Flags of the World

  • By Grant Dovey
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  • October 12, 2010 03:30 PM
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - What is American soccer culture? Pose that question to 100 people and you may very well receive 100 different responses. People’s perception of American soccer culture depends entirely on where they are coming from. Soccer moms, for instance, have very different perceptions of soccer culture in this country than do immigrants recently arriving here.

After much contemplation about what American soccer culture is, the conclusion is that no such thing exists. Instead of talking about American soccer culture, we are better served to look at the diversity that exists among those who are involved in the game in the United States. There is no single American soccer culture. Instead, there are many American soccer cultures.

For coach Marlon LeBlanc of the West Virginia University soccer team, WVU is a place where soccer players can come from all different backgrounds and contribute to a nationally-acclaimed team.

“Having a diverse group from different backgrounds is part of their individual education and development,” LeBlanc said. “Collegiate athletics is still supposed to be about athletics and participation. These guys now get to interact, live with, and become best friends with guys from all over the world.”

The team has five players who were born in different countries, including senior Alex Silva from Brazil, juniors Franck and Uzi Tayou from Cameroon, sophomore Shadow Sebele from Zimbabwe and Yannick Iwunze from France.

“The dynamic of the team is not quite the normal international athlete. Yannick coming from France actually lives in the United States. Shadow spent four years of high school in Virginia,” LeBlanc explained. “Franck and Uzi immigrated to this country and completed two years of high school here. A lot of our players, who have come from different international backgrounds and cultures, also have some of the United States education system already in them because they have been here.”

What makes things even more interesting are the five first-generation Americans on the roster. Junior Ruben Garrido, sophomores Tuan Doan, Peabo Doue and Uwem Etuk, and freshman Julio Arjona all have parents that were born or raised in different countries and immigrated to America.

“What we have is a number of guys who have grown up with the sport being different. Silva is a Brazilian and that is a country that lives, breathes and dies by the beautiful game and he brings that to our team - that appreciation and that love of the game,” LeBlanc said. “It is different for a guy like Uwem Etuk whose parents are Nigerian immigrants. His parents did not play organized soccer back in Nigeria. When you blend all of that together it brings different skill sets, approaches, and overall different styles together. It is our job to get those styles to mesh.”

Despite all of the blending cultures, there is one thing that stays the same on LeBlanc’s team: the personalities that LeBlanc and his staff recruit. If you spend five minutes with the team, you will notice the integrity, impeccable discipline and manners all of the players possess.

“We would not sacrifice the integrity of the program for the most talented player. It is more than just playing soccer,” LeBlanc said. “It is about these guys coming here and having an experience that is going to be one that sets them up for the rest of their lives. In order for us to do that, we need to surround the guys with good individuals.”

The players’ individual stories and how they have adapted to different cultures is the most interesting aspect of the team.

Iwunze came to America in 2005, knowing little English and having to rely on his cousin to help him learn the language in the southwestern city of Houston, Texas.

A native of Paris, France, Iwunze’s parents, Chikaodinaka and Gertrude originally hail from Nigeria. The couple moved to France to further their education, and have instilled the same belief in Iwunze.

“My parents always have said that the education comes first and they make sure that everything in school is going alright,” Iwunze said. “They told me that even if you are the best soccer player, you still have to have school. They told me that I have to focus in school if I want to get anywhere.”

Iwunze, who is fluent in French, English and Spanish while also understanding Nigerian, always dreamed of playing soccer at the next level in France, but did not realize how big soccer was in America until he moved.

“In France your dream is to always play professional, but when I moved here I did not think soccer was big. I thought I was going to play basketball,” Iwunze said. “Everyone was telling me that soccer was not big, but when I got here one of my friends got me into soccer and I played on his club and I started noticing there is good soccer here.”

Iwunze has immediately fit in with the team and believes the numerous different cultural backgrounds on the team have allowed him to do so.

“It affects the team in a good way. You get to see people from different countries and they know where you come from,” Iwunze said. “It’s nice because everybody has different cultures and everybody has different styles.”

Like Iwunze, Uwem Etuk’s family also stresses education because his parents, Imo and Rosemary, both came to America from Nigeria to attend school at Pitt. His dad also attended Columbia and now works as a software engineer, while Rosemary is an English teacher.

Etuk notices all of the hard work that his parents have put in for him and his two brothers and tries to emulate the work ethic of his parents.

“They are all about hard work and I just try to put that into everything I do. Family is also important. I try to bring those things into every aspect of my life. I cannot even put into words how hard they have worked and I do not know if I can match that, but I try and work as hard as they have.”

A native of Herndon, Va., Etuk also believes that the different styles of play help mask other teams from being able to hold West Virginia to just one style.

“Everyone has a different style and we just bring them all together,” Etuk said. “It is interesting because teams cannot really pinpoint us to one specific style because we have players from all over.”

Garrido comes from a family where his father, Ruben, came from Mexico and his mother, Denese Ann, was born in the United States. Garrido says each person on the team brings a different spark and style of play and it helps them in the bonding process.

“When you hang out with the team at practice and off the field, there are a lot of different aspects from everyone,” Garrido said. “It makes things interesting because there are so many different cultures and races.”

An Elkhart, Ind., native, Garrido has his dad to thank not only for who he is today, but also for introducing him to soccer.

“Growing up he put a lot of his values and morals into me like working hard and not taking anything for granted and to always work hard and everything will pay off.

“Soccer wise, not many kids from the United States can say they have grown up watching their dad play soccer,” Garrido said. “In my generation, soccer was just starting to get huge and I had been watching it my whole life.”

Garrido, who is fluent in Spanish, believes that it is the combination of soccer and education that brings players to America.

“At the college level it is because of the education,” Garrido said. “Where else can you get a chance to play soccer and earn a degree at the same time? You cannot do that anywhere else. There is just so much opportunity here in the U.S.”

Doan comes from a Vietnamese background and uses the culture that he has learned from his parents, Hung Phi and Kim Danh, both Vietnam natives.

“When it comes to speaking to adults, I am really formal and polite,” Doan said. “You will never hear me talk back to a superior figure. I try to help out others a lot and I get that from my dad.”

Both of Doan’s parents came to America with their families on American refugee boats after the Vietnam War. The Dallas, Texas, native is very proud of where his family comes from and has been back to Vietnam multiple instances for long periods of time.

“They are very happy with what they have, but what they have is nothing,” Doan said of the Vietnamese people. “It is a third-world country and when we go, we go for long periods of time. It is really poor, but beautiful. My dad came over with his family not knowing any English and he taught himself the language and is now an established accountant in the Dallas area.”

Doan, who speaks fluent Vietnamese, believes that his family’s lifestyle and being able to escape communist Vietnam, along with where some of his teammates come from, is all just part of realizing the ‘American Dream’.

“Being able to escape all of that from your home country and be free to do whatever you feel capable of being is part of the American dream,” Doan said. “It is cool having all of these different cultures because everyone brings a little flair and a different excitement. Everyone is really close.”

For junior college transfers Franck and Uzi Tayou, they have come full circle in America. The two brothers went to high school together in Las Vegas before spending one year in Washington and another year in Kansas at junior colleges.

Sons of Jacques and Chantal Tayou, the two brothers are very thankful that they have found a home in America.

“I grew up in very different places and did not grow up around my parents and the education I got was on my own and I had to do something with my life,” Uzi Tayou said. “I did it because of the education and we came here because my dad was here before us and that was one of the places we felt real comfortable going.”

The pair moved to Las Vegas in December 2006 to be with Jacques, a former Cameroon politician, while their mother Chantal is still back home in Cameroon. Both brothers speak French fluently and know some dialects.

Doue is another member of the team that has relatives hailing from Africa, specifically the Ivory Coast. His parents, Marcel and Helene both came to America and met when Helene was around 18 years old. The couple moved back to the Ivory Coast,where they had two daughters before moving back to America where Peabo and his brother were born.

“One thing that I learned growing up was how important family is,” Doue said. “My mom always stressed that to me that wherever I am, my friends and family I have around me are very important.”

Like his teammates, Doue believes that the team has a good mix of athletes from all over the world and country.

“Some people come from a slower paced style and others are from a faster pace,” Doue said. “Our team is a mixture of both and that makes it interesting.”

Soccer wise, Doue has seen a direct correlation between last summer’s World Cup and the current growth in American soccer. He believes that American soccer is a sport that is only continuing to get bigger.

“One thing I have seen with the World Cup is that a lot of people are starting to enjoy watching soccer and they get into it more,” Doue said. “America is starting to interact with soccer the same way other countries that have a soccer culture are.”

Although both of Julio Arjona’s parents were born in New York, his father Julio grew up in Panama, while his mother Rose was raised in Puerto Rico.

The morals that Arjona’s parents have instilled in him have to do with his father being in the Army.

“He always taught me discipline and to listen to what the coaches say,” Arjona said. “I grew up in an environment where discipline was first. My dad also told me to always go with my instincts.”

Like Doue, Arjona believes that the 2010 World Cup had a great deal of influence in expanding soccer within the United States.

“It is a growing sport and people are trying to jump in while they still can,” Arjona said. “Each year you can see soccer get more popular, especially after this last World Cup. People from different cultures want to show what they can do in America.”

Silva, the oldest member of the team at 24, decided at the age of 20 that he wanted to get an American education.

“I wanted to study and to get a degree, so I started learning English when I was 20. I decided to try to come play college soccer because some of my friends were playing here.

“I took an English course back in my hometown for four months and learned the basics, but then I also learned on my own watching movies and things,” Silva said. “Once I got here I learned it fast because you speak it every day and I had to be in touch with it.”

Silva comes from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, arguably the soccer capital of the world, and he has had to develop to new styles of play and meshing different styles together.

“There are different styles back at home, the pace of the game is different and there are a lot of touches and it’s very technical as well,” Silva said. “It is good having different backgrounds and people from different countries. I get along with everyone pretty good and it is good for the team to get more experience with different nationalities.”

Sebele came to West Virginia after spending four years at Episcopal High School in Virginia. In fact, the only reason Sebele is in America is because of the scholarship offer to Episcopal that was sent to his home in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

“Coming to America was not really my plan and I had to make a decision in a week whether I wanted to come or not,” Sebele said. “I did not really have time to think about it, it was just something that I had to decide. My parents and my whole family wanted me to take the scholarship.”

Sebele came to the United States speaking Ndebele, Shona, Zulu and only a little English, but fortunately Gift Maworere, who also was from Bulawayo, was a senior on the Episcopal team and helped Sebele through the culture shock.

“I took English as a foreign language, like people in the United States take Spanish. It was tough because it was a complete new experience with a new environment and new people,” Sebele said. “It was really tough, but Gift was there in his senior year and it helped me so much.”

Maworere ultimately ended up attending West Virginia and graduated last season after a tremendous four-year career. Sebele decided to follow Maworere’s footsteps and once again used him as a mentor.

“It was wonderful to have him,” Sebele said. “He taught me how to go about things, how to approach the game and certain situations on campus. He was a big influence for me last year.”

There is one big difference for Sebele now that he is in college. He can no longer go back to Africa to visit his mom Simo Mayo, who lives in Bulawayo, and his dad, Ezekiel, who now lives in South Africa.

“When I was in high school it was a little better because I went back home every summer,” Sebele said. “Now that I am here, I cannot do that as much as I did in high school, so it has been tough. Sometimes you just want to get away and see your family, but I probably talk to them on the phone once a week.”

Now as Sebele is halfway through his sophomore season, he looks back and thanks his parents and family for helping to make his decision to come to the United States.

“They were the ones who wanted it for me more than I did,” Sebele said. “I was young and wanted to stay with my family. My parents told me that it was a good opportunity to go and get a good education and live a better life.”

With so many different players from so many different backgrounds, LeBlanc and his staff have found a way to mesh all of the different personalities and cultures together to develop one of the top teams in the BIG EAST and a team that will be reckoned with in the BIG EAST tournament.