The Cal Poly men’s soccer team is comprised of a mixture of athletes from countries all over the world, including Germany, Poland, Canada, Belgium, South America and the Republic of Sierra Leone.
Social sciences freshman Abdul Sesay is one of the many soccer players who recently moved to the United States to expand his opportunities in education.
Sesay, born and raised in the Republic of Sierra Leone, in West Africa, was a member of his national soccer team, but came to the United States to receive the education he felt was necessary.
“Back where I come from you get your education and you have nothing to do with it because the leaders are selfish and they do not provide opportunity for everyone,” Sesay said. “I can’t play soccer for the rest of my life, but I can have my education for the rest of my life.”
Because of Sesay’s success in soccer, he was able to escape the city of Sierra Leone in 1997 during the country’ s civil war, and was taken to Guinea Conakry for safety. Being a member of the national team and a celebrity in his country, people were constantly concerned with his protection, Sesay said.
“In my country, soccer is the only thing that brings us together. That’s one thing that keeps people’s spirits up,” Sesay said. “When you play soccer people know you and people are trying to protect you all the time. Being on the national team, the entire county knew who I was.”
Sesay’s coach said these experiences bring a certain maturity to his game.
“He is a mature person and an experienced player,” said Wolfgang Gartner, Cal Poly’s men’s soccer coach. “He lived in a refugee camp I think for three years in Iberia and he brings a maturity based on those experiences that other students don’t have.”
Although the life lessons Sesay gained from living in Africa add to his game, the differences between American and African soccer have taken some time to adjust to.
“One of the differences is being on a national team you play with a lot of experienced players,” Sesay said. “Sometimes I cannot play the way I want to play. This game is not a one man game, it’s a team game and sometimes I find it frustrating, but I got to play it and I am doing my best.”
Sesay is only one of many foreign players on the team that find the difference in soccer training in the United States difficult to work with. Journalism sophomore Nikhil Erlebach, who hails from Hamburg, Germany, recently moved to the United States for his education, and often finds college soccer a different game.
“Over here it is more important how tall you are, how fast you are and how you can run. Over there it is more how good of a soccer play you are,” Erlebach said. “Over here is it just based on running and punting the ball and where I am from it is a lot more about tactics and playing.”
Gartner grew up playing soccer in Germany, so he has an understanding for each county’s different ideas of soccer and works with these differences on his team.
“It is a cultural thing, really. Soccer really expresses the culture the people come from, which is why I try to have diversity on our team,” Gartner said.
Much like Erlebach and Sesay, Gartner found the shortness of the college soccer season and an emphasis on physical speed rather than technical ability frustrating.
“The problem is this is college soccer and no one in the world has college soccer because the season is only three months including preparation,” Gartner said. “Being that this is a team sport, it doesn’t allow much time to form a team and it makes the soccer team unusually wild.”
College soccer also uses different rules compared to other soccer leagues in the world. Teams substitute in as many players needed throughout the game. Internationally, teams can substitute three times during the game, and they often only use two, Gartner said.
“This unlimited substitution changes the game dramatically. Here you have people in and out, and it doesn’t foster a controlled game, which I don’t like,” Gartner said. “It takes away the creativity and skill from the player. If a player is skillful and wants to play 90 minutes, but the other team is putting new guys in every few minute, then the game becomes to high pace.”
Regardless of the different styles in each player’s game, both Sesay and Erlebach are grateful for the education and ability to play soccer in the United States.
“It is great here. I like it because everything is organized and everything has a systematical step, and because education is the most important thing here,” Sesay said. “Back home my teammates are praising me for getting an education. People are writing about me and saying, ‘He is in school and playing soccer. That is how it is suppose to be.’”