Manayunk youth soccer team looks beyond Gothia Cup losses, sets sights on 2013 tournament

Last week, Manayunk welcomed home its very own delegation from the international Gothia Cup Youth Soccer Tournament, an annual event in Gothenburg, Sweden that draws 35,000 teen players from around the globe.

“It’s a great opportunity for them to see a goal and follow through on it over the course of seven or eight months, and finally realize it,” said Starfinder Foundation President and CEO Stephen Baumann.

This is the second year the Starfinder Foundation has participated in the tournament, which is sponsored by SKF, an international industrial parts manufacturer headquartered in Gothenburg. Baumann explained that SKF’s U.S. headquarters in Lansdale was looking for a Philadelphia-area organization to participate in SKF’s Meet the World program, which cultivates local tournaments among underserved kids in countries hosting an SKF location. The winners of these tournaments then get a full ride to the Gothia Cup, including travel, food and uniforms.

Last year, SKF’s Lansdale location was on the hunt for a US addition to the Gothia Cup’s Meet the World program. They wanted an organization that used soccer to encourage urban kids in personal and academic development, and they approached Starfinder, whose preliminary tournament, to select members of the traveling team, was held last spring.

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Baumann was proud to note that in a tournament including 70 different countries, “the Starfinder team was the most diverse of any of the teams.” While they were there, the boys were even featured in a Swedish television spot for a local news network.

“They were a little bit of a darling at the tournament, because it represents what [SKF] hope[s] for in the tournament,” Baumann said, explaining that the U.S. team included players whose families originally hail from nine different countries, including Poland, Columbia and Ghana.

Diversity is a major theme at the Gothia Cup, and with the help of the nearby amusement park at Liseburg, SKF helped to create a new Guinness World Record. Gothenburg locals, along with Gothia Cup participants, broke the world record for highest number of nationalities to ride a ferris wheel at the same time. Simultaneous riders from at least 50 different countries were needed to break the record, but when Gothia Cup participants piled on, a total of 72 nations took the ride together. A Guinness judge was on hand to confirm the achievement.

Establishing bonds with Zambian players 

Starfinder Program Development Director and Gothia Cup chaperone Steve Jackson said the boys had a great time exploring the small city, riding its buses and trolleys, figuring out Swedish currency, and hanging out after-hours at a disco for the visiting youth.

As for their performance on the field, Jackson said the outcome of the boys’ four games (two against Swedish teams and one each against Germany and Zambia) was not what they’d hoped for: Starfinder didn’t win any of their matches. But the players took to the field with positive zest for each game.

“They never gave up, never lost that will to fight, the will to win. At the beginning of every game, they felt they had a chance to win that game,” Jackson said. The Starfinder boys felt best matched against the Swedish teams, but playing the Zambian team was a real highlight, especially since many Starfinder players come from West African families. “That’s what they were most excited about, and the most nervous about,” Jackson said.

Following their match with the Zambians, Jackson was touched when the Starfinder team decided on a charitable gesture unprovoked by any adult suggestion. Noticing that many Zambian team members arrived in Gothenburg with little else but their uniforms, the Starfinder team spontaneously raided their own bulging suitcases.

The Zambian team “came with very, very little, and went home with a lot more than they came with,” Jackson said. The Starfinder kids “gave away a ton of articles of clothing as a gesture to them.”

‘A humbling experience’

However, nothing could totally squelch the sting of defeat.

“They learned a lot about themselves,” Jackson said. “I think they were a little bit disappointed in themselves. They have a little bit of an edge to them, where they feel that they could’ve done better.” Part of the challenge was that the Starfinder team had only been practicing together a short time, while many other teams had been together for years.

Helping the kids see themselves in a broader context is part of what participating in the Gothia Cup is all about.

“They may be one of the better soccer players in their high school or league,” Jackson explained, “but there are a whole lot of soccer players around the world that are very good. And it’s a humbling experience to see something like that, to be a part of something like that, and find ways as individuals to become better players and better people.”

Ultimately, the losses on the field in Sweden haven’t prevented the enthusiasm that is already building for next year.

“They want to know if they’re able to go back next year,” Jackson said. “The experience was definitely a positive one.”

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