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Field of Dreams

For international students, summer at U of T is about much more than learning English, especially during the World Cup

Time is dwindling for the English as a Second Language men’s soccer team. Down 3 to nothing, under a scorching July sun, the players are visibly tiring against a faster St. Hilda squad. Then, Chike Agbasi, from Nigeria, puts the ball in the corner of the St. Hilda net with a left-footed blast.

The St. Hilda team strikes again – making the score 4-1 – but their celebration is thwarted on the ESL team’s very next drive when Masoud Shabani of Iran heads the ball past a stunned St. Hilda goalie. With tempers rising, ESL nets two more goals, evening out the score.

Less than five minutes remain.

“I just want cool heads to prevail,” says Bill Mboutsiadis (BA 1991 Victoria), who has coached the soccer team for the U of T School of Continuing Studies’ English Language Program since 1996. “When people begin getting emotional, I call a tighter game,” says Mboutsiadis, who often referees the matches. “The last thing we want is for someone to get hurt.”

When St. Hilda scores another goal to win the tournament, the team’s striker is offside. But the U of T players don’t complain. “We do this for fun,” says Mohammed Oklat Alesba, 18, from Kuwait. “In my country, soccer is like religion. Here it’s not so much about if we win or lose. It’s a way to meet friends, and it reminds me of home.”

Ten years ago, Mboutsiadis, who also teaches English as a Second Language, was looking for a way to give students more opportunities to speak English outside of the classroom. “Language is sometimes learned best in an informal setting,” he says, adding that soccer was a logical choice because it’s played around the world. It’s a universal language – and a good icebreaker. The students hadn’t been at U of T more than a few hours before the conversation turned to their favourite sport. “An Italian guy had a soccer ball, and soon we all were laughing and playing like old friends,” says Askar Abeldinov, 24, from Kazakhstan.

People come from around the world to attend the English Language Program at the University of Toronto. Since its launch in 1968, the program has helped thousands of individuals eager to learn English. Many of the 400 who have enrolled this summer are away from home for the first time, while a few have immigrated to Toronto to continue their research or studies. The soccer team provides a good outlet for practising English, making new friends and sharing a common passion. This summer, the players gathered regularly to watch the World Cup.

“Toronto isn’t a city, it’s like the world all gathered in one place,” says Shabani, 38, who is researching diabetes at U of T. “In Iran, I would be rooting for the Iranian team, but here I have made friends from all over the world. If their team wins a match, I feel happy. It doesn’t matter who wins.”

“Everybody at home plays soccer, every day, twice a day,” says Abeldinov, who is studying engineering at U of T. “When I think about home, I see myself playing soccer with my family and friends. Of course I want to play tournaments and win games, but I don’t mind so much. It’s nice being in Canada and part of a team.”

Many members of the soccer team live in Woodsworth College residence, so they spend time together on and off the field. On a cloudy day in late June, 25 players assemble in the residence’s main recreation room to watch the televised World Cup quarter-final match between Germany and Argentina. Mboutsiadis and Ennis Blentic, the ESL student services coordinator, have joined them. Stefano Di Lauro from Italy sits in the centre of the red leather sofa, sandwiched between Juan Pablo Angulo from Colombia and Mohammed Balsharaf from Saudi Arabia. The normally boisterous young men, who have known each other for only two months, sit rapt, commenting on the match in English. “Germany has too much defence, Argentina is too proud,” says Di Lauro, who is decked out in the red, white and green of the Italian flag to cheer for his team in the day’s second World Cup game. “This will be the game of the century,” says Balsharaf. “Those Argentinians hate to lose.”

Blentic has set up folding chairs and tables topped with pop and chips. Of the 13 English Language students from Kazakhstan, five men and only one woman have come to watch the game. (For reasons of geographic proximity, they’re rooting for Germany.) “The other girls are doing their homework, I think,” says Abeldinov, jokingly. “We have the same amount of work as they do, but only true soccer players find time to watch the match.”

Morning classes are geared to students looking to improve their conversation skills and fluency. Afternoon courses prepare students for university study, with practice in note-taking, group presentations and essay writing. But some teachers have permitted their students to take time off from class to watch the World Cup. “They know how important this is,” Di Lauro says. “The last time Italy won I wasn’t born yet. If they have a chance now. I can’t miss the game, even if I am in Toronto. It just wouldn’t be fair.”

Twice Mboutsiadis has brought his students to the residence hall to practise their English with the World Cup playing in the background. On the afternoon of the Germany-Argentina match, the students have ordered three large pizzas – none with pork out of respect for the Muslim students – that are devoured faster than the Brazilian team scores goals. The ESL players jump to their feet when Germany makes a defensive mistake in the 49th minute and Argentina puts the ball in the net. The room goes wild. Even the guys from Kazakhstan cheer. “I know how important this is to everyone,” says Mboutsiadis, whose family emigrated from Greece in the 1960s. “When I was a kid and played football, my dad never came to my games. But when I played soccer, he was the first one there. In a lot of these countries, soccer is something you grow up with.”

The next day, I squeeze into Le St. Tropez restaurant on King Street West with ESL player Teu Si Nguyen to watch France’s quarter-final match against Brazil. The place is jammed, with people spilling down the stairs and into the street. Nguyen, who is of Vietnamese descent and lives in Paris, has watched all of France’s games here on the projection TV. He stands on a chair and chants “Zissou, Zissou” every time the French captain touches the ball. Many Saudi Arabian players on the ESL team are also cheering for France. Zinedine Zidane, the son of a Muslim Algerian, is why Balsharaf has joined Nguyen to watch the game.

The patriotism of the ESL players during the World Cup doesn’t always translate into unquestioning support for their country. Nguyen’s father served jail time for challenging the government in Vietnam, and the 23-year-old says he maintains a healthy skepticism of politics and politicians – and the idea that a nation can stand proudly on historic achievements alone. “I think a patriot is someone who can criticize his government. It’s not enough just to stand here and say, ‘France is great, France is great, look at our history.’ I don’t want to look at our history. I want to look at our future.”

In the first half of the match, it looks as if the French team is simply content to have made it this far. They seem older and slower than the wildly popular, high-flying Brazilians. But in the second half, the tide turns. The French squad’s experience keeps mighty Brazil from taking a shot. Then, in the dying minutes of the game, Zidane sets up a goal on a free kick. “I feel crazy, it’s like a dream,” says Nguyen over the crowd’s roar. “We’ll be in the streets tonight dancing. Vive la France!”

Nguyen and his teammates are practising on back campus near Soldiers’ Tower on the first rainless Thursday night in two weeks. Italy beat Germany 2-0 to arrive in the World Cup semi-finals and students from Tokyo, Hong Kong and Seoul have just arrived and joined the ESL team.

“It’s not Manchester United. Whatever I’ve got here, I’ve got,” says Mboutsiadis as he opens a large gym bag and hands out soccer shorts, jerseys, shin guards and cleats. He gets a small amount of money each year to outfit the team, and most of the players borrow what they can from the coach.

The team runs through passing drills and trots laps as the sun drops lower in the sky. They’re listening to the coach, but it’s clear they would rather be scrimmaging than running. “Pick it up, Italy!” shouts Chike Agbasi, a political science major who makes a charismatic forward. “No man, it’s too hot!” Di Lauro yells back.

The players like to point out the unusual friendships they’ve made on the soccer field. Mohammed Al-Harthi, 24, from Saudi Arabia, who plans to start an MBA next year, talks about encountering a student from Israel. Before coming to Toronto, he had never met an Israeli and had assumed that all Israelis hate Arabs. But while the guys passed the ball to each other on the U of T soccer field, Al-Harthi discovered that they weren’t so different after all. The two students met for coffee the next day as soccer players, not as proxies for their countries. “That would never happen back home,” says Al-Harthi. “It’s a different mentality in Canada. In Canada, it’s like we’re not our countries, we’re just ourselves.
I’m lucky to experience that.”

Other players have similar stories. “We fought with Iraq for eight years,” says Shabani of Iran. “Back home everyone is against Iraq, but here they’re just other people far from home. We have an opportunity here to live in peace. It’s an achievement to be sure.”

Shabani, who is Muslim, arrived in Toronto in March 2004, but his fiancée stayed in Iran. He has attended a Christian church service here and says his views about religion are changing – so much so that he now challenges his family and friends about their beliefs. “When you come to Canada, you look at people as human beings, not as their religion,” Shabani says. “When I went home, especially with my fiancée’s father, our ideas clashed. The religions are actually very similar; there’s a moral centre that all religions share. I know that if I could just bring them to Toronto, they would see the world as a bigger, more diverse, yet still equal place. I will bring my fiancée here someday.”

Shabani says he was dismayed by the reports, in early June, that Canadian police had discovered a homegrown terrorist plot involving Muslims. “Religion is part of you, of course,” he says, “but there is nothing more ignorant than plotting a terrorist attack. Anywhere in the world this is wrong. I’m a soldier fighting against that.”

The last game of the World Cup pits Italy against France. Di Lauro is back in the residence hall on the red couch rooting for Italy, and Nguyen is in the Rogers Centre among 35,000 fans cheering for France. The game is a nail-biter, but Italy wins on penalty kicks. “I couldn’t move, I was frozen and then I started to cry,” says Nguyen.

Others were jubilant. “It was a wonderful day,” exclaims Di Lauro. “I watched with my team in the residence hall, then went to Little Italy, then to Corso Italia that night. Everyone was like friends at the party. It was almost better than being in Rome. Here I could party with the whole world.”

The following Thursday, the ESL soccer team was once again on U of T’s back campus field. They were doing passing drills. And nobody seemed to mind.

Ben Kaplan is the features editor of Post City Magazines. He recently wrote a two-part undercover series on the Guardian Angels for the Globe and Mail. This is his first story for U of T Magazine.

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