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Thursday, June 10, 2010 10:01 pm

My life of soccer in Springfield

On the eve of the World Cup, reflections on a game that brings the world here

I’m one of 2.5 billion (that’s with a “b”) people who will be watching an upcoming quadrennial event on TV with great anticipation. The top 32 national teams of the world will meet in South Africa to compete in the “World Series” of soccer, futbol, futebol, calcio, voetbal, le foot, podosfero. Whatever the name for the game, the competition is the World Cup, from June 11 to July 11.

I had played baseball for a few years between the ages of 9 and 11. I could catch and field pretty well. My batting skills lacked luster though. When I was 13 years old, I tried out for basketball. I was also tall so I thought I’d be a shoo-in. Denied. No such luck.

At the time a friend of mine who lived in the neighborhood was attending a little-known alternative school in Springfield called City Day School. They played soccer in their gym class. They would play after school as well and I was invited to join in. It was great fun! Lots of running. It seemed like you got to interact with the ball a lot. Creativity was a must to become deceptively better.

That fall of my 13th year, I started playing soccer and never looked back.

I remember my first official soccer coach through the YMCA. Mr. G(H)erman Roncancio. Kind, kind man. To this day when I see him it’s always an honor. Trying to explain to a bunch of young American kids Joga Bonito (the beautiful game) was probably a little frustrating for him. He was very encouraging, and people listened.

There wasn’t much soccer available on TV in those days. There was a station out of Jacksonville that carried a program on Saturdays called “Soccer Made In Germany.” A group of us would get together at the home of the one person who could get the station and watch great games. After the games, we would go outside and emulate the players of the match: Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Deiter Müeller, Franz Beckenbauer (my favorite), Lothar Matthäus, Rudi Voeller.

Later, a few of us young American kids were gleaned away from the YMCA’s Youth League to be brought in the Y’s Men’s League (of one team). Some of those people are still active in soccer today: Joe Eck (retired coach of the UIS Men’s Soccer Team), Bob McGuire (almost single-handedly coordinating soccer development in Chatham), Tom Johnson (winning past soccer coach at Glenwood High School), and Jeff “The Sniper” Aldrich (first assistant coach at Sangamon State University and still an active player in the Springfield Men’s Soccer League). We played college club teams, we played the St. Louis Stars, teams in Lincoln, Peoria, Taylorville, Decatur – we even traveled to Fort Campbell in Kentucky to play.

There was no soccer in the high schools. The “foreigners” (I say that with complete affection) were from England (John Watts), Greece (Harold and George Christofilakos), Turkey (Aydin Gonulsen and his brother Yavuz), Scotland, Argentina, Italy, Germany and the African continent, along with a few Americans thrown in. St. Louis-born Stan Zelienski and Andy Lindstrom (Chicago area). I felt very privileged to be exposed to players from all over the world.

One major change these “foreigners” rallied for was to implement soccer in the District 186 Public Schools. They were an enthusiastic bunch, spreading the “word” of soccer, proselytizing board members, extolling the benefits and the joy of soccer. They drove home how cheap it is to start a program, how simple a game it is (11 rules), how the combination of speed, skill, imagination and organization required to prevail is a great leveler, how any youngster of any size or shape can play. Their persuasion worked.

Adult soccer is still alive and well in Springfield – thanks largely to a young man named Miguel Calderon. He congealed the adult community of soccer players into a league of 8-10 teams playing in the spring and fall. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Springfield Men’s Soccer League.

During my time at LLCC, I met a group of Africans from various countries. Like the other “foreigners” I had met through soccer, they were in a strange country looking for acceptance for being themselves. We embraced the similarities and respected the differences. To this day, 35 years later, I’m still a member of the Springfield International Soccer Club. What an education I continue to receive from the explanations of what it’s like “back home.” I’ve learned about politics, languages, religions, fashions, geography and I’ve had wonderful culinary experiences. This small-town boy from Sangamon County, Illinois, U.S.A., is richer for it.

We owe a great deal of gratitude to our soccer forefathers. Coaching was more of an altruistic gesture of giving back than looking for a monetary gain. When I was asked to coach the Blessed Sacrament kids when I was 19 years old, I did it for the same reason my first coach did it for me – for the love of the game. Judge Pete Cavanagh was one of those kids at Blessed Sacrament who developed a love for the game that continues today.

That handful of men has done more for soccer here in this community than will ever be done. Some people say Aydin Gonulsen is the father of soccer in this town (it may be Aydin who says that), but in my opinion Harold Christofilakos is the godfather. All gave of their time and, often, their money to champion “the beautiful game.”

Tom Bundy, in between soccer matches, has found time to restore 14 buildings that are on the National Register of Historic Places.

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