“You look back and you are not completely detached from your time growing up,” he said. “Sometimes you want to make some moves like you used to do…. It keeps you still connected.”
Issifou, now 48, admitted that these moves are not quite as common as they used to be.
“Sometimes you just watch the ball pass and you cannot do anything,” he laughed. “But we’re still trying to maintain. I can no longer do like I used to do. Still, I’m happy that I can go there and run with the kids and play.”
Partway through the game, due to a handball near the goal, Moussa was awarded a penalty kick on the unguarded small net from half field, a challenging distance of 30 or 40 yards. To the sons’ delight, he missed horribly to the left.
Even as the game embodied tradition, one difference divided the generations.
The sons spoke English on the field; they complained to the ref — a man who usually plays on the fathers’ side — in English; they advised and encouraged each other in English. As often as not, their English carried no Togolese, Congolese or Somali accent.
“Hey, stop arguing!” a son called from his goal toward the scrum of players upfield. “Y’all messing up the chemistry!”
But the fathers rarely spoke English — not to the ref, to each other, or in frustrated or joyous exclamations.
Despite the difference, Issifou said that he and the other fathers try to use the games as a chance to maintain languages as well as the sport itself.
After an hour of continuous, contentious play, the contest ended 0 to 0. A scoreless final is common, Issifou said, due to the intensity brought forth when the fathers and sons square off.
Even when Issifou’s pickup games don’t set fathers against sons, traditions can still play an important role.
“Teams here are naturally — or somehow — organized based on affinity,” Issifou explained. “You don’t sit anywhere and say, ‘We’re going to create a team or a league.’ But people from the same countries [come together]… If there is an independence of — let’s say, Togo Independence Day — we can say, ‘Okay, we’re going to play a game against Niger or Nigeria or Congo.’ Then the Togolese people will gather, Nigerian people will gather, and then we will play…. But everybody can come and join.
“The majority of the people might be from one region, but other people can play as well,” he continued. “It’s not like a solid team where you have a roster and say everybody should do this, no. But when it comes to games, you could put a region or country as a name and go play…. In the past we’ve had a tournament here for that, with trophies even, but we have not done that for five years.”
At least once, the Togo team won the tournament on its independence day.
Regardless of marital or national affiliation, camaraderie comes easy through shared time on the soccer pitch.
“[It] makes people click very, very, very fast,” Issifou said. “You play with some people one time, that’s it. Wherever you see each other, you know: This person plays this game.”
For years, assimilation wasn’t the only barrier to Issifou’s international soccer community — access to fields held them back.
“Initially, we were managing to go where we found a field,” Issifou said. “We just organized and played. It has been more and more difficult throughout the years because the field organizers restrict you.”
Finally, Issifou’s group benefited from the collective effort.
“This is where I’m going to salute the city of Greensboro,” Issifou proclaimed. “We approached them as an international community, and we were able to get them to grant us permission to play on some fields that are owned and maintained by the city. I would say that it is a very good investment they have made…. The city of Greensboro has done this and we appreciate that very much. Now we don’t have any worry; we know where the fields are…. For the whole summer we have a place to go play.”
This will be the second summer Issifou’s group has access to those fields.
Counting on further city cooperation, Issifou hopes for a tournament that could bring people together across nationalities.
“This is what sport does: It brings people from many backgrounds together and builds some kind of camaraderie that would never be built if there was no sport,” he said. “[The city] could step in and think about organizing some tournaments and leagues for soccer whereby different age groups could play.”
It wouldn’t be the first attempt at an international soccer league.
In 2011, immigrants and refugees in Greensboro started to discuss a soccer league following the success of the United Dashain Festival, which brought together Bhutanese and Nepalese people living in the Triad and included a match between local Bhutanese and Nepalese soccer teams.
With the help of the FaithAction International House, the Triad International Soccer League organized several international tournaments with teams and players representing many African and Asian ethnicities. The following year, the Greensboro Parks & Rec Department agreed to sponsor the league, renamed the Greensboro International Soccer League of the Triad.
Narayan Khadka, who served as the league’s president, strongly believes in the convivial power of the sport.
“I’m interested in a soccer league because I’m an anthropologist, sociologist, a conflict resolution student,” Khadka explained. “So my interest is how we use sports to bring people together or resolve their differences.”
Growing up, Khadka played some soccer in his home country of Nepal, though it was often hard to come by.