By Bree Davies
By William Breathes
By William Breathes
By Michael Robert
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
Oumar had lived at the Grace apartments exactly one day when Daniel Smith approached him in the parking lot and asked if he wanted to play soccer. Originally from Somalia, Oumar and his family had arrived at the east Denver complex the night before, after a long trip from a refugee camp in Yemen and a one-day stop at LaGuardia to fill out immigration paperwork. Oumar was still clad in the gold suit with black pinstripes that his mother had made him wear for the journey, as well as the black dress shoes that went with the suit. He didn't understand a word that Daniel said to him, but some of the boys bouncing soccer balls alongside Daniel translated: They were going to play soccer at a nearby park, they had been doing it every Saturday for a few weeks now, there was talk of eventually putting a team together. Was Oumar interested?
Daniel, the youth-program coordinator for the African Community Center, tried to explain to Oumar that he needed to change into practice gear, then meet them at Verbena Park just down the street. "I grabbed my own shirt, my shorts, and I was trying to show him," Daniel remembers. "I was like, 'Go, get shorts, shirt, tennis shoes, just like these. Go home, come back.' Then I started walking toward the park with the kids to go play, and all of a sudden I look back down the street, and there's Oumar, walking in his suit and dress shoes right behind us. I thought he was going to come check it out and watch."
But as soon as the scrimmage started, Oumar shot out onto the field with the rest of the kids and began slide-tackling with abandon, chasing down loose balls and errant passes.
"I just thought, 'Oh, no, his mother is going to kill him. This is his one good outfit to come to America, and he's out there getting grass stains all over it.' So I made him take off the jacket and shoes, at least," Daniel says. "By the end of the practice, he was playing in just a wife-beater and some tighty whities. And it didn't even stop him. He didn't think twice about it because he was having too much fun. He's been coming out to every practice since."
So have dozens of others. What began as an informal afternoon kick-about between Daniel and a few of the boys at the center has morphed into an effort involving nearly one hundred young African refugees living in Denver, as Daniel tries to integrate these boys — and a handful of girls — into the strange new community that is now their home.
It's a learning process, one that's almost necessarily clumsy: taking young refugees with diverse languages, backgrounds and physical abilities, and trying to teach them to play in the often rigid environment of American team sports. But it's a task that Daniel has embraced. Because while he's found that the Africans he helps are grateful for every ounce of support, they're absolutely crazy about soccer, known around the world as the beautiful game.
It's the one common language they all share.
Daniel Smith speaks the language of the game pretty fluently himself. Born into a Park Hill family of Peruvian descent, Daniel split his childhood between Denver and Lima, picking up a solid set of soccer skills down south that earned him plenty of playing time with Club Denver, the Colorado Storm and the East High School varsity squad. After graduating from East, Daniel headed to the University of San Francisco, where he red-shirted his freshman year, then broke into the team his sophomore season as a left-midfielder and a defensive center-midfielder under a former U-18 (eighteen and under) national team coach.
Already fluent in Spanish, Daniel studied French and went to Toulouse his junior year to really master the language. "It was beautiful there," he remembers. "The course I took was really intense, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day, nothing but French — grammar, language, history. You learn quickly in an environment like that."
So quickly that after three months, the study-abroad program let the students loose in the city to do an independent-study project of their choosing, to be conducted and completed in French. Daniel decided to focus on first-generation Africans born in France, and how they identified themselves. He went out into the community and interviewed countless Africans — in coffee shops, at social and sporting functions — and took his French to a whole new level. In his 35-page thesis, Daniel described how their experience was much like that of first-generation Mexican-Americans in the United States, where parents traditionally push for full assimilation as a means to success while the kids continue to identify with the country of their origin.
After graduating from college in 2005, Daniel stayed in San Francisco and taught language arts at an inner-city middle school. But then he started feeling the urge to get back home, and he returned to Denver last December. His mother had been volunteering at the ECDC/African Community Center, the Denver branch of the 24-year-old Ethiopian Community Development Council, which helps refugees fleeing political strife, persecution and war resettle in the U.S., and she told Daniel about an opening for a youth-program coordinator.
"The job was mostly working with kids who were newcomers to the country, predominantly from Africa," Daniel explains. "I had a really strong basis with youth in America in the public school system and had done my thesis on Africans coming to new places, so it just seemed like a really good fit."
Displaced people around the world apply for official refugee status with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR). Once that status is granted, the refugees wait for repatriation to their homeland, wait to be invited to stay in the country where they currently reside, or wait to be invited to apply for resettlement in a third country. If they're invited to apply to relocate in the U.S., they undergo an intense security screening in which their names are run through fifteen databases to make sure they are not terrorists. After that, the UNHCR contacts one of nine U.S. Department of State-sanctioned agencies that help refugees in this country, which will study each case and decide which branch of the agency would be best to go through. If a refugee has friends or family in a certain state, for example, an agency will try to relocate him there. But for the most part, the process is random, and many refugees who land in Denver have never heard of the place.
Of the nine sanctioned agencies, the ECDC is the only one that is ethnic-community-based (the others are faith-based), and the only one started by refugees, in Virginia in 1973. It opened its Denver office — in a small building off Colfax Avenue — in 2001. The state department provides for the first thirty days of a refugee's stay here — typically paying for the deposit on an apartment and the first month's rent on that apartment, which is often in the Grace complex — and some food. After that, the resettlement agency takes over.
"It's a public/private relationship," explains Jennifer Kroeck Gueddiche, director of the ECDC/African Community Center in Denver. "We are contracted by the government, but it's on us to find funding to help these people."
The center uses grants and donations to provide everything from furniture to clothing to toothbrushes for the 1,082 refugees it's helped resettle here. Its employees are the first faces the refugees see when they arrive at the airport, and those employees take the refugees to their new home in their new, adopted city. So above all, the people working at the African Community Center must be welcoming. Daniel certainly qualified.
"I got a really good sense from him immediately," Gueddiche says. "Just the spirit that he has in him, I knew he would be perfect for the job."
In the four months he's been on the job, Daniel has done everything from helping young students register at a new school or sign up for the GED to advising new arrivals on how to set up a bank account. One day he's hosting "newcomer classes" on the rules governing alcohol and tobacco use in this country, the next he's organizing outlines of bus routes. "Helping these people resettle is different for every family," Daniel notes. "Some people come from remote villages in the middle of nowhere, others come from huge cities. Some people are looking for an immediate community, and some people don't want any support or help — they just want to be left alone. We have lawyers and doctors and teachers, and we have people who can't even read or write in their own language. Each case is extremely unique and totally different. You have to take it case by case."
The job has exposed Daniel to a world that he didn't know existed in Denver, the city where he was born and thought he knew so well. He can only imagine what would happen if he were suddenly removed from his country and dropped in a strange city, what kind of help he would need. That's what he tries to provide here. "I would expect that someone would want to do that for me if I was in a similar situation," he says.
Daniel noticed that while there were a lot of activities for refugee kids — trips to the zoo and museums, for example — there weren't many social programs that would get them out and interacting with people who were not like them. So one of his first moves was to set up an after-school program with the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance School, so that the ACC kids could go to the studio for what Daniel calls "relationship-building," roundtable discussions between white kids, Latino kids, African-American kids and African kids, followed by music-making, dancing and goofing around. The kids loved it.
Daniel started looking around for a new project. "The more I started going into the community and seeing what these kids were up to, the more I kept seeing them playing soccer," he remembers. "Most of these kids come out of refugee camps. They say, 'I'm from Somalia, I'm from Sudan,' because that's where their parents were from — but most of these kids were brought up in actual camps elsewhere, where they had absolutely nothing. A lot of them weren't even in schools. And for many of them, all they did all day, every day, was play soccer. So I realized that they have this really profound passion for the game. You see a lot of Americans who love to play soccer, but it's not everything to them. They have basketball, too, they play baseball in the summer, go to camp, whatever. But these kids, that's it, man. This is what they love to do, and they know this is what they love to do. You go to their house and they're on the PlayStation playing soccer, their little brothers are running around the living room, jumping on the couches doing goal celebrations, they know all the players.
"Once I realized that, I just thought, 'Man, we have to get these kids into some sort of program as soon as possible.'"
Gueddiche had been thinking about a similar program for some time. In fact, Daniel's soccer background was part of the reason she took him on. "I was looking for someone who really got soccer," she says. "This is what these kids know. And there's a lot of talk going on right now about integration: How do you integrate these kids, these refugees? Soccer is the international language. This is something that these kids know and something that will help with that process."
Daniel started with weekend pick-up games with the kids living at the two Grace apartment buildings. Initially they played four-on-four, but every week more kids would show up, kids ranging in age from seven to seventeen, and it became clear that the numbers were there for something bigger. But early practices were chaotic: Players wouldn't listen; they'd lie in the grass, pouting, when the ball wasn't passed to them; they'd talk smack, wrestle or run off at the sound of the ice cream truck.
"Discipline was a major issue," Daniel says, "just because they've never really had that structure. I'm not going to lie — it's still a bit of problem. But we're working on it, and they get better and better every practice."
They already had the skills. While the top players may have lacked the polish of American club-soccer players who'd been trained since they were toddlers, their footwork and ball control, as well as their knowledge of the game, was extraordinary. Most practices in the States feature a Beckham jersey here, a Ronaldo jersey there. Kids from the ACC regularly came to practice sporting jerseys of such off-the-beaten-track stars as Milan Baros, Joe Cole, Michael Essien, Lionel Messi — jerseys that they treated as their most prized possessions.
"They know all the players," Daniel says. "Especially the African players — Diouf, Drogba — they love those guys. And when you talk about talent, it's tricky, because these guys have a long way to go in terms of learning structure. But in terms of pure talent and knowing what to do when they get the ball, for thirteen-year-olds they are head and shoulders above anyone else their age I've seen."
About the time Daniel introduced his Saturday practices, he also joined a men's league with Chivas Denver, a primarily Hispanic soccer club. In addition to its adult teams, Chivas offers a youth program, and Daniel talked to the club's president about starting a team within Chivas made up entirely of the African kids he was coaching on the side. The club agreed to give it a shot, and Daniel began taking African players to Chivas youth-team practices, chaperoning them on bus rides to various practice fields, watching to see if the Africans might fit in. But they didn't.
"No knock on Chivas, because they gave us an opportunity, and we're really appreciative," Daniel says. "But the truth is, they are a really highly competitive youth soccer program, on par with the Colorado Rush and the Storm. I mean, we're talking some of the top talent in the state. Not that my guys don't have talent, but they're not refined. They've really never played on a team before; they've never done drills, done laps or wind sprints, stuff like that. There was just not enough time with a club like Chivas for our guys to develop like they needed to."
So while Daniel continued the Saturday practices, he looked around for another way he could get some of his boys together on a team. Touting soccer as a means of integration, as a way of doing better not just physically, but in all facets of life, he wrote grant proposals, talked to other sports organizations.
And then he got a call from Hugh Evans.
In the swank conference room of Aspect Energy, LLC, an oil exploration company located on the 29th floor of a downtown building, Hugh Evans's cell phone will not stop ringing. A computer and information-technology guru for Alex Cranberg's oil empire for the past seventeen years, Evans recently committed to a full-time gig running the Colorado Clash, Denver's newest soccer club, and the job keeps him busy. Coaches call constantly, seeking updates on field availability, the latest number of players on a certain squad, information regarding the transport of teams.
Although the Clash wasn't formed officially until November 2006, Evans has been envisioning the club for years. An avid West Ham fan raised in England, at sixteen he moved to Houston. There he eventually hooked up with Cranberg's fledgling oil-exploration company, which soon morphed into a multimillion-dollar success. While Evans's interest in oil grew during that time, his interest in soccer dwindled.
"Over here I kind of diffused on it," Evans says, "because it was like, 'This isn't the way that soccer is supposed to be played.' It was too sterile. In some senses, youth soccer was like babysitting. You would see parents drop off their kids in pajamas."
But once Evans's twin daughters began playing the sport, he was sucked back in. The girls played in Denver for a while, then moved on to the Westminster Soccer Club, a team run by a couple of Brits whom Evans appreciated for their "nice, clean" program that emphasized a high quality of coaching. And then one off-season three years ago, deciding that his girls' indoor, winter soccer lacked a certain flair, Evans signed up as coach and began recruiting inner-city Hispanic talent for the league.
"I came down to Commerce City and met with some of the coaches of the Hispanic teams there and saw that they were dirt-poor teams with no resources, but that the kids played from the heart," Evans remembers. "They played great soccer; they just couldn't afford access to the better fields and facilities."
Through his work, Evans organized scholarships for about thirty inner-city Hispanic girls to come play with the indoor league. "I felt proud of myself," he says. "I was excited. I couldn't wait for my kids to be playing with their kids, each learning something different about the game from one another. And then game day came around, and no one showed up. It wasn't a cost issue; it was a matter of Mom and Dad working on Sunday mornings. There was no transportation, no help for these kids to get to the games. I realized then I was going to have to think about this a little more."
Evans had been doing a lot of volunteer work with Cranberg's education initiatives, particularly the Alliance for Choice in Education, the program that in 2004 promised college scholarships to 550 Horace Mann middle-school students upon completion of high school and, more recently, distributed $1.7 million in scholarship money to 800 Denver children so that they could attend the private school of their choice. "I was fascinated watching this whole thing going on," Evans remembers. "What impressed me most was how enabling it all was." He wondered if the same principles couldn't be applied to soccer. He was tired of going to his daughters' tournaments, looking out over a sprawling soccer complex of twenty fields and seeing only two black kids, maybe one Hispanic kid.
"I couldn't shake the feeling that the kids who live and breathe this game were not out there," he says. "They were being priced out. In the rest of the world, most of the best players are the incredibly poor kids, the players who are pulled out of the barrios and favelas. I just thought, how many kids are we missing here?"
He talked to Cranberg about starting a soccer club that would give underprivileged kids access to better soccer, a club that would eventually cultivate top-notch soccer teams to rival the suburban powerhouses but would also focus on developing players off the field. He wanted to create a club like those in other parts of the world, where soccer is viewed as an entry point into other things, including education, health care and community spirit. And Cranberg gave Evans the go-ahead, agreeing to keep him on the payroll — Evans is supposed to help with technology when he can — while giving him the time to operate the Colorado Clash as a philanthropic endeavor backed by Aspect.
One of Evans's first moves was to hire Marc Francis, an Australian who's the former director of coaching for the Colorado Storm and has coached around Denver for a dozen years. Francis liked Evans's vision.
"If you look at soccer all over the world, apart from the United States, it's a lower-income, working-class sport," Francis explains. "South America, Africa, Asia, even in Europe. Because all you need is something that resembles a ball and you can play. But in this country, it's developed into an upper-middle-class sport, and there are kids, great players, who are missing the opportunity because of the way it's funded and structured. And these are kids who need soccer in their lives. That's where I want to help. I'm more interested in making them better people than better soccer players. The reality is that very few people ever make it professionally, but if you can instill some values and self-discipline, then you can help them in their lives."
Earlier this year, while the Clash was awaiting certification by the Colorado State Youth Soccer Association, Evans and Francis went to Belize and, through a partnership with the Football Federation of Belize and Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA, soccer's world governing body), put on a coaching clinic with about a hundred kids and 22 coaches. For Evans, it was a way to get to know his new coaching director while also testing his vision for the Clash. Once back in Denver, he pursued that plan in earnest. While Francis has been training new coaches and conducting camps, Evans has been recruiting and incorporating Hispanic teams from Commerce City into the Clash.
And then last month, he formed a partnership with Daniel Smith to support the African Community Center soccer team.
"Daniel's a super, super guy," Evans says. "We hit it off right away because he was trying to do with his team exactly what we're trying to do with the Clash: use soccer as a vehicle for other things — education, integration, learning about different cultures through the game. And he's an interesting combination of energy and entrepreneurial spirit. He's looking for opportunities all the time. How can we integrate? How can we do more for these kids? He's all about meeting new people, getting new groups together. As opposed to questioning how everything is going to be done, his attitude is 'Let's just do this.'"
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.
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.
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.
On the night of August 13, a Hutu rebel group worked its way across a marsh from Congo into Burundi. Some rebels wore military uniforms, others civilian clothing; there were grown men as well as child soldiers, and as they marched they sang religious songs. At first, many of the refugees thought they were bandits coming to steal the camp's cattle, but as they started setting fire to tents, their intent became clear. Although repatriated Burundis were housed in the same camp, the rebels only went after the Banyamulenge. They burned, slashed and shot their way through, killing more than 150 of the Congo-born Tutsis and injuring another hundred. Benjamin lost two fingers in the blaze. A cousin, who was later relocated to Denver, was burned so badly that she will soon undergo two months of surgery in Salt Lake City to even out the length of her legs. But the family survived, unlike many in the camp.
They were transported to Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, where they lived under the protection of the UNHCR. Benjamin and his brothers were able to continue their education there, and Benjamin even managed to work his way onto a soccer team. But after two years, the family was granted admission to the United States as political refugees and assigned to the ECDC in Denver. "Because all these big events were happening and my specific tribe and ethnic group was so targeted, we were accepted," Jonathan says. "Pretty much everyone in the tribe who survived was accepted."
The acceptance didn't stop there. "Before we arrived in the United States, we were afraid that we were going to be really isolated and by ourselves, just a family that takes care of itself," Jonathan explains. "But from the moment we have arrived here, we have been treated so well. We have gained many friends, and people have been so generous. We have only been here three months, but it feels like we have been here for three years."
Jonathan is thankful for the assistance he's received to pay the rent. He is thankful for the food and medical treatment they've been given. He is thankful for the school bus that stops just two blocks from the apartment to take his four sons to school. He's thankful for Daniel, who has become "like a member of my family." Now he'd like to be thankful for a job. He wants to continue working as an educator, but he knows he'll first need to work on his English. His children will need to study, too, but in the meantime, they have soccer.
"Education comes first," Jonathan says. "But it's great that Benjamin has the opportunity to play on this team. Sports are something that are going to be able to help him out. Being able to go out with other kids is something that will be very beneficial to him, as a way of socializing and meeting new people, growing. It will help him to acclimate here in Colorado as we continue to move forward in our lives."
Daniel rarely leaves the Grace apartments without eating at least two meals. He spends so much time there, helping the African residents with favors both big and small, that everyone is eager to repay him — and payment usually comes in the form of mammoth meals, great trays of pasta and lamb and potatoes. Daniel will obligingly scoop up the food with his hands to eat, then wash everything down with impossibly sweetened juice.
But today there is no time to waste, so Daniel ignores all the invitations to come into the apartments and dine. He ignores the pleas of the young girls to play marbles with them on the floor. Today is game day for the boys from the African Community Center.
Through the Colorado Clash, Daniel has arranged for a group of his U-14 Africans to play a scrimmage against another U-14 Clash team, a Spanish-speaking squad from Commerce City. In the parking lot between the two Grace apartment buildings, Daniel picks out the players for the game today, patiently explaining to the younger boys that there is not enough room for them in the few cars that will be heading to the field. The kids are upset to learn not only that they'll they miss the game, but that there will be no practice because of it. But Daniel settles the unrest by announcing that practices will now take place on Mondays and Wednesdays, too.
Players are quickly assigned to cars: these five with Daniel; these five with Frederick Agyeman-Duah, the University of Denver graduate school student from Ghana whom Daniel has taken on as a coach; these five with Yoal, one of Daniel's co-workers at the center. A handful of parents get into cars as well, and the African caravan makes its way north to the pristine fields surrounding the immaculate Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City.
The boys are awed by the sight of the stadium where the Rapids will play that night — and the dozen teams already playing on the fields are just as awed by the sight of the African players. But once they hit the field, the ACC boys focus on their own game. They have to. The Mexican players, all in green, are warming up on the opposite side, and they look good: Shots from twenty yards out curl smoothly into the side netting of the goal; a big kid with a mustache rips a volley off the cross-bar with a loud, metallic bang that ricochets across the fields. Hugh Evans and Marc Francis greet Daniel, giving him a friendly hello and a clipboard. Then they're off: Evans giddily snaps photographs of the play while Francis oversees six games at once with the hawk-like glare common to all good coaches. After a few warm-up drills and a quick determination of the starting lineup, the members of the African team don yellow jerseys and take to the pitch.
Initially, the play is sloppy — too much dribbling, not enough defense, no more than two or three successful passes in a row. Despite its pre-game prowess, the Mexican squad seems incapable of putting a shot on net — a nice break for the ACC crew, who otherwise could easily be down 3-0. Then a breakaway: One of the African boys starts sprinting toward the goal, only to be taken down some twenty yards out. It's a foul, a direct free-kick, and Benjamin steps in for the shot. With his hands on his hips, he coolly steps back several paces and then chips a left-footed shot over the wall. The goalie pays the knuckling ball no mind — it seems destined to soar over the top of the goal — but Benjamin has put some wicked backspin on it, and all of a sudden the bottom drops out and the ball falls several feet, dipping into the back of the net, directly over the head of the motionless keeper. Goal.
The sideline explodes. Benjamin's brothers and father cheer loudly; Benjamin sprints all the way back to his own half with his arms spread wide in post-goal ecstasy. The younger players who have somehow managed to get to the complex sprint onto the field to shower Benjamin with praise, and Daniel herds them back onto the sideline. The Africans are up, 1-0.
Within minutes, though, the Mexican team scores.
At the half, Daniel gathers his team and stresses the importance of passing, how one player cannot do it all and they need to work with each other to patch together a coherent offense. It's blistering hot, in the high 90s, and he assures his players that passing in this heat will make them far less tired. Miraculously, they all listen.
The second-half team is a far cry from the first, with the players moving after they pass the ball, spreading the field out wide to allow more space for the offense to work with, closing the field down on defense. Players are helping each other, and each sub who comes in melds smoothly into the flow. But without warning, the Mexican team puts together a series of crisp passes, then a cross into the box, a shot, a deflection, another shot and a goal. They're up 2-1.
Moments later, an African player is charging straight down the middle of the field when he's taken down in the box and the team is awarded a penalty kick. Benjamin takes the shot. It's a well-hit ball but a little too high, and it clangs off the middle of the cross-bar.
The clock is ticking down against the Africans. They are only playing thirty-minute halves, and this second half has gone on for quite some time. But then Ronaldo manages to steal the ball at midfield. Clad in his favorite long-sleeve Brazilian jersey and red wool headband — heat be damned — he takes off, absolutely smoking the defender who tries to stop him. It's a race now, and as Ronaldo sprints toward the goal, a defender charges diagonally across the field toward him. A quick stutter-step pull-back sends that defender hurtling awkwardly past Ronaldo and then it's just him and the goalie, one on one. The goalie springs out from the net and gets a foot on the ball, which suddenly pops away from Ronaldo's feet toward the center of a now completely empty goal. Hot on Ronaldo's heels is Hussein, who's trailed him the entire length of his run and is now at the right place at the right time. Hussein calmly taps the ball into the back of the net, tying the game 2-2.
Hysteria reigns on the African sideline.
Not two minutes later, the referee blows the whistle sounding the end of the game. Daniel's African players — many having just finished their first organized game ever — walk away happy with a hard-fought tie.
After instructing the boys on how to administer the standard American, good-sportsman high fives, the coaches talk to the team one more time about how much heart they showed today and how impressive an outing this was for their first time together. Behind them, little kids kick the ball around the field.
"Benjamin," Daniel says playfully. "What's up with that missed penalty kick, man?"
Benjamin nods his head, smiles, shrugs his shoulders. He's not going to worry about that missed kick. After all, he scored a ridiculous goal today, and if there's one thing he has learned in his thirteen years, it's to never dwell on the negative and always appreciate the positive.
To find the beauty wherever you can.