The Truman men’s soccer team is comprised almost entirely of students with roots from overseas. Five of the players are from Africa, including the top two scorers and several defensive players. Africa has a rich soccer tradition, and the players at Truman have brought the passion for soccer they developed in Africa here to Chicago and Truman.
Their reasons for coming to the United States vary, but a common thread linking the players is a love for soccer. Playing the game anywhere, at any time might suffice, but soccer is also as a means to obtain scholarships, and even possibly lead to a professional sports career.
Fun on the soccer field began early for Falcon midfielder Abduallahi Akorede. He recalls kicking the ball around at a young age, and playing in a tough environment in Osogbo, Nigeria.
“I really don’t remember when I started playing soccer, but my grandmother told me that I was around two-years old,” Akorede said. “I played with bare feet, and we didn’t just play on sand, we played on rocks – every toe on my feet was bleeding. And if you get injured and go home after the game you still go back and play the next day. That’s how you learn”.
Playing on makeshift fields of rocks, sand and dirt was not unusual. Forward Hakim Alao-Aboko, also from Nigeria, says he played on a range of turfs.“I went to a good boarding school and played on nice grass fields,” said Alao-Aboko. “but when I went home I played on sand and stones.” Alao-Aboko was second on the team in scoring with ten goals for the season.
It wasn’t just the soccer field conditions in Africa that were rough – the players themselves could also be pretty unforgiving, with the competitiveness sometimes boiling over, leading to violence.
“Fights broke out over there whether you win or lose,” Akorede said. “Over here in the U.S. you beat a team and you have respect for each other. But in Africa if you beat a team you better run to your house.”
“But that shows the passion we have for the sport,” adds Alao-Aboko. “Nobody wants to lose, you have to be tough to be an African soccer player – you’ve got to be strong physically.”
Midfielder Bonginskosi Mbonambi, from South Africa, played soccer in the streets too, but enjoyed playing on official fields pretty early in his playing days. Both experiences helped him become the player he is today at Truman.
“When I was in South Africa I played on the street, but when I was about 13 years old I was very lucky to travel and play on grass, with a jersey, and with a coach,” Mbonambi said.
Another reason soccer is so popular among African youth is that it’s the only game in town most of the time, so almost everybody you know eventually tries to play the sport.
“In America most kids grow up playing basketball or football or baseball, so if you don’t know how to play football, then you play basketball,” Alao-Aboko said. “But in Africa the main sport is soccer, so it’s hard to find a kid that can’t play soccer.”
Falcon head coach Archie Wright also appreciates what the African players bring to Truman saying:
“The African players are unique because they tend to be very athletic and strong without much training from me, so most of my work with them is mostly on understanding the mental or tactical part of the game.
I think they excel in soccer for the same reason my Hispanics, Haitians, and all my other players from different countries excel. They excel because in other countries not named “USA”, soccer is the primary sport; not the 3rd or 4th option like it is in the states. So they grew up living, and breathing soccer from a young age. Look at our Region 4. Out of our 15 teams, the top 2 teams are made up of Hispanics & Africans.”
“I think what makes us strong is the combination. We have different styles of play and we share that,” said Mbonambi. “I can’t say if we were all African we would be better, or all Latin we would be better, but together I know we are better.”