AKRON For longer than the University of Akron has been a national soccer power, the UA campus has been an international soccer destination.
During the past two decades plus, players from Europe, Africa, Australia and South America have traveled thousands of miles to play with the Zips, and this year’s edition of the team is no exception. Players from 11 countries are on the roster, giving head coach Jared Embick a diverse group that speaks a plethora of different languages.
"We have a lot of guys from different countries on the team and I think that it actually helps the team a lot because soccer isn’t the same in different countries, so I think we can get together and bring these different ideas we have of our soccer culture and the team gets the benefit of it," senior midfielder Pau Belana, a native of Barcelona, said.
Belana, whose home region of Catalonia is in the midst of a tense political showdown with the Spanish national government over the region’s desire for independence, is in his final season playing for Akron, but has forged strong bonds with teammates from places both near and far to his home country.
"It’s nice. We have guys from all around the world and they all play different styles and when we all come together and play as a team, we really come out on top," added freshman defender Joao Moutinho, who is from Lisbon, Portugal.
When Belana joked that the Portuguese don’t like Spaniards, but that Spaniards don’t mind their Iberian Peninsula neighbors, Moutinho laughed and replied, "I heard it’s the other way around."
Another teammate, Ezana Kahsay, is a native of the small nation of Eritrea, located in northeastern Africa between Sudan and Ethiopia. Eritrea gained its independence and became a nation in the early 1990s and Kahsay’s father played professionally in the country, while his uncle played for the national team.
His mother fled Eritrea when he was young and they, along with his sister, lived in a refugee camp and stayed in Ethiopia for the next six years. There, soccer was a positive part of his life and continued to be when he emigrated to the United States and landed in Buffalo, where he attended the International Preparatory School at Grover.
His soccer road eventually led him to Akron, a place that looked much different than his home country.
"It’s two different worlds, but when you come here and you see a group of guys who came from different places, you get to have the experience and learn different things from each other … you get to gain more of a friendship on a different level," Kahsay said.
He admitted that most of his teammates knew little or nothing about where he was from when he first met them, save perhaps Moutinho.
"Now, everybody is educated about where I’m from, but most of them didn’t know. Joao knew, but most of them didn’t now, but now they know everything about where I’m from," Kahsay said. "I’m actually the only person that’s from my country here, so the only thing from my country that’s here is the flag."
He noted that it’s tough to cook any Eritrean foods because finding ingredients is difficult, but he and his teammates can always connect both with soccer on the field and soccer off the field. Belana pointed out that a big screen TV in the locker room is almost always showing Champions League, Premier League or other international soccer matches and players enjoy watching together.
He’s also connected with teammates when they come to talk to him about the ongoing political struggle in Catalonia, where the regional government continues to battle the national government seeking its autonomy.
"They are always asking me about the news and letting me know … we share a lot of stuff from our culture and what we have going on back home," Belana said. "It’s a historic moment for Catalonia and obviously I wish I was there to support my family and friends, but soccer season comes first and getting our goals for this year."
He says a few teammates speak "decent Spanish," while all three agreed that they enjoy a practice teammates have of trying to greet one another in their respective languages.
Add in teammates Ben Lundt (Germany), Stuart Holthuzen (New Zealand), Sam Gainford (England), Manuel Cordeiro (Portugal), Marcel Zajac, Faisal Ghaffur and Reggie Laryea (Canada), David Egbo (Nigeria), Barth-Luther Mouafo (Cameroon), Declan Watters (Ireland) and Dener Dos Santos (Brazil) and it’s truly a United Nations of soccer that has Akron ranked in the top 10 in every national poll as the season winds down.
Integrating into a new team and new culture wasn’t always easy - "At first it was hard to integrate into the team, but they were all so nice to me and I feel like after a little time being here, it was good," Moutinho said - the experience has been positive for all three men.
"They received us with arms wide open and helped us to get used to the culture or the team," Belana said.
He did note, with a laugh, that there was one part of American culture that took some getting used to.
"The thing that surprised me a lot was tipping. In Spain, we never tip and I remember my first few months here, I was never tipping, until we went to a restaurant and the waitress was giving me a bad look," Belana recalled. "I asked Stuart (Holthuzen), ‘Why is she giving me … what did I say?’ He asked, ‘Did you tip her?’ and I said no, I didn’t know we had to tip here."
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
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