As far back as I can remember soccer has always been a huge part of my life. I started playing in elementary school and since then I have rarely gone a day without having a ball at my feet. In addition to providing me with a good source of exercise and a well needed outlet for my surplus of energy, soccer has also been one of, if not the, most important social tool in my personal life. My best friends throughout high school were my teammates and they still represent the majority of people I keep in contact with from my hometown. Soccer was an even bigger part of my life in college. Playing on the varsity team for all four years, soccer related activities undoubtedly took up most of my free time and nearly all my time (excluding academics, of course!).
Apart from a few week or two week long trips here and there, I have spent my entire life in the United States, where soccer is nowhere close to being as popular as football, baseball, or basketball. Now, living in Israel, I am finally surrounded by my fellow soccer fans. Instead of asking a bartender or waiter if it’s possible to switch from baseball to soccer, I will enter a bar or restaurant, and it will already be filled with rambunctious fans.
Being able to watch soccer has been awesome, but the only thing better than watching soccer is playing soccer. I had many concerns this summer before embarking on this adventure; many of them were also probably shared by my fellow Yahelnikim, such as speaking Hebrew and making friends in the community. But my biggest concerns was whether I was going to be able to play soccer. Looking back on it, I was a fool to worry about that. Within my first few weeks here, I was able to find pick up game as easily as a falafel place. However, it wasn’t long before I started to miss organized soccer and the feeling of being part of a team.
The author, Ethan, with his team jersey
I was fortunate enough that this year’s local coordinator for our program, Miko, plays on (and his older brother coaches) the local team Gedera soccer team that plays in the Ethiopian Israeli Soccer League, the Gedera Eagles. I joined the team a few months ago, and it has been awesome. We have practice once a week and a game every weekend. In addition to providing me with organized soccer and good competition, my teammates have also become my best friends in the community. I often watch big games with them at the local bar and hang out with them during my free time. The language barrier has been tough, but they have undoubtedly helped my Hebrew improve and I hope that I have helped them with their English. I was quickly forced to learn some essential Hebrew vocabulary: left and right, forward and backward, shoot and pass, and “what the heck was that?!”
Playing on this team, although it has been loads of fun, has also been very difficult at times. There are some big differences from my old teams, the most noticeable being that we don’t play on a grass field. The field is not even a field at all; it’s an asphalt basketball court with small goals at each baseline. This changes the game significantly because there is much less space and time and more bounce. There are also half as many people playing during games than I’m used to.
Playing on this team has also forced me to quickly adapt to certain elements of Ethiopian Israeli culture. I was told on a Thursday that we had practice the next day at 3:00. So on Friday I showed up at 3:00 on the dot only to find none of teammates anywhere in sight. I called Miko, our local coordinator, who told me that 3:00 is usually just a target time. People started showing up around 3:15 and we finally started warming up around 3:30. Although I am still usually the first one to arrive, I no longer rush if I am running a little late.
I have been fortunate enough to be able to incorporate an important part of my life back home into a completely new and foreign community that I am now a part of. It has also presented me with a way to make a deeper connection with my new neighbors and friends. I am very thankful that they have allowed me to play alongside of them and being a part of this team has undoubtedly strengthened my relationship with this community.