The basketball court of a Somali charter school in St. Paul is not ideal for Ahmed Ismail’s soccer club. The gym is dimly lit. His team, mostly high schoolers, cannot kick as hard as they want, or run as fast. They share it with a team of children who dart by with their own soccer balls, sometimes nearly colliding.
But Ismail, often simply called “Coach,” demands that his boys take the sport seriously, even when they lack for a decent place to practice during the coldest months of the year.
“Do you want to be a good soccer player?” he asks one of the boys, beginning to tire from the repeated high jump exercises. “That’s how you’re going to be a good soccer player!”
Soccer enthusiasts across Minneapolis struggle to find enough places to practice in the winter, confronting outdated and booked-up recreation centers and a lack of indoor soccer fields in the city park system.
But the phenomenon has special meaning for the East African kids clustered in the Riverside Plaza high-rises and surrounding neighborhoods, who have carried their passion for the sport 8,000 miles from home.
Most of the nearly three dozen East African immigrants who play for Ismail’s West Bank Athletic Club cannot afford to pay hundreds of dollars in fees that larger clubs can to rent out the indoor field at Augsburg College or gyms elsewhere in the city.
Latinos on the South Side have also clamored for soccer facilities in recent years, and many gather on weekends at Green Central gym for indoor soccer games in the winter.
Competition between the groups for soccer space came to light in felony theft charges filed last month against Hashim Yonis, who was accused of pocketing more than $3,500 for renting out an artificial turf field at Currie Park to a Latino soccer league. East Africans in the neighborhood complained to park officials that youth in their own community could not get time there.
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board sponsors a fall soccer league but lacks the infrastructure to accommodate soccer year-round. Commissioner Scott Vreeland said the city probably needs an indoor soccer field, though new outdoor fields are already accommodating more young people. He said some new artificial turf fields were built in his district, which includes Cedar-Riverside, but they are very small and designed for 12-year-olds.
“Boy, those young men are passionate about soccer,” Vreeland said. “There are some really talented young men that need places to play.”
The director of their neighborhood rec center, the Brian Coyle Center, is sympathetic, but his facility is already bursting with after-school programs and community events.
“To allow some to use, you have to kick out others, so what are we going to do?” said Amano Dube, who is from Ethiopia. “The need is so extensive. We never meet probably 50 percent of the need.”
Many in the West Bank Athletic Club grew up playing soccer barefoot on the streets of East Africa, fashioning balls out of sacks and ropes and using trees as goalposts. They are used to making do with little. So they play wherever, whenever they find a pocket of space.
Ismail and some of the older soccer players shuttle the group — ranging from about 15 to their early 20s — several times a week to practice at the charter school in St. Paul. Winter practice prepares younger members for spring leagues and everyone for big tournaments against East Africans from around the country this summer: one in Columbus, Ohio, and the Somali American Independence soccer tournament in the Twin Cities.
The group is largely made up of low-income teens with high aims: to be a politician, a doctor, the best soccer player on the planet. Many come from large families on food stamps and subsidized housing. Their parents lack the time and inclination to show up at games — it is not part of the culture, Ismail said, adding that there are few East African soccer moms.
Soccer offers more than just practice for them — it keeps them out of gangs, drugs and other trouble — and Ismail often pushes to see their report cards and serves as a confidant when they need guidance.
A 15-year-old girl who is part Somali and part Indian also practices with them, saying she tried to play on white and Latino teams but didn’t fit in. Their ranks include a chemistry major from the U, a high school freshman who came from Ethiopia and speaks little English or Somali, and an assistant coach now 23 who grew up playing for Ismail.
The other football
Mohamed Hassan, a lanky 15-year-old who is one of the group’s best and youngest members, grew up watching people play the game in Kenya. But he never heard the term soccer until he came to the U.S. five years ago. He was accustomed to calling it kubada (ball) cagta (foot) in Somali.
“Do you guys play football?” he asked his new American friends when he moved to Minneapolis.
They took him to a game where players tackled each other.
“I’m not talking about this football,” Hassan said. They told him he meant soccer.
A freshman, Hassan earned a spot on the mostly white junior varsity soccer team at Southwest High School.
Many boys skip practices, especially when the temperature drops below zero, but Hassan comes to nearly every one. On other days, he and his brother kick a ball around the hallway of their apartment building.
Adnan Abdirahman, the Roosevelt student whom Ismail pressed to jump harder, moved from Ethiopia in 2011. He sometimes sneaks in practice in the afternoon at Augsburg with a friend, after being told by staff there that it was OK if only a couple of them came before 6.
“Outside is good for us to run around,” said Abdirahman. “Indoor is not that much good for us because we want to kick the ball high.”