April 18, 2007
The African Connection

The increase in immigration from Africa has created a burgeoning source of talent for the U.S. youth national team program.

By Mike Woitalla, Soccer America Magazine

About two million people fled Sierra Leone during the decade-long civil war that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and destroyed two-thirds of the nation's infrastructure. One of the refugees was an 11-year-old boy named Israel Sesay.

Sesay moved to Washington, D.C., to join his father, who had left the West African country when Israel was 6 months old. The father, working several jobs, had little time for Israel, who eagerly awaited the arrival of his mother.

But shortly before her scheduled departure, she died of a heart attack.

The little enjoyment that Israel found in the crime-ridden neighborhood that was his new home came by playing pickup soccer in a parking lot. There he was spotted by an acquaintance of Festus George, a Maryland youth coach.

George, who himself left Sierra Leone, in 1990, welcomed Israel into his team and into his home. When his wife, Sarah Motley, learned that a friend of Israel's had been gunned down in front of his apartment building in D.C., she decided he wouldn't go back.

''When I found out his living situation in D.C., I told Festus that under no circumstances would he live like that anymore,'' says Motley.

With Israel's father's consent, George and Motley adopted ''Izzy.''

''All the atrocities that he's been through and that he's seen,'' says George, referring to the civil war that was recently depicted in the movie ''Blood Diamond.'' ''He's been through a lot. He's been through hell.''

George says Izzy was somber and quiet. But he studied hard and excelled on the field -- so much so that in the middle of 2006 he joined the U.S. U-17 national team residency program in Bradenton, Fla.

Sesay is one of nine players in the 40-player program who are African immigrants or sons of African immigrants.

They aren't the first in the program. The most famous, of course, was Freddy Adu.

Adu came to America from Ghana through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Lottery Program, which issues 50,000 green cards annually through a lottery for which about 10 million people apply.

That program is one reason why emigration from Africa to the USA has increased dramatically.

Only about 100,000 Africans immigrated to the USA from 1961 through 1980, but nearly 900,000 have arrived since 1981. According to the Center for African Refugees & Immigrants, more than 175,000 were refugees.

The U.S. national team program has also increased its efforts to uncover players from immigrant communities.

''We've really tried to go outside of the normal lines evaluating players,'' says U-17 head coach John Hackworth, who is preparing the squad for the U-17 World Cup qualifying tournament in April. ''We are looking much harder. There's no question that there is a significant talent pool in this country, both in Hispanic community and in the African-American community. Those two demographics are areas that we feel we needed to do a better job scouting.''

Hackworth points out the players who spent their early years in other countries often have exceptional ball skills because they played endless, unorganized soccer.

''There's no secret to that,'' says Hackworth. ''That's how you become a good soccer player.

''Whether it was Freddy Adu or Alex Nimo or Abdus Ibrahim -- all these guys -- they kicked anything they could. They played anytime they could and that ball was the one thing in their whole world that was their prize possession.''

In fact, most the African players never put on a uniform until they joined an American youth team. Adu never even played with shoes on until he joined a Maryland youth club.

''The first time I put on a pair of cleats they felt so funny and uncomfortable I took them off after a few minutes and played barefoot again,'' said Adu.

The closest Alex Nimo ever came to wearing a uniform was when he used chalk to write the No. 9 -- for Ronaldo -- on the back of a T-shirt he wore when he played, often with kids twice his age, on the dirt streets of the Buduburan refugee camp in Ghana.

Nimo, who arrived in Bradenton early this year, was born in Liberia just months after its bloody civil war broke out in 1989. While he was still an infant, his family arrived at Buduburan, where 50,000 Liberians lived behind walls that were guarded by tanks.

After eight years, the Nimo family was granted political asylum and landed in Portland, Ore. Alex joined FC Portland, to whose practices he would get by taking three buses to meet his coach for a ride.

Ethiopian-born Abdus Ibrahim, whom FC Dallas picked in the 2007 MLS SuperDraft, first experienced organized soccer at age 11 when he arrived in Minnesota, where his father and older brother had moved years earlier.

Four years ago, Charles Renken moved from Zambia to Southern Illinois, where he and his two brothers were adopted by Seth and Pam Renken. Renken joined Scott Gallagher SC and is now, at 13, the youngest player in Bradenton.

''Their comfort level on the ball is probably the thing that separates them the most,'' Hackworth says of the players from Africa. ''And the same can be said for a lot of our Hispanic players. They've just grown up playing %96 this love affair between a kid and the ball. When they're very young is the most important time for that love affair to take place.

''The range of a pass, the finesse, but just in terms of being comfortable with the soccer ball and being able to play without thinking about taking their first touch, because they know where their first touch is going.''

Kofi Sarkodie and Amobi Okugo were born in the USA to parents from Ghana and Nigeria, respectively.

Gale Agbossoumonde was born in Togo but spent most of his early years in a Benin refugee camp, where one of the few diversions for youngsters was soccer. He and his brothers came to New York through the Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement program.

Christian Ibeagha was born in Nigeria and settled in Oklahoma. Axel Levry fled Ivory Coast, where civil unrest has displaced about 750,000 people in recent years, and settled in Maryland.

U.S. U-17 assistant coach Tim Mulqueen works closely with immigration lawyers to help get citizenship for the foreign-born players the program identifies. He says they've identified about 30 players, about half from Africa and half from Latin America, who have the potential to play for the U-17s but aren't eligible yet.

By creating a roster of players from diverse backgrounds, the U.S. program is replicating some of the world's greatest teams, which field combinations of European, Latin and African players.

''We've got a variety of players who bring different personalities and different technical ability, and that really helps our team,'' Mulqueen says. ''It's a nice balance and nice mixture coming together, and they all provide something different to the team.''

Says Hackworth, ''They have these different backgrounds, but the one thing that unites them is the game, and they rally around that.''

He adds that the immigrant players' humble, appreciative and hard-working approach is a positive influence on their teammates.

''Axel Levry tells me thank you every day,'' says Hackworth. ''I actually tell him, 'You can't tell me thank you anymore.'

''And then he'll say, 'OK, coach. Thank you. Thank you so much.'''

(This article originally appeared in the April 2007 issue of Soccer America Magazine.)