Young soccer players take trip of a lifetime

While the American women competed against Japan at the Women’s World Cup on Sunday, a group of young soccer players from Manayunk’s Starfinder Foundation was arriving in Gothenburg, Sweden to compete in the Gothia Cup, the largest youth soccer tournament in the world. 

This year, 35,000 players from 72 nations will compete for, what Edwin Martinez, a 15-year-old from Northeast Philadelphia, considers the “World Cup” for his age category.

Seventeen boys, ages 15 and 16, departed from their Main Street gym for Sweden on Saturday with their three coaches. 

They are scheduled to kick off the tournament by playing against an English team, then a Norwegian team, and a then a Swedish team. Depending on the outcomes of those games, they may get a chance to play on in pursuit of the cup.

For some of the players, this will be the first time traveling overseas. But for others, this will be the first time leaving since they first arrived in Philadelphia as young immigrants. 

In the spring, SKF, a Swedish company that sponsors the Gothia Cup, contacted Starfinder to arrange a local “Meet the World” tournament which is organized at different spots throughout the world. 

The winners of these global tournaments are then sponsored by SKF to travel to Sweden. Typically, the tournaments are held in developing countries, but this year, SKF has chosen to sponsor disadvantaged children from developed countries. 

At the end of the “Meet the World” tournament, in which 65 high school students participated, Poul Peppesen, CEO of SKF USA made a surprise announcement: SKF would sponsor a group of youths from Starfinder who would be chosen based on two written essays, as well as their soccer skills. 

A different type of escape 

The first essay asked ‘What experience at Starfinder has taught you something besides soccer?’

Many responses mentioned the “Media Literacy and Technology” course given by instructor Amy Rymer in which the kids were given cameras and asked to create one minute pieces about themselves, their identity and their community. The videos are available to watch on Starfinder’s website.

The second question asked ‘What will you learn by going on this trip and how will it impact your aspirations?’ 

Here’s one student’s response: “All the countries I have traveled to, I have gone there to escape war. Going to Sweden would be the first time I would go to a country to play soccer and to enjoy being there not to escape a war or a dangerous place.”

Promoting soccer, social change and leadership  

The Starfinder Foundation promotes soccer for social change and leadership beyond the game. Starfinder’s Deputy Director Heidi Warren explains that the organization’s primary purpose is youth development through soccer.

Starfinder was founded in 2002 by Liverpool native, Tony Williams, who noticed America’s lack of “soccer infrastructure”. Williams saw how soccer here is mostly played in the suburbs in leagues that are expensive to join.

Every year 800 children throughout Philadelphia play soccer with Starfinder, where they also learn social and leadership skills.

From 2002 to 2008, Starfinder was based out of Center City law offices, with coaches traveling to different neighborhoods throughout the city to lead practices and classes.

Warren explains how the program was “run in the field” until 2008 when Starfinder purchased a building on Main Street, the former location of the Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis and Education Center.

With a permanent indoor field, players now travel from their neighborhoods, a commute that demonstrates their extraordinary commitment to Starfinder.

Sam Ortiz, 15, is one of many who travels from the Northeast. On multiple buses, he says, his commute is usually an hour in each direction. Many of the kids also play for other school or league teams.

At one of the team’s last practices before the Gothia Cup, players expressed their excitement. Wearing a rubber bracelet that read “bring it on,” Opeyemi Emmanuel Amao said that he hopes to make friends in addition to playing a good game. Amao came to Upper Darby from Nigeria with his family two years ago.

Representing a country 

For Edwin Martinez the appeal is in the “atmosphere and the culture and playing with high competition.” For him, to be invited to the Gothia Cup is tremendous honor akin to playing in the World Cup.

Standing on the astroturf soccer field inside Starfinder in Manayunk, Martinez says, “I feel the atmosphere already.”

Most of the team was excited about making new friends, speaking Swedish, and trading their jerseys, which is a tradition at many sport tournaments. 

Coach Steve Jackson, 30, is traveling with the team. At the practices he explains how the players are aware of their responsibilities.

“They know that they’re representing a bunch of different things,” Jackson said. “They represent Starfinder and our values. They represent SKF and they’re representing the U.S.”

“Our uniforms will have a flag of the U.S.,” he reminds the team, “You’re carrying a lot of pride, a lot of extra responsibility that another team may not have.”

Of all the 1,567 teams competing in Gothenburg, they are also the only team representing the City of Brotherly Love.

To follow their games go to the Starfinder blog.

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