By 8 a.m. on July 29, players from the Newcomers School team had arrived at Hester Park an hour ahead of their kickoff against the Montagnard Highlanders. At least three of the Newcomers players — alum of Greensboro’s magnet school for first-year immigrants and refugees — had finished a 9-hour shift at a chicken-processing plant after 1 a.m. that morning. The same players would have to leave Greensboro’s International Soccer Tournament before their final game of the day, returning to their homes to be ready for the 75-minute carpool to the plant and another 9-hour shift starting at 5 p.m. With not enough substitutes for their final match, their coach Michael Amend donned a jersey and joined them on the field.
Later that morning, Omar Alhamwi remained standing while most of his teammates sat or stretched out, resting at halftime in the shade of young trees at Hester Park. He spoke in Arabic to the other players — most of whom came from Syria, like him, or from Saudi Arabia or Iraq — gesticulating, clapping and motivating. Alhamwi, a former professional player in Syria and Jordan, fled his home country and came to the United States alone. At Hester Park nine months later, he was now surrounded by a more familiar community. But Omar Soccer Stars were trailing the Pumas NC FC 1-0, and he wasn’t ready to see his team drop their first contest.
The manager for the International Stars of Greensboro — a team with a core of African players — rearranged his weekend work schedule as a truck driver to ensure his team was prepared accordingly. Many others did the same.
Sacrifices permitted the tournament, emotions ran high, and the level of competition challenged every player. But the purpose of the event elevated the contests above a conventional tournament. In such circumstances, soccer is a part of culture, a builder of community; the sacrifices were necessary.
Eight teams representing different countries or continents — Mexico, Sudan, the Montagnard people of Vietnam, Nepal, two African all-stars teams, the Newcomers School and Omar Soccer Stars — came together for a tournament that celebrated the entire refugee and immigrant population of the Triad. Across the eight teams, more than 25 different countries were represented.
“Today the winner is going to be the city of Greensboro, the international community, and soccer,” Moussa Issifou told the crowd of players and spectators before the tournament began on July 29. Issifou is one of the tournament’s organizers and a coach for the Hawks, an African team with a nucleus of Togolese players.
The International Soccer Tournament — a two-day competition among the eight teams — was a labor of love for many soccer organizers of different refugee and immigrant communities around Greensboro. After establishing the purpose and structure of the tournament, the organizers brought their idea to Austin Homan, the athletics superintendent for Greensboro’s Parks & Rec Department, as well as to the monthly International Advisory Committee meetings. Rather than become a competition based on prize money, the International Soccer Tournament endeavored to bring the diversity of Greensboro together through sport. [Disclaimer: The author participated in some of those meetings as an advocate for the tournament and its participants.]
Each team played three games on July 29, as two matches took place simultaneously from 9 a.m. until about 6 p.m. The Top 4 teams advanced to third-place and first-place finals on Sunday morning.
The championship saw the Montagnard Highlanders face off against the Hawks, an excellent match between teams with different advantages and styles of play. The unbelievable quickness of the Montagnard players matched the greater size and strength of the Hawks, making for a fair fight.
Less than three minutes into the contest, a foul in the Montagnard box led to a successful penalty kick and early Hawks goal. The teams battled through the rest of the half as both benches and the spectators on the sidelines howled their guidance, inspiration and criticism across many languages.
Near the end of the first half, a beautiful far-post shot at breakneck speed tied the game for the Highlanders. The entire squad except the goalie rushed to the scorer downfield, putting their arms around him in gratitude and congratulations. One more Highlanders goal at the very end of the first half and another in the second period led to a 3-1 Montagnard victory.
In the ceremony following the championship match, Homan and the organizers thanked the teams, sponsors and spectators. Greensboro City Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter placed first-, second- and third-place medals around the necks of the members of the Top 3 teams. As the Sudanese American Soccer Team was honored for third place, several older Sudanese men in the crowd began a syncopated clapping and cheering celebration.
“I hope we continue the efforts we have been doing,” said Narayan Khadka, a soccer organizer for the Nepali community, at the finals ceremony.
Speaking to the teams, sponsors, parks & rec staff and Abuzuaiter, Khadka finished: “I hope you support us all the way.”
The Sudanese American Soccer Federation will hold its national tournament in Greensboro on Sept 2 and 3.
As the ceremony ended and everyone began to make their ways home, players took team photos together. Then groups of players across different teams — many of them strangers, some old friends — asked for photos with one another, extending their arms once again in gratitude and congratulations.