When Steve Jackson of Manayunk’s Starfinder Foundation prepares to board an international flight with 18 local teenagers, soccer isn’t the only thing he has to contend with.
On a steamy Friday afternoon at the youth sports and education nonprofit’s cavernous Main Street headquarters, the Starfinder Program Development Director stood among a small island of luggage, addressing an anxious ring of parents, all there to see the boys off for Sweden’s Gothia Cup Youth Soccer Tournament.
It’s the second year Starfinder has participated in the massive annual games at Gothenburg, Sweden. This year, the event runs from July 15 to July 21, hosting over 35,000 boys and girls from 70 countries. The Starfinder boys will play two teams from Sweden and one from Zambia, hoping for a shot at the big playoff game as well.
“It’s tough to have your 16, 17, or 18-year-old kid leave,” Jackson said to the parents while the team relaxed behind the closed door of an air-conditioned computer lab. Now in his second year of chaperoning the trip, he knows what to expect – from the boys, as well as the parents.
He told the parents that the boys would all be staying together, in a large classroom specially outfitted with cots. When the team wasn’t playing their own games, they’d have the opportunity to watch others and spend time with peers from around the world.
“It’s going to be soccer, soccer, and more soccer,” Jackson said, assuring parents that any chances for troublemaking would be small. He also reminded parents of the six-hour time difference between Philadelphia and Gothenburg. Last year, evening check-up calls from Philadelphia parents woke him up in the middle of night.
Returning for round two
The Starfinder team selection process had many factors, including program attendance and behavior, personal improvement on and off the soccer field, and two written essays. The team’s trip to Sweden is being sponsored by the Lansdale-based company SKF USA.
Two of this year’s team members are already veterans of the tournament. Seventeen-year-old Joe Pietrucha will begin his senior year at Roman Catholic High School this fall, after competing in the Gothia Cup for the second time. When he’s not playing soccer, he enjoys playing the guitar and piano, and plans a business career.
He said he was pretty nervous before last year’s tournament, especially when he saw 50,000 people in the stands for the lavish opening ceremony. Knowing what to expect this year means he feels much calmer.
“Everything was new to me,” he said. He especially appreciated the wide diversity of his international peers, though many European and African players had a bit of an advantage on the field: “I was so tired from the time difference,” he admitted.
This year, Pietrucha would urge his teammates to try out the public transit in Gothenburg, which he said is much cleaner than Philadelphia’s. His experience last year fed into his selection for this year’s team: he penned an essay about the leadership skills he learned from his last trip, like punctuality and good communication, in hopes of joining the team again.
Pursuing a dream
Sir Michael Arthur, 18, is joining the Gothia team for the first time.
Who knighted him?
“Me, myself, and I,” said the incoming Penn State freshman, a native of Ghana who lives in Upper Darby. After managing a long streak of good behavior in the classroom, he decided he merited the title, and no-one objected.
Arthur has been playing soccer since he was a young child, and has been on the field with Starfinder for about four years. Already a seasoned traveler, he called the huge stadium of the Gothia Cup games “a dream”. Outside of soccer, he enjoys writing and “exploring the unknown”.
Sixteen-year-old first-time team members Sodiq Alagbo and Ola Gbodi, along with 18-year-old Derick Ezunkpe, are also looking forward to the opening ceremonies – and, of course, the girls.
Jackson notes the high number of international kids on the Starfinder team – many are from West African and South American countries.
A period of growth for the young players
Jackson is also looking forward to the tournament’s opening, though “my excitement is more for the kids than for me,” he said. “You see them grow up so much over the course of one week. Between the first day and the last, they become a different team.”
For the boys’ personal growth, Jackson credits the intense connection to their teammates while overseas, as well as the taste of independence from traveling so far from their accustomed fields and teammates.
The experience is challenging for everyone. “Everybody’s a little nervous,” Jackson said. A group of parents stood wistfully in the Starfinder parking lot as the red-shirted boys, some with large headsets cocked over their ears, tussled happily with a basketball outside the waiting van.
“Sixteen to 18-year-old boys will always push the limits,” Jackson admitted, anticipating a busy week. “My nerves don’t end ’til July 22, when we step off the plane.”
But knowing that last year’s trip went smoothly helps everyone relax a little, and Jackson believes in the team. “They’re all great kids.”
You can follow the Starfinder team’s progress on their blog.