the biggest thing — not so much the language barrier as it was kind of a desire for them to run in groups together, during practice, outside of practice,” said BCC head coach Brad Yoder. “And that translated to the field to where they were just passing to each other and not working together.”
BCC junior goalkeeper Carmelo Hernandez, a first-generation Mexican-American, agreed that the Bearcats had to work out their cultural differences when it came to the way they played the game.
“My freshman year, we didn’t know each other. We had Burmese playing with their side, we had us Mexicans just passing to each other,” Hernandez said. “My sophomore year and junior year we got to know each other and everything, and now we start passing to each other and we’ve become like a family.”
Biak Ahling moved to Battle Creek from Burma (officially Myanmar) in 2008. The sophomore forward said playing on the soccer team has helped his transition and understanding of other cultures.
“It’s fun to play soccer, because every time I play soccer, I learn more English,” Ahling said. “I learn some Spanish too from playing soccer with them.”
Several players at BCC are still relatively new to the U.S. and study English as a Second Language (ESL). Yoder said that that language isn’t a big obstacle with his players, but it does impact their availability.
“As important as the game is to them, and as much as they love the game, because of the challenges they face with their families, as far as helping out and taking care of younger siblings and things like that — a lot of these guys are the best English speakers in their families, so they have to go with their folks to appointments — the biggest challenge is getting them all here,” Yoder said.
“(With parents), that’s where the language barrier really comes in. Sometimes they shy away, because they don’t feel like they can offer that much. But honestly, just coming to the games means a lot to the guys.”
MIDDLE EAST IN THE SMAC EAST
According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data from 2006-2010, Coldwater saw 8.2 percent of its population list Arab as their first ancestry — the sixth highest percentage in Michigan.
The Cardinals’ soccer team has greatly benefited from an influx Arab culture on their team, having won the Southwest Michigan Athletic Conference East Division for the first time this season.
Much of that success has been driven by the Aljabaly family of Yemen. Last year, Yousif earned All-State honors before graduating. Now the Cardinals’ varsity features Mohamed as a senior and Nooh as a junior, while youngest brother Haroon is a sophomore on the junior varsity.
Coldwater head coach Ken Delaney said that when players like the Aljabaly’s are successful on the soccer field, it sets an example for the school’s Arab population to be included in school activities.
“Some of them, their first year here, don’t try out for the high school soccer. It’s the language barrier, and we’ve tried to make it as welcoming as possible,” Delaney said. “We have kids — this is Mo’s third year on varsity — those kids spread the word in the community. We’ve tried to build that open welcoming culture from the beginning. So this is a way for them to be included in the extra curricular process and have a little notoriety at school.”
One obstacle for Coldwater’s Muslim athletes is the fasting that occurs during the month of Ramadan. During that time (based on the Islamic lunar calendar), Muslims must refrain from consuming food and drinking liquids from dawn until sunset.
“This year it ended just before tryouts, but it can go as late as September. The first couple times, where sunset is 8:27 p.m., we had to make make mass substitutions,” Delaney said. “We learn from this. What a sacrifice for your religion. It’s been such a great learning experience for the other kids… The kids are very supportive.”
THE WORLD’S GAME
Battle Creek Central and Coldwater are hardly the only area soccer teams with a diverse mix of players.
Like the Bearcats, Lakeview has a collection of both Hispanic and Burmese players in its high school soccer program. One of those players — junior forward Fernando Hurtado — led the Spartans to an All-City Tournament title with three goals in a win over Harper Creek.
Quincy competes in the Independent Soccer League, and has utilized the talents of junior Daniel Ojeda, an exchange student from Merida, Mexico.
“Before coming to the States he played what would be called ‘varsity’ soccer at the soccer club he was a member of,” said Quincy coach Tim Hart. “He has a clear understanding of the game… He is a great addition to our team. He enjoys America and is getting more involved in school activities.”
Brazil will host the 2014 FIFA World Cup next summer. There, teams will battle to see which nation is superior in the sport of soccer.
In contrast, players of different nations and backgrounds are blending together at the prep level with the same goal in mind — to help their school win.
“It definitely helps to come together and see that in the end we’re not that different,” Yoder said. “We all love the game, we all want to get out there and play our hearts out and do what we can to get some wins.”
Contact Nick Buckley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: