Every four years the world’s greatest footballing nations compete for the right to say who is the Greatest at the World Cup. It is a spectacle of the highest proportions involving more money, ticket sales and prestige than any other event in the World. Meanwhile, every year in New York City, the nations of the World are represented by the best players in the Tri State area. These players are not Lionel Messi, David Silva, or Wayne Rooney, they are young men playing for the pride of the nations they have left behind in pursuit of a better life for themselves. A good number of them are attending American Universities on scholarships, others are just like any other immigrant and are working a day job in addition to their passion for their country and soccer. The nations I will focus on are, of course, African. Represented in the group stages this year are last year’s runner up Senegal, and Ivory Coast who are making their second appearance in the tournament.
I arrive at the venue for the first round of matches, Pier 40 in Manhattan, and walk around the grounds to get a feel for all teams present, and their fans. I estimate around 600 people having shown up for this day when all teams will play on one of the two pitches. Every nation has a little cheering section set up by its supporters. Most are low key: families sitting about, anxious girlfriends and wives, two children kick a ball back and forth, one misses a pass and it strikes my heel. The large Senegal group looks very into the match. The enthusiastic Polish group may have some liquid encouragement in the bottle they keep taking swigs from that is covered by a brown paper bag. Argentina gets in a few chants. The Irish have enough flags to cover the pitch, and Tommy Smyth (yes the one with a ‘Y’) on their sideline.
I decide I want to sit in with Senegal as they play against Ireland. Senegal is the largest group of fans, and they have the most passionate coach I can find on the grounds. Sadibou Syla is the yelling, wildly gesturing, encouraging, dedicated, and heartfelt coach that a team of players who do not regularly play with one another needs. He acts as the glue that fiercely holds them together, chastising them for lateness, screaming for them to get forward and get in on goal, and pointing out exactly what he feels needs to be done to win the match. “Keep the ball on the ground and take your chances when they come,” he urges to emphasise their skill at keeping the ball and generating chances through their superior passing. You hear in his voice how he very much wants to win the match. Most of his players will look at him, some look to him, others seem indifferent to his style of shouting, but their body language betrays them as they lean in while trying to look away. Something I’ve noticed while watching the team on the sidelines is that the coach speaks to his players in English, but the team speaks to one another in a different language. The official language of Senegal is French, I think my Canadian ear would pick up on if it is French they speak, but I can not recognize it.
Senegal scores first early in the game, but give up a late goal to tie with Ireland. The players return to their bench dejected, kicking at balls, tossing their gear sullenly, they are not happy with the tie and neither is Sadibou. “Some of you were late, I told you three times 8’oclock at 116.” He points out some players lack of commitment and relates it to the game and tie. He goes one to tell his team what is important next: “If you wanna win this we gotta get one victory.” Last year’s runner up tag still stings and the bitterness oozes from his lips without the words being said: they need to win a game to continue on to the next round, then the semi-final, and their goal of being Champions this year. Their remaining games end in a 0-0 tie with Greece, and they get that all important victory over Ivory Coast which send them on to the quarter finals. Ivory Coast leave the tournament with no wins. I will say this: they have the sharpest looking kits on the pitch. Style counts for something, right?
This may not be the World Cup, and the players may not be Lionel Messi, but the quality of soccer is high, the excitement and passion of the supporters is escalating with each match, and I can’t wait for the quarter finals this coming weekend (July 21 2012) at Octagon Field on Roosevelt Island.