By Jody Diperna
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
They come from places like Baghdad, Kigali and the Gaza Strip. They live in Greentree, Duquesne and the North Hills. They are Pittsburghers now. Led by team captain Karwan Jabbar, this is team Iraq, one of the 24 teams to participate in the Steel City World Cup soccer tournament, the first two rounds of which took place on June 22 and 23.
Jabbar was late to the gathering and most of his team waited around for him to roll in. He got there with his young boys as the Italy-Turkey match finished up, just minutes before Iraq’s first match of the day against Team Bhutan.
This is the third year that PUMP [Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project] has run this event. The Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC generously donated use of their practice facility, the Montour Junction Sports Complex in Coraopolis, for the first two rounds of play and the championship game will be played at their home field, Highmark Stadium on the South Side.
This tournament is sevens. The teams are co-ed and, in fact, each team is required to have two female players on the field during play, explained Jave Brown, special projects coordinator with PUMP.
The idea is to build community and bring people together through their love of soccer. Watching teams as disparate as Germany, Mexico and Congo, Bosnia and India warm up around us, Brian Magee, the CEO of Pump said, “I don’t think you can find another event like this.”
This year, there are two teams each representing the USA and Peru, plus teams representing 20 other countries. In order to register, a team must have at least three players who are from that country, or who have one parent from that country. Wandering past the fields earlier, I heard Spanish and Turkish, Italian and Swahili, and what I thought was Yoruba, but I’m not certain. Players shifted seamlessly between those languages and English.
“We wanted to make sure that teams had representation from the country. Most teams are about half,” Magee said. “But we also wanted to encourage teams to be built to bring people together. We had a list of people who wanted to play, but weren’t on a team already. Team Nigeria had a few players drop out, so we could put those players in there. They don’t even know each other. They’re going to come here today and all play under the Nigerian flag. That’s how we designed it.”
Mateo Villa, who plays for team Canada, chimed in, “There are five or six people on my team I’ve never met. That should be interesting. We’re going to play some teams who play together all the time, so we might get smoked.”
Iraq is one of those teams that plays together regularly and there is an ease within the group. They won their opener with the first goal of the day coming off the right foot of Jabbar. Despite the win, his teammate Ahmet Arafat felt they left too many opportunities out there, but was confident in their ability to make it through group play.
Arafat lives in Churchill, but grew up in Gaza, the self-governing Palestinian territory that borders Israel. He says that he is “one hundred percent Iraqi, one hundred fifty percent Palestinian.” But there is room in his heart for all of the places he loves. “All of us are from different countries, but what brings us together, we’re all Americans.”
Becky Schoenecker, one of the American-born women who plays with Iraq, said she’s only learned a few words of Arabic, but is anxious to learn more. As with anything, the language she’s picking up is specific to soccer. The first word she learned was ‘huda,’ or ‘shoot.’ During their matches, I heard netminder Marven Khalid, who has driven in from Blairsville to play with his team, shouting instructions and encouragement in both English and Arabic.
Each team played three 45-minute matches on the first day. To get in all the group play in one day, four matches took place simultaneously on the newly laid turf fields. The knockout rounds happened the following day to set up the championship game. Iraq advanced before losing to one of the Peruvian teams during the knockouts.
Jabbar was disappointed but already looking forward to next year. Plus, he will see his international teammates later this week for more rec league play. “Growing up in Iraq, we played soccer all the time, everywhere, in the street. Just everywhere,” he said. “I still play all the time — too much probably.”
The final between Team USA and Team Poland will take place on Saturday, June 29 at Highmark Field, following the Riverhounds game against the Birmingham Legion.