Breaking down barriers: Alex, Willmar players come together through soccer
Alexandria's Tom Roos was speaking in front of a group of young soccer players at the Northstar Christian Academy fieldhouse on Sunday when he called on two Willmar players to stand up.
Roos wanted to recognize Mohamedfatah Mohamed and Abdimalik Mohamed as leaders within their communities. Mohamedfatah and Abdimalik were noticeably shy at the attention. They cracked a smile and looked down at the ground when Roos asked them if they wanted to share anything with the group.
"Part of this is people coming out of their comfort zone," Roos said. "We have Alex kids training with Willmar kids of a different race, of a different culture. For Willmar kids to come in here, I would imagine it could be overwhelming."
Roos is the longtime varsity girls soccer coach in Alexandria. His work with the Alexandria Area Soccer Association (AASA) has included organizing indoor soccer programming. Through that, the AASA has tried to use this opportunity to break down cultural barriers as a way to promote positive attitudes towards diversity.
The Willmar players who came to train in Alexandria on Sunday were a group of high school boys who are all from immigrant or refugee families. It was a couple of those players who reached out to Roos to see if they could train in Alexandria this offseason. From that, Roos and the soccer association wanted to take things a step further and organize a program called One World Soccer. The idea? Provide a first-class training opportunity for the Willmar and Alexandria students while bringing kids of different cultures and different backgrounds together.
To get kids there on Sunday, Roos knew he would have to bring in some talented coaches. He has done that in the past through his week-long summer camp, and Sunday's event was hosted by guest coaches Pablo Campos and Geison Moura, both professional soccer players who played for Minnesota United during their careers. Campos won an MLS Cup with Real Salt Lake in 2009.
"We're creating a chance to have some enthusiasm with the sport of soccer by bringing in these great players," Roos said. "That's one piece of it. The other side is to bring people together that normally would not be together, enable them to have a positive experience and develop attitudes of inclusiveness, attitudes of tolerance."
Campos and Moura worked with a group of players in grades 6-8 during a morning session on Sunday before athletes in grades 9-12 took the field in the afternoon. Their focus centered around making these kids better decision-makers on the field.
"We need to teach them how to read the game, not to play the game," Campos said. "You still have to teach technique, but you can't forget about teaching them how to think and the decision making."
After Sunday morning's work on the field, all the players gathered for a message from Roos. Raul Garcia, from Mexico, and Marzouk Alassani, of Togo, Africa, are both coaches in the Alexandria Soccer Association who also shared their stories of coming to the United States.
Campos and Moura have seen firsthand how soccer can bring people together. Both grew up in Brazil, a country that idolizes soccer star, Pele, both for what he did on the field and for the impact he had off it. In 1969, Pele's appearance in a game played in Nigeria caused a 48-hour ceasefire of the Biafran War so the match could be carried out peacefully.
"That's how powerful sports are," Campos said. "We forget about race, we forget about countries. It's a great way to bring people together and to teach them discipline and how to be good people. It's a way to see how to be in a community."
Roos told the kids on Sunday that while looking at the Minnesota United roster this year, he noticed 17 different nations represented among their players.
"Soccer is a great opportunity to be inclusive," Moura said. "You go to South America, you go to Asia, everybody plays the game. It's a great way for people to get together."
Roos has been a part of using soccer as a vehicle for change in the past through his work with the Haitian Initiative. That program helps bring hundreds of Haitian children together six days a week for classes, soccer training and a meal high in nutrients.
Sunday was another opportunity to make an impact. The kids came together after their work on the field was done to talk about what they took away from the day. Roos specifically asked the Willmar players how they felt coming into the session.
"It was pretty quiet, then one of the Willmar boys responded with, 'I was scared,'" Roos said. "I asked why he was scared. His response was, 'I didn't think those guys would like me,' which got a chuckle from the players from both towns."
Roos followed that up with another question. How did that same player feel now?
"His response was, 'I feel OK,'" Roos said.
That's a start. If any Alexandria or Willmar students go back to their communities with a better understanding of each other, then coaches will have accomplished something.
"I've coached for many, many years. Over those years, I've been able to see that we can have a bigger impact than just kicking a soccer ball around," Roos said. "We can truly have an impact in the world around us. Whether it was using soccer to improve the lives of kids in Haiti, bringing kids together here who normally would not get together and try to create some positive attitudes toward diversity, for me it's important to try to take advantage of that opportunity."