Community Pitch

For African refugees, soccer is more than just a game.

To get the ball rolling, they held a Clash-sponsored combine at Verbena Park on June 2. Daniel printed up fliers and told everyone he saw at the Grace apartments and the community center to come out and play. About a hundred players showed up for the three-hour camp, where they were split into three groups: girls, boys fourteen and under and boys over fourteen. Francis ran a hectic scrimmage with a sea of smaller boys, then one for the girls. The sight of twelve burka-clad Muslim girls kicking around a soccer ball was jaw-dropping for the African boys, who'd never witnessed such a thing.

Daniel ran the over-fourteen scrimmage, an intense few games that showcased some of the stronger players on the field: Espoire, whom everyone calls Ronaldo, with his impeccable dribbling skills; Muhammad, a Somali Bantu, who is a rock of a defender; and Benjamin Intangishaka, a silky smooth player who stood out not only for his athletic talent, but for the intelligence of his play.

While any of these players would be a welcome addition to one of the state's top soccer teams, Daniel's not pushing for that anytime soon. Most of these kids are still struggling to set up their new lives. At this point, soccer is a diversion, and few of them view the game as anything more than a fun reprieve.

Out of Africa: Head coach Daniel Smith (left) has overseen the team's growth from informal kick-abouts to a partnership with Hugh Evans (right) and the Colorado Clash.
Mark Manger
Out of Africa: Head coach Daniel Smith (left) has overseen the team's growth from informal kick-abouts to a partnership with Hugh Evans (right) and the Colorado Clash.
Here's the pitch: The team prepares for a scrimmage outside Dick's Sporting Goods Park.
Mark Manger
Here's the pitch: The team prepares for a scrimmage outside Dick's Sporting Goods Park.


To see a slide show, click here

Besides, Francis isn't certain that the boys are ready to move up. "The skill level and the knowledge is very high," he says. "But the sense of self-discipline is not. The sense of team is not high. Right now they lack that determination to make it to the next level."

Daniel thinks that will come as the boys adapt to their new home — with soccer as a major aid. "My long-term goal for this soccer program is to get some consistency with the age groups and make it an ongoing process," he says. "This summer, we're just going to keep putting on camps and have some scrimmages and hopefully have a few recreational teams ready to play in the fall season. But ideally, what we want is like a club system, so that kids can continue to move up in the same age group and build relationships and support for each other and the community as a whole. I want it so that a kid who starts in the system as an eight-year-old, by the time he is eighteen, he'll not only be a good soccer player, but he'll have a much stronger idea of how to be community-oriented and work with other kids, and hopefully a stronger idea of what his goals might be for the future. And if there are a couple of kids who go on to play college ball from that, then great. If not, then great. My goal is to really give them opportunities, opportunities that they would never have otherwise."

For the club to evolve as Daniel envisions it, he can't just pluck out the best players and ship them out. He needs to build layers, with older boys serving as role models for the younger ones. He needs to create a team. But even so, at last month's initial meeting, it was already clear who was one of the top players.

Benjamin Intangishaka.

Although thirteen-year-old Benjamin has been in this country for just a little over three months, he's quickly adjusting to life here. His English is getting better all the time — he understands almost everything said to him — and while he only attended the final few weeks of seventh grade, Merrill Middle School deemed him ready to move on to the eighth grade this fall. He's looking forward to school, but for now is content to spend these hot days of summer the way any American kid could: horsing around with his three younger brothers, playing video games and playing soccer.

Other kids told him about Daniel's pick-up games the week he arrived in Denver, and he's been a regular ever since. "Ronaldinho is my favorite player," Benjamin says with a shy grin, noting that he likes to play central midfield, too.

Benjamin's father is Jonathan Nduwayo Sarukundo; they do not share a last name because Jonathan did not want his family persecuted based on his name. He was a middle-school French, geography and math teacher in the town of Kivu in his native Democratic Republic of Congo — a long way from Denver. "Just the fact that I am in a place where my security and the security of my family is guaranteed is incredible," says Jonathan through Daniel, who is translating from French to English in the family's basement apartment. "It is the most important thing. For the first time in a long while, I am able to live comfortably knowing that I don't have to look behind my back all the time."

Jonathan and his family are part of the Banyamulenge tribe of eastern Congo, a faction of the Tutsi ethnic minority whose rivalry with the majority Hutus has claimed millions of lives during the past forty years in Congo, as well as neighboring Rwanda and Burundi. In 2004, fighting among rival groups forced the family — as well as 900 other tribesmen — to relocate. Moving east into Burundi, they were relocated by the UNHCR to a camp just inside the border, the Camp of Gatumba, on June 9, 2004. Just two months later, Gatumba would capture the attention of the entire world.

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