By Colter Hettich, Features Editor
While school campuses in Abilene sit lifeless on Sunday afternoons, Mann Middle School transforms into a battleground.
Across the street a white, church steeple stands just higher than the mesquite treetops. Weathered homes with toy-littered lawns line the bordering streets to the north and west. A few steps from the sideline, a man sells traditional Mexican snacks under his blue canopy. Friends and families of the players fan themselves from their folding chairs. Every couple of minutes a referee’s whistle interrupts spectators’ conversations and all eyes turn to the action.
Here, on a cloudless Sunday afternoon, a love for the game of soccer, or futbol, brings 160 players from all over the world together. Liga Hispana de Abilene (Hispanic League of Abilene) has given 22 ACU students and alumni a reason to join a second family: ACU Inter FC.
Gregorio Torres, the league’s founder, played on Abilene High School’s first soccer team in 1986. After graduating, Torres and his friends continued playing together in out-of-town tournaments. But traveling to a different city every weekend took its toll.
“I finally thought, ‘Why not start a league in Abilene?'” Torres said.
In spring 2006, the 16-andup Hispanic League of Abilene played its first game. Today, every league referee has registered with FIFA, the international governing body of the sport. Games start at 10 a.m. and do not usually end until 6 p.m. In case someone resorts to violence, any person or team that starts a fight is immediately ejected from the league.
“Everyone is here to have fun,” Torres said. “And if the kids are here playing, then they’re not on the street, in a gang or doing drugs.”
When deciding on a name, ACU Inter FC had no choice but to include “international.” The Bahamas, Cambodia, Ecuador, Honduras, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Madagascar, Mexico, Nigeria, South Korea, United States and Zambia are all represented by at least one team member.
“It sounds really cool and it is, but we have to develop strategies and learn many ways of multicultural communication,” said Daniel Garcia, the team’s goalkeeper.
Garcia, ACU multicultural enrollment marketing specialist, came to ACU from Cancun, Mexico, and graduated in 2004. When Garcia is not recruiting international students or defending ACU Inter FC’s goal, he maintains the league’s Web site, www.futbolabilene.com. Wherever it goes, the global game of soccer carries a gravity that draws people together people who would likely never interact otherwise.
“Where else will you get the opportunity to be involved in something with people from 13 different countries?” Garcia said. “Now that there is no school team or even intramural club soccer [at ACU], this is one of the only places people can play semi-competitively.”
Takumi Matsumoto, senior engineering for physics major from Japan, joined the team two years ago. His friend Hiroaki Akahoshi, business major from Japan, played on the team and convinced him to try out. The inherent challenges of such an ethnically diverse team met Matsumoto head on.
“I’m not good at English. At first I think it was hard to communicate,” Matsumoto said.
In addition to the language hurdle, cultural styles of play clashed.
“Here they show their own skill. Teams back home play together more,” Matsumoto said. “I think Japanese people are afraid of mistakes; sometimes they are afraid to take a shot.”
Stephen McBride, junior prephysical therapy major from Ecuador, said as the team became more familiar with each other, they slowly opened up to criticism. Once they felt comfortable correcting each other and sharing ideas, the floodgates opened.
“We play as a team, but each person has their individual talent and we use that talent as a weapon against the opponent,'”
McBride said. “Hiro runs very fast, so we use his speed. David has very good footwork, so we use him for that. Juan Carlos is very calm with the ball and keeps a very cool head, so we use him in midfield. And Eddie, Laz and Ricky are almost impossible to get by, so we use their defensive skills.”
The team’s renown has grown to the point that seven players showed up this season in hopes of filling three openings. Four years on the school team and a lifetime of practice paid off for David Suazo. The team asked the freshman mathematics major from Honduras to join them.
Daniel Garcia, who met Suazo at his school in Honduras, first introduced him to the team. The number of international students took Suazo by surprise, but what he learned about the world surprised him even more.
“I thought that Ecuador was the same as Honduras, but it’s very different,” Suazo said. “And I learned a lot about Africa. We’ve become like a family.”
Lazarus Kawinga, ACU alumnus from Zambia and ACU Inter FC coach, said the same thing.
“It pretty much becomes a family,” Kawinga said. “But it’s quite a challenge. You have to understand where they come from and pay attention to who they are individually.”
Growing up, Kawinga wanted nothing more and nothing else than to play soccer professionally. Having broken “almost every bit of bone in [his] body,” it took more than physical pain to deter him. His mother’s wellplaced insistence on education finally gave him the courage to let go of his dream. He did not expect to find a soccer team when he left home for a university in Abilene.
“It’s one of those things that you hope for, but where we come from we don’t usually pick and choose,” Kawinga said.
When he arrived at ACU in 1997, he and a handful of international students started playing pick-up games. Little did they know their games would become an organized, 22-player squad. The longer they played “for fun,” the more frequent talks of league play became. The talks materialized, the team embers pooled their money and they began entering out-of-town tournaments.
“When they started the Hispanic League, we jumped on it,” Kawinga said.
Although widely acknowledged as a global sport, Kawinga said soccer alone would never be enough to create the ACU Inter FC family.
“It doesn’t have to be soccer,” he said. “The way we do it, we don’t get paid. We only do it for the love of the game.”