A new sound is in the air at Burlington's Oakledge Park: soccer players shouting in Spanish, Somali and English. The men and women spraying sweat as they dribble and pass through fields of white clover are practicing for the First Vermont International Heritage Soccer Cup. The tournament, which runs from June 25 to August 20, is open to players ages 20 and up. And it's helping many participating athletes return to a sport they last played in dusty rectangles in Africa or on the streets of South America. The game is not the only thing they're reclaiming.
"This is not just a soccer game; this is a cultural event," says Burlington's Jairo Blanco, who helped organize the program. Taking a break from practice, he points out a friend from Paraguay and another guy from Colombia who's never played the sport before. "It's more of a mental release to be here with your own culture," Blanco says. "This is how the rest of the world has fun."
The sport is generally credited to the Anglo-Saxons, and the first "football" association was formed in England in 1863. But various versions of soccer have spanned the globe for centuries. Evidence suggests that 2000 years ago, members of the military during China's Han Dynasty trained with soccer-like leather balls filled with feathers and hair. According to a recent survey by the Federation Internationale de Football Association, more than 240 million people worldwide play soccer today. Millions more participate informally. FIFA itself is composed of 205 associations representing even more countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Whether it's called soccer or football, "the beautiful game" is the world's favorite.
In Vermont, though, the sport has largely belonged to youth organizations. "I think we're fifth in the nation in terms of soccer development," says Williston's Richard Lewis, who just stepped down from his post as chair of the Vermont Governor's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Once kids become adults, they have few formal opportunities to play.
Blanco is determined to change that. A cyclist and third-degree black belt in Shotokan Karate-do who has represented Colombia and the U.S. in major martial-arts tournaments, Blanco also enjoys American football and skiing. But for all that, he missed soccer, and he sensed that many new immigrants to Vermont were also likely feeling that lack. "We have transplanted cultures trying to continue with healthy attitudes, to be happy," he says. "And it's very difficult, because you need to adapt, and you lose a lot of your own identity in the acculturation process."
Blanco has been working to expand recreational offerings for members of minorities in Vermont for a while. Two years ago, he and four others created the Vermont Latin Alliance, a grassroots organization to address Latino issues, including health. As a volunteer consultant with the state health department's Healthy Vermonters 2010 initiative, Blanco saw no preventive measures -- such as sports, recreational activities and events -- geared toward the Latino community, or any other ethnic community in Vermont, he says. "Cultural identity sports don't exist." Such activities are valuable, he adds, because "They bring not only a level of comfort, but also mental recreation and mental fulfillment."
In 2005, at Blanco's request, Governor Douglas appointed him to the fitness council. Blanco's proposal for a statewide soccer tournament for adults was the first step toward the Vermont International Heritage Soccer Cup. "We had tried to reach underserved communities before, indirectly through the Run Girl Run! program," says Lewis, referring to the statewide program for middle-schoolers. "So there's some history, some precedent, but not in the interactive style that Jairo suggested."
To establish the International Heritage Soccer Cup, Blanco had enlisted support from the semi-pro Vermont Voltage soccer club, and spread the word among European community groups and North American players. He also solicited support from sponsors such as Heritage Ford to help defray the costs of uniforms and field time, which can reach quadruple digits.
Blanco also met with the Association of Africans Living in Vermont, an organization with 800 adults and children from 28 African nations. The response was enthusiastic. "Soccer is the popular sport in Africa," says Lusenge Siriwayo, who emigrated from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For months, Siriwayo says, his fellow immigrants had been asking him where they could play soccer. Those who'd arrived in winter were disheartened by the sight of snow-covered fields. "'They'd say, 'Man! What?'" Siriwayo says with a laugh, "We'll be able to play one day here?'"
The snow was still on the ground when Somalian Ahmed Omar came to Vermont in March; a photo shows his family wearing layers of clothing. Omar, who was born in 1978 in Kismayo, started playing soccer when he was 12 and joined his first team three years later, at a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya.
Another picture from that time shows Omar sitting on a dirt soccer field in Kenya. He's wearing an orange uniform and stretching his palms to the sky. "I played on a total of three different teams," Omar relays by email. "Now I hope to play professional soccer in the U.S. Then I hope to play for the U.S. in world soccer."
Could Omar move up in the soccer universe, or at least in Vermont's orbit? "That is a good possibility," says Bojan "Bo" Vuckovic, a Vermont Voltage coach. Vuckovic played in Yugoslavia, and then for the New England Revolution in Major League Soccer, among other pro teams, before buying the Voltage in 1999. Since then, he's added the Lady Voltage to his soccer empire, and helped improve Vermont's ranking in the 130-team United Soccer League.
More than 1300 spectators watch the Voltage. Vuckovic will be among those watching the new league. "If they play in the Heritage Cup tournament and play really well -- we're going to be watching those games -- then maybe they can move up to the next level," he says.
The sidelines will be busy. For one thing, there will be lots of extra players from Africa; Siriwayo has nearly four dozen potential players. But because of field logistics, the tournament can only accommodate four teams of 20: African, USA, European and Latin American. "Next year we're going to expand it to basically every international group that we can find," says Blanco. "For this year, the tournament is accepting anybody from any ethnic background on any of the teams."
Festivities are also bound to accompany the tournament. As evidenced by the World Cup, soccer brings out a certain spirit in people. It can take the form of face paint and flag waving, and it spills into the streets when a team has won. When Iran bested Bahrain earlier this month to qualify for the 2006 World Cup finals, millions of Iranians flooded the streets, making the post Red-Sox celebrations look like tea parties by comparison.
Although nothing that big is likely to happen in Vermont, Blanco predicts a new fervor will fill the fields. "When you have an international soccer game like this, let's say, Italia against Brazil," he says, "people go to the stadium to watch the event and to have fun; they bring music and they eat. It won't be surprising to see everybody with drums and food on the side, screaming, 'Yay!' with flags from each country. That's the party of it, that's where people feel fulfilled culturally. They're cheering for their own identity."