GOTHENBURG, Sweden - Fourteen kids dressed in red, white and blue, one fully dressed as the Statue of Liberty, enter a stadium of thousands, representing their county and also northeast Ohio at the world's largest soccer tournament.
Samba Soccer Club, which trains at Tri-C, was one of three local teams competing in the Gothia Cup in Gothenburg, Sweden. 37,200 youth players from 80 nations go to Sweden each year for the international challenge.
Samba competed in the Boys 12 division, winning their group and reaching the round of 16. That's no small feat and one that coach Devon Anderson said makes him proud. But the takeaway from the tournament is far greater than just wins and losses.
"We try to see that the kids come back with something bigger than the soccer experience," Anderson said.
Visiting a copper mine, a mid-17th century fortress and Gothenburg Harbor does just that for the 10 to 12-year-olds. It's something not many experience at that age, a vast array of cultures, languages and people.
"We need to expose them at a young age," Anderson said.
That they certainly are at the Gothia Cup, playing soccer teams from all over the world. One example of the tournament's camaraderie is the exchange of gifts after games.
It's shown in the children of the Samba club posing for pictures adorned in native scarves given to them by the Palestinian team that knocked them out of the tournament. Samba gave each team it played a wristband with the club's name as a souvenir.
The tournament helps change the kids' mentality toward sports, Anderson explained. He said they begin to soak up that camaraderie and love for playing the game.
"Soccer's one of the few games where you can show goodwill," Anderson said.
But the competition the northeast Ohio players face is fierce and the preparation intensive. The team trains for a year for this tournament, one Anderson has been taking his squad to since 1995.
They compete in high-level tournaments locally and regionally to get ready for the on-field rigors. Former players consult the kids to prepare them mentally for cultural differences, distance from home and living accommodations. Parents and family help fund the trip, as the team is not sponsored.
"To play soccer against different countries where soccer is considered their primary sport compared to the Unites States, this is a life-changing experience. Our players get to demonstrate their skills of play, experience different styles of play and learn of different cultures," Anderson said.
Along with Samba, the two other teams representing northeast Ohio abroad did so in strong fashion. Ambassadors FC, from Aurora, reached the round of 32 and Cleveland FC, out of Medina, the round of 64, in the Boys 15 category.
The youth players will surely remember what they did on the pitch but also riding trains and buses, eating different foods and sharing new experiences in a foreign land.
"I've been doing this for awhile and this was unbelievable," Anderson said about the trip and his team's performance. "They come back learning life lessons."
As they return to the United States, they do so not just with those lessons but memories too that should last a lifetime.
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