When the members of the ’94 Wilmington N.C Cape Fear Beakers Boys Soccer Club departed for Perugia, Italy, they did not know what to expect. They did know, however, that they would be training and participating in an international tournament that included players from several European countries as well as the United States and Canada. Their coach, Antonio Saviano, tried to get them to understand that many of their opponents would be bigger, stronger, faster and better skilled than the players they were used to facing. There would also be the issue of playing on a larger field with Eleven players a side, instead of the usual eight vs. eight they were used to.
When they got to Italy, their week was laid out for them. There would be two training sessions, morning and afternoon, for Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday would be a sightseeing day and a chance to rest. Thursday through Saturday they would compete I an eleven-team tournament with at least two games a day. The championship finale would take place on Saturday afternoon.
At 9:30 Monday morning they all boarded the bus buzzing with excitement as they headed off to their first session. Although jet-lagged from arriving the prior day, their enthusiasm overcame sleep deprivation. The parents spent the late morning relaxing in town, sightseeing, shopping and sipping cappuccinos. When the team bus returned for lunch, however, the lack of sleep and demanding training session had obviously taken its toll. They boys were exhausted and were told to eat lunch and go to their rooms to rest and recover before their afternoon session. Eleven year old Jack Sordellini was among more than a few players who wondered «what did I get myself into?» He rallied, however, for next session, as well as the two on Tuesday, but was always happy to return to the hotel to eat, swim with his teammates at the pool and just relax. Wednesday was a welcome day off, and many members of the team toured Rome and other parts of this beautiful country.
On Thursday the games finally began. Jack could not wait and it did not take long for him to get what he came for. Playing at the right wing, it seemed that every ball in the first 10 minutes of the match were played to his part of the field and he was forced to make several long runs. The size and speed of his opponents was as advertised and the larger field along with the pace of the game tested his stamina. Once again he wondered if he was in over his head. The game finally settled into a less frenetic pace and the boys from Wilmington realized that they could compete with their stronger opponents. This first game ended scoreless in regulation time and Wilmington won on penalty kicks. They played the balance of the schedule in a similar fashion, and although they did not make the tourney finals, they clearly earned respect. Their confidence grew with each match, both on and off the field.
Alex Gianoplus, 12, heard people in the crowd chanting his name, but who were they and how did they know his name? Were they cheering for him or against? Invited to be a guest goalie playing for an Italian team, he did not understand the words that his teammates were saying to him, but he got the general idea: keep the ball out of the net.
Even though the weather was hot, over 90 degrees, Alex was outfitted with a long sleeve jersey and his socks were pulled up over his knees. The artificial turf, which was 10+degrees hotter than the air temperature, had given both of his knees and his elbows a nice layer of raw skin. That was the price he paid as he had spent the week during practice and games hurling his body in every direction making acrobatic saves.
But now he was playing in the semi-finals as a guest goalie for Italy and he could hear his name being called from the stands. As the opposition skillfully advanced the ball toward him on the attack, he was amazed at the accuracy of their passes. As he followed the play to the left he sensed that the ball would be crossed to the other side. In a split second the ball was redirected to his right and out of nowhere one of the attackers rushed the goal in perfect time to deflect it with his head toward the net. Alex instinctively lunged to his right and extended both arms. The ball seemed to be already in the net when Alex’s out stretched arms punched it to the corner of the field, where one of his defenders cleared it down field. As he landed on his tender elbows he heard the rhythmic chant from the crowd: ALEX! ALEX! ALEX! «Hmm. I guess they are rooting for me» he thought.
When the game ended Alex came up to the stands to watch the next game. He learned that his new fan club was a group of players who had a vested interest in a victory for Alex’s team. Alex sat among his new friends getting acquainted, joking ,watching the game and exchanging sweaty jerseys as souvenirs. Although there was a language barrier, they clearly knew they had a common bond.
Later, after the top two teams played for the championship, all of the teams and their parents went down to the field for an awards ceremony. The host of the tournament stood before a table of magnificent trophies for the winning teams. He thanked all of the participants and then gave out the awards. The first one, he announced, was for the ‘giocatore piu giovane». Jack Sordellini did not know what was being said, but he understood his own name and went up to accept his trophy for being the tournament’s «youngest player».
The tournament director continued and then held up the next large cup which was inscribed ‘miglior portiere». Alex Gianoplus heard his name called and found out that he was named the tournaments «best goalie».
The next day Jack and Alex waited patiently at the airport to leave for home. They had checked all their baggage with the exception of a small carry-on and, of course, two huge trophies. As they waited for their flight, they sat and talked about their week that seemed to start so long ago.
Somehow their recollection of the week changed a little bit. The Monday and Tuesday practice sessions did not seems so grueling in retrospect. In their minds the opponents were not as large as they once seemed. The field shrunk a bit and any cramps from sprinting in the blistering hot sun could not even be recalled. Turf-burned knees and elbows were little more than a faded memory…
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