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Welcome to the Cage
by Leif Reigstad
Lackawanna’s Yemeni community is bound together by culture, by religion, by interdependence—and by soccer
A man in a red shirt is re-painting the lines an hour before the game is supposed to start at Yemen Soccer Field in Lackawanna’s First Ward, a sunken enclave apart from the rest of the city—past the manicured green landscape of the Botanical Gardens and the white marble Basilica, past the women in black burkas pushing their small children in strollers across an American-flag-lined bridge as trains rumble through the rail yard below. Sloping side streets take you into the heart of the First Ward, the poorest census tract in Erie County outside of Buffalo. There are small white houses with chipping paint and narrow front lawns. A red brick apartment complex stands a few floors high, its buildings spanning an entire block. Gaping empty lots, green and overgrown, dot the neighborhood.
There is also a mosque, the largest one in Western New York. It serves a population of about 3,000 Yemeni immigrants, caretakers of the First Ward since coming over in the 1960s and 1970s, fleeing a civil war and hoping to work in the city’s steel mills, back when industry was a driving force of the region’s economy.
Now the steel mills are gone and the First Ward, like the rest of the city and region, has struggled. For second and third generation immigrants in the First Ward, opportunities are few and far between. The street life sucks in those who can’t escape.
The man in the red shirt, done painting now, turns to put the line striper back into his van. On the back of his red shirt, in bold white lettering, all caps: “COACH.” The coach is Abdul Noman. But to the First Ward, Noman is more than a coach. He’s also the founder of the Yemen Soccer Club and a city councilman—the first ever Yemeni-American to hold office anywhere in the United States. Everyone in the First Ward looks up to Noman. Including Faress Saleh, 37, who took over for Noman as director of the Yemen Soccer Club a few years ago.
Born in Lackawanna to immigrant parents, Faress lives across the street from the field on Lehigh Avenue in the house he grew up in, a white, two-story, single-family home. A yellow fire hydrant sits just outside a chain link fence enclosing the front yard. There’s a driveway that leads to an attached garage, and a large maple tree covers the house and yard in shade. Faress jokes about cutting down the tree for a better view of the games, if his wife would only let him. Last year, he bought a hundred soccer balls with the club logo on them. If he sees a kid wandering around on the soccer field with nothing to do, he’ll pump a ball up with air and toss it to the kid.
A youth game, 17 years old and under, is set to start in about a half-hour. Faress is sitting on the sideline of the field on a wooden bench. He watches as a few young children kick a ball around on the dry field, their bikes leaning against a 12-foot high, aqua-colored fence behind him that stretches the length of the field. The fence, rusted at the tips and only a few feet away from the sideline, is an architectural feature unique to this First Ward soccer field. Other area soccer programs play in suburban parks so extensive that they have to designate each field with a number, one of five or eight or 12. Here there is only one field, and it has a name, not a number.
The Cage—they call it that because of the fence—is where the industrial and residential meet. On the south end, behind a chain link fence covered with plastic slats, is a junkyard. On that fence, spray-painted in white: “SAY NO TO DRUGS.” It’s been on there for at least 10 years. No one seems to know who wrote it. Heading east, adjacent to the main field, there is a tree and a playground and a smaller field with a handful of white frame soccer nets strewn about, a large railroad past that, and a long mound of dirt in between, intended to to buffer the neighboring homes from rattling train cars and their screeching whistles.
Across the field, in between the aqua colored fence and Lehigh Avenue, there is an American flag and a square, green sign made of thin metal that says “YEMEN SOCCER FIELD” in blocky white lettering, first in Arabic script and then once again, right below, in English. A woman walks down the street, passing the sign. There is no sidewalk, just a narrow curb, a foot of grass, and then the fence. She is wearing a dark blue burka and moves slowly, her long, black, shapeless robe billowing in the soft wind.
The Under-17 players start to trickle in, walking or riding bikes. Their youth jerseys have thick red and black vertical stripes. Over the right breast is the jersey number. On the left, just below the heart, is the new Yemen Soccer Club logo. Below that there is a block of white, like a license plate. On it, Arabic script and another Yemen Soccer Club logo in thin black lettering.
The white plate was Noman’s idea. Even though he isn’t director anymore, the Yemen Soccer Club is his life, and he still does everything he can for it. He’s at the Cage every day, painting lines and planting corner flags, his sun-worn face squinting in the warm afternoon light. He was out there the weekend before for six hours, cutting the grass with his own riding lawnmower because it rained that day and the city doesn’t cut the grass when it rains. Sometimes when it rains hard he’s out there in the six-yard box with a shovel and a bucket, scooping up the water pooling in the pressed earth worn down by decades of pounding cleats.
Noman wanted the white plate on the jersey so each player would remember who he is and where he came from, no matter how far removed his generation is from Yemen’s fertile highlands and dry, golden deserts. The plate proudly states that even here, as far away as Lackawanna, the Yemeni culture is strong.
“I think it’s ugly,” Faress says, motioning a player to come over and show off his uniform with the white plate. “But it shows kids that this program was started by people who were immigrants that came from Yemen. And we can’t lose that identity. A lot of these kids, they look at their uniforms and probably think it’s just a big white plate on their shirt. But when you truly look at it and read it, there’s a lot of history to it.”
Faress—bald, with dark deep-set eyes and a tidy beard on his dark, round face—looks out at the field, its green grass neatly trimmed and rippling in the warm summer breeze. “A lot of these kids, they need a place to go after school, and instead of playing video games or doing bad stuff, they come here, and they’re proud of it,” he says. “This field is our life. People ask me would I rather live anywhere else but here? And I say no.”
Noman remembers the date: November 16. He also remembers it was cold, and, he remembers, a few weeks later, in December, it snowed. Noman had never seen snow in Yemen, where the temperature hovered around 90 degrees and rarely dipped below 75. But he wasn’t in Yemen anymore. Noman remembers it with a smile, that first day in the bitter Buffalo winter. He’s gotten used to it since then. “In Yemen, we only had two seasons,” Noman says. “Summer and probably fall. It was a big change.” It took him a while to adapt to it—just the weather, never mind the language, the houses made of wood, and the yellow lights illuminating the streets of the First Ward at night.
In the middle of November 1975, Noman, then 15, left his single-family home in Aden, a city in southern Yemen on the Arabian Sea. Made of gray stone cut like bricks (“Yemen has a lot of rocks,” Noman says), the house in Aden had five bedrooms that held nine children: Noman, his five brothers, and three sisters.
He brought with him clothes, a few cassette tapes of Arabic music, and the Quran.
Noman found the First Ward already flush with Yemeni immigrants. They flocked to the mosque five times a day and met at vacant lots to play soccer—this was before the Cage. They’d left Yemen, then a divided country, north and south, neither half particularly stable or wealthy after declaring independence in 1967 from Britain, when the world superpower gave the Yemenis their freedom but left them with little else, certainly not enough structure or resources to build a strong nation. So Yemenis left and came here, looking for opportunity, and the adults found it in the steel mills, and the children found it in the schools, and the families found it in a thriving community where everyone helps each other.
The steel mills flourished, spewing black smoke into the air that turned the snow golden-brown. The Yemeni immigrants kept coming. They had children here. They practiced their faith. They played soccer and built the Cage. But there was only one organized team, playing in a city league, and it was for adults only. Noman wanted that to change, so he met with the older guys on the team. “We need to have a backup,” he said. “You guys are getting old, and we need to start getting younger.” But there was more to Noman’s plan than that. He saw soccer as something that could keep the Yemeni heritage alive in the First Ward. “We can teach the younger generation to play soccer, and that will keep us under one umbrella: our culture, our religion, our language,” Noman said. “We all come from one place.”
So the Yemen Soccer Club was born. Now, it has youth teams from ages five to 19, and two men’s teams. For those who don’t make the cut, there are house leagues. They hold tournaments at the Cage, bringing in teams from other Yemeni populations from Michigan and Canada, setting up a large grill to barbeque for the massive crowds of players and fans, there to celebrate the cultural identity that makes them so unique.
Today Yemen is playing a team from Youngstown, where the houses are bigger and the lawns are greener and the supermarkets don’t sell halal meat. Their fans are mostly parents of players, their foldout lawn chairs forming a neat row opposite the Youngstown bench. Some wear sunglasses, others, white fisherman hats. They golf-clap after a scoring chance and make hushed comments: “Oh my, that was a hard tackle. That looked like a foul to me…did it look like a foul to you?”
Most of Youngstown’s games this summer have been close. But then they come to the Cage and within eight minutes Yemen has a three-goal lead. Car horns honk after each goal from the dozen or so Yemen fans parked along the street.
A few blocks from the field is the clubhouse, on a corner with a gravel parking lot in the back. Metal stairs, like a fire escape, lead to the main entrance on the second floor of the square, brick building that used to be a nightclub before Noman purchased it in 2002. Inside there are computers, couches, and a long kitchen counter covered with trophies and plaques. There is a flat-screen TV and a place to play table tennis and air hockey. Hanging on the walls are old Yemen jerseys, a timeline of the club’s history in colorful shirts with faded stripes and floppy collars. Faress’s Under-17 jersey is up there. For the past few days he has been assembling a trophy case with the help of his friend, Abdul Zaid, a counselor at Lackawanna High School. They’re also planning on putting a small logo in the middle of the beige-tiled linoleum floor. Since Yemen bought the building, it’s been in a constant state of renovation, but that doesn’t stop kids from coming through. They get free lunches and pizza parties almost every day in the summer. As many as 50 children use the club on weekends alone. If they aren’t playing pick-up at the Cage, they are usually here.
But right now, on a Wednesday evening, the club is empty. Everyone is at the Cage for the Under-17 game. About a dozen kids are using the little nets on the smaller field, arguing over ground rules and every once in a while knocking a ball onto the main field, the ref stopping play for a moment as a kid chases the loose ball down and runs back to his friends, but not before getting a stern warning from the Yemen coach. The crowd is filling in, about 35 or 40 now, a little light a game at the Cage but still enough to ensure there is no elbow-room on the sidelines.
Abdul, who plays for Yemen United (one of the club’s men’s teams), joins Faress on the bench. Wearing a light blue Italian soccer jersey and shorts, he tells Faress he’s ready to play a pickup game as soon as this one ends. Meanwhile, in the Under-17 game, the ball rolls and stops right in front of the net in a beaten-down patch of pale, sunbaked mud, and two or three Yemen players swarm to the ball and one of them knocks it into the net before the goalkeeper can get to it. Fans shout. Horns honk. The church bells from the Basilica happen to ring in the distance. Next to Abdul is an older man with white, close-cropped hair and dark, sun-tanned skin. Abdul turns to the man, says something in Arabic, the man nods his head silently, and Abdul returns to his conversation with Faress in English. “There’s an international feel to [the games here],” Faress says. “It’s a very electric atmosphere when the team is doing really good.”
“Each game here is like an event,” Abdul says, as fans keep streaming in, shaking each person’s hand as they pass. “And everybody here knows everyone. We all get along.”
Walking towards Abdul is a thin man wearing a white and black striped soccer jersey. That’s Admir. He came to the First Ward about 14 years ago when war ripped apart his native Bosnia. He’s the captain of Yemen United, and right now, he’s standing a little too close to the sideline and the ref is telling him to move.
“You’re such an experienced referee, I thought you could see through me!” Admir says with a thick Eastern European accent and a raspy laugh. Admir takes a step back from the field and the ref jogs past, his black whistle protruding from a toothy grin. You can tell the ref’s been here before. He’s probably had this conversation before, too—possibly even with Admir. “Everybody here knows everyone. We all get along.” Might as well include the ref.
In the 1970s and 1980s, steel producers began to go bankrupt, shutting their factories one by one, leaving acres of industrial park abandoned along the Lake Erie waterfront. Each plant closing hit Lackawanna’s residents a little harder.
Poverty set in, and with it came drugs and crime. Other than the Yemen Soccer Club, there were few organizations in the First Ward aimed at helping youth. There was the Friendship House, a community center on the outskirts of the First Ward, but then that closed following a sexual harassment lawsuit. Now it’s abandoned—boarded-up windows and graffiti and the letters falling off the sign. It’s almost unrecognizable.
The soccer club, which relied on donations from the community, didn’t have a whole lot of resources to work with. They couldn’t help every kid in the First Ward. And if a kid didn’t like soccer, didn’t want to play at all, then there was really nothing Noman and his staff could do. Faress remembers a neighborhood friend who didn’t like soccer. His friend didn’t have any help and made some bad choices, and when Faress was graduating from college with a bachelor’s in manufacturing engineering, his friend was just finishing a lengthy sentence in prison.
The Yemenis are resilient people. They could handle a rough economy—it was still better here than it was in Yemen. In Yemen, most of them were merchants, masters of selling things from storefronts or in markets. They adapted quickly, opening up corner stores in the First Ward and in Buffalo. Sons and daughters went to school to become pharmacists, teachers and nurses while their parents manned the store. Plus, Noman says, since the steel plants left the snow doesn’t have that unnatural, golden-brown hue anymore.
Then, 19 Arabic men who called themselves Muslims hijacked two planes and used them to turn the World Trade Center into dust.
Suddenly, the things that gave the First Ward such a unique cultural identity—the women wearing burkas; the mosque and the Islamic Variety Market with the storefront in the white, wood-frame house next door; the Yemenite community so closely knit together, where everyone has each other’s back—marked the First Ward as a place to keep under tight surveillance.
Then the FBI came to arrest the Lackawanna Six, driving black jeeps and wearing flak jackets and carrying shotguns. The First Ward looked like a warzone, and the post-9/11 paranoia peaked in Western New York: People thought the Lackawanna Six were terrorists, and so wondered whether the place that raised them might have raised more terrorists, sleeper cells, recruiting in mosques.
So when their kids play against a Yemen team, and the Yemen team plays physical, plays hard, sometimes too hard, they say things to the Yemen players that shouldn’t be said, and they keep saying them, and it builds up and builds up, and it hurts, especially the youth players, and so the Yemen coaches hold meetings at practices and in pre-game huddles about how to cope with racism, about not retaliating, and that helps, but only a little. Then the league steps in, reaffirming its strong stance against any racial and religious taunting, and that helps, too, but the taunts keep coming, maybe spilling into the parking lot after the game, and again during the next game, and the men’s league refs decide that the Yemen fans at the Cage are too rowdy, and the play on the field too physical, and a ref makes a call against a Yemen player in a tight game, and the player, furious and frustrated, raises his hand to strike the ref, and he may have struck him, or maybe he didn’t, but the hand was certainly raised and that motion was enough for the league to impose a ban on the Yemen men’s team
And then on Sunday afternoons in the summer, when the men’s team used to play in front of hundreds of First Ward fans, there were no games, no fans, and the Cage was quiet and empty for two long years.
“Hey, man, if you wanna play the sport, you gotta go places,” Faress tells the man parked across from him at the Cage.
It’s 6:30 on a Thursday evening in June. Faress, wearing a black hat, black polo shirt—each with the Yemen Soccer Club logo—and black pants, sits in the driver seat of a large black van, with the Yemen Soccer Club logo printed in white on the side. Hanging from the rearview mirror is an air freshener. Next to it dangles a brown, circular trinket with a Quranic verse written in Arabic script, which serves as a constant reminder for Faress of his Muslim faith. Faith and supporting his seven-person family are perhaps the only things he prioritizes above soccer.
Faress is waiting for a few more players before driving to Lewiston-Porter High School. Yemen Elite have a night game on the school’s turf field, a Tehel Cup match against the BSC Raiders, who are currently in first place of the top division in the Buffalo District Soccer League. This is a big game for Yemen Elite and Faress is still trying to recruit a few more fans to make the long trip. It’s a hard sell. The man in the black jeep rubs his chin and looks at Faress, shaking his head. “That’s a hike, man. I don’t know. That’s a hike.” Faress says some fans are already down there, barbequing at nearby Fort Niagara. He’s hoping more will show up.
As he is talking, the Under-17 team is about to kick off at the Cage. A Yemen player jogs over from the field to the driver-side window of Faress’s van. Faress sends him back with one of the new white soccer balls emblazoned with the club logo. “That’s the game ball. Make sure I get it back after the game,” he says.
The parking lot is full. A black SUV is parked in the lot with its back facing the field and the trunk popped. Two men sit inside with pillows, plaid blankets, and a big, silver coffee pot, watching the game. More fans are making their way from the parking lot over to the field.
Sitting next to Faress in the front is Ayman Elsayegh, the only Egyptian on the team. Ayman, 19 years old and fiddling with his iPhone, has his uniform on, with the Egyptian flag stitched onto the left sleeve of his black jersey. Every player has the flag of his country stitched onto his jersey. Most have the Yemeni flag—three horizontal stripes; red on top, white in the middle, and black on the bottom. One player is from Ghana—red, yellow, green, with a black star in the middle. Another, from Nigeria—green, white, green. A pair of brothers from Afghanistan—three vertical stripes; black, red and green, with the national emblem of Afghanistan in white over the red stripe in the center. The goalie, Semir, is Bosnian—dark blue with white stars cutting diagonally across, then a yellow triangle and more blue. A few players wear the red, white, and blue of the United States. On a blue patch underneath each flag, stitched in white lettering, is the word “RESPECT.”
Faress is telling Ayman that Admir appealed his suspension and had it reduced from four games to three. Admir got a red card last game for cursing after an opponent made fun of his accent. After the game the league sent out a memo. There is a new “no tolerance” policy in place for cursing. Any cursing heard is an automatic card. Two yellow cards in a game equal a red card, for which the player is ejected from the game and gets a suspension. Faress thinks it’s harsh. “But I don’t tolerate any yellow cards on my team,” he says. It’s part of his effort to change the reputation of Yemen teams. “We’ve been looked at as being—I’m not going to say goons, but…what’s the word. Too aggressive, too physical. We play hard.”
Last year, in his first season as manager of Yemen Elite, Faress went out to other immigrant communities in Buffalo looking to recruit players with skill rather than brute strength. “I want this program to become more of a skilled program, where the kids can look up to the men’s division and say, ‘Wow, this is a skilled team, I want to play for that team,’” Faress says.
This summer, Yemen Elite is hanging around the top four teams of the Championship division, one division below the BDSL’s top Premier division but still extremely competitive and filled with talented teams and players. A victory over the Raiders in the quarterfinals of the Tehel Cup would be huge, but it will not come easy. The Raiders are historically one of the BDSL’s finest teams and are undefeated this season. Many of their players have experience playing at Division I programs like SUNY Buffalo, Bowling Green, and West Virginia. Rumor has it last week the Raiders played short, with only nine players instead of the usual 11 plus substitutes, and still won easily. Yemen has never beaten the Raiders.
Another player arrives, tosses his soccer bag in the back seat, hops in, and shuts the van door behind him. “Okay, is this everyone?” Faress says. No objections. He pulls away from the curb and heads down the narrow side street, now lined with parked cars, slowly weaving through the fans making their way to the Cage.
The van and its cargo of 11 people—Faress, players, and a few young fans sitting in the way back—exits the First Ward on the way to Lewiston. It passes the massive grain elevators on the waterfront. It passes downtown Buffalo. Then the van approaches a tollbooth. Faress pulls up to the window. A woman, maybe 40 or 45 years old, with strawberry blonde hair and a freckled face, sits inside.
Faress, in a joking mood, turns to the woman and puts his hands up in mock surrender, saying: “We’re all US citizens!” The players sitting in the back erupt with laughter. The woman looks confused at first, then, smiling, says: “Oh, I don’t care.” Faress, a sly smile creeping across his own face, gives her a dollar for the toll and pulls away. “Now we’re flagged!” he says, before doing his best impression of a radio dispatcher. “Uh, yes, we’ve got a black van, headed across the bridge…”
The GPS leads Faress further down the highway. “This field better be worth it,” he says. “This is a long drive.” Some of the passengers seldom travel this far from the First Ward. For them, sights ubiquitous in suburbia are unknown. Someone sitting in the backseat looks out the window at the smooth, clean grass covering a large landfill.
“Is that a hill?”
“Man, you ever see hills like that, that just keep going? No, man, it’s a garbage dump!”
“So they just put grass on that? On top of garbage?”
Now the van is driving down a stretch on Lewiston Road along the Niagara escarpment. It is a steep descent and the view stretches for miles over the green, seemingly unending landscape down and to the left, where the houses look like miniature models and the trees are still and look like small bushes. There is the faint skyline of Toronto, its skyscrapers dark and cloudy and just barely distinguishable across the distant horizon. The First Warders in the backseat stare in awe at the sight so different from the comparatively cramped confines of their own community. “I’ve never seen such a beautiful part of New York,” someone says.
It is a long drive, almost an hour. They turn onto the road leading to the high school soccer field. The road is wide and the houses sit far back from the street. The front lawns, dark green and immaculate, are big enough to fit three First Ward homes. In the backseat, the young fans press their excited faces against the window, looking out.
“Everybody cuts their grass here.”
“Yeah, or they get it cut for them.”
“This is nice, man. Open road.”
After the ban was lifted and the men’s team was able to play again, a few quiet years passed. There were no more incidents on the field. In fact, after the ban, the Yemen men’s teams were among the least-carded teams in the BDSL. Still, Yemen could not shed the reputation it had gained during that bad period. When opposing fans and teams came to the Cage, they expected the worst but seldom found it—not that it mattered, the damage was already done. Worse still, the men’s teams were struggling, failing to finish higher than the middle of the pack in the standings, sometimes falling as low as last place. Fan support dwindled.
Faress took over as manager of Yemen’s top men’s team in 2011, renaming it Yemen Elite, with the idea of making the team into just that—elite. While most coaches in the Yemen Soccer Club were volunteers, Faress got a coaching certification, and he held tryouts—the first time ever for a Yemen men’s team. About 50 players showed up at the Cage, many of them good friends of Faress, like Abdul and Admir. But he cut most of them, even his friends, because he wanted to build the club, and to do that he could keep only the most talented players. He recruited players from outside the First Ward who shared Yemen’s passion for soccer, and who brought to the team the type of skill and poise that it lacked before. He paid their way, covering each individual’s $130 league fee with his own hard-earned money. He cultivated close relationships with other managers in the BDSL, and, before each home game, Faress made sure to designate one or two friends at the Cage to keep the crowd in check. “Let me coach my game,” he would tell them. “You do crowd control.”
The first player Faress recruited from outside the First Ward was Mateo Escobar, a Syracuse native who played Division I soccer at UB. According to his profile on the UB athletics website, he majored in anthropology—the study of different cultures. He also likes to play the Native American flute, and his favorite food is lomito, a steak sandwich popular in Argentina and Chile.
Escobar was a coach for Black Watch Premier, one of the top soccer clubs in the state. A friend of Faress had a son who played for an Under-12 Black Watch team Escobar coached, and invited Escobar to play with the Yemen team during its winter indoor season in 2011 at Sahlen’s Sports Park in Elma. Faress didn’t know what to expect from Escobar. He didn’t know if he would be the right fit—at least, until he saw him play. Then he knew right away.
“When Mateo stepped onto the field for us for the first time, he caught all of us by surprise,” Faress said. “He had so much skill and finesse he literally made our mouths drop.” During that indoor session, the Yemen team scored a record number of goals, with Escobar leading the way—not only scoring on his own, but also creating chances for his teammates. Some games were as lopsided as 17-3.
Escobar’s impact was immediate that summer, helping Yemen Elite to a solid six wins and two losses in the BDSL. Meanwhile, off the field, Escobar started a youth soccer program with his fiancée called Westside International Soccer that serves the large refugee population living in Buffalo’s West Side. Mateo is, to Faress, the ideal person and player he wants to see come through the Yemen Soccer Club.
“Every player on the team loves and respects him,” Faress says. “He never disrespects any of them and he’s always the first to defend them. I feel when he is on the field, he is my ‘X factor.’”
It’s dark now, except at the Lewiston Porter high school soccer field, where the lights are on and it’s halftime. “You guys got a feel for them, then you started pressing, which I like,” Faress says excitedly, standing with his hands on his hips in front of his players as they sit on the bench, drinking water and resting up. Yemen Elite trail the Raiders, 1-0. It’s an intense game.
“We’ll be fine,” Mateo adds, his voice soft and calm, yet confident—the voice of a leader. “Don’t worry.”
For most of the first half, Yemen’s bench players stood up or sat on the edge of the metal bench, watching nervously as the Raiders controlled possession, keeping the ball close with tight, crisp, one-touch passes. About 30 fans made the trip from the First Ward, setting themselves up inches from the. Admir is there, and so is Abdul.
There are grandstand bleachers, about 10 rows deep, and there’s a red, eight-lane track in between the field and the stands—much too far away for Yemen fans accustomed to closeness of the Cage. So instead, they turn this place into the Cage, and set themselves up right along the sideline, yelling and screaming and filling the still air with noise on an otherwise quiet summer night at this rural field, with lights atop wooden poles, and nothing around it but grass and trees.
The Yemen fans are the only fans, so it at least sounds like a home game for Faress and Yemen Elite. But they were too close, too loud, yelling right into the ears of the players.
“Take him! Take him!”
“Make that last play count!”
Faress, frustrated, tells them to calm down. “Let them play their game!” Soon after, he speaks to Abdul and another fan. Crowd control.
“Guys, let’s go up to the bleachers,” Abdul says, and they do. A few stragglers stayed on the sideline. But at halftime, they disappeared. The bleachers were empty, too.
There they are, over by the scoreboard, behind the net. Praying. Their shoes are off and they are kneeling, in two rows of seven, with one person leading, in front. It is much quieter now. They bend down and kiss the turf, wearing soccer jerseys—Ronaldo and Bayern Munich and Italy—with khaki shorts, and red, mesh basketball shorts. Soft rock music plays from somewhere far away, from a car with its trunk popped or the backyard of a nearby house. The whistle blows, shrill and piercing the silent night, and they are still praying when the second half starts.
After a few more minutes they get up and slowly walk back, still quiet. One of them comes over to Faress and taps him on the shoulder, and he and a few other players walk over to pray. But after he is done praying, something happens on the field. A Yemen player slides in awkwardly to make a tackle, taking down one of the Raiders. The ref jogs over, holds up a yellow card, puts it back in his shirt pocket, reaches in there for something else, and pulls out a red card, holding it up high in the night sky. The player is done for the day, ejected from the game, and Yemen must play a man down. The players are frustrated and the fans are getting upset.
“You guys need to keep your composure!” Faress yells, trying not to swear, mindful of the new league policy. He can’t afford another card—not just for the game, but for the club’s reputation, too, not after working so hard to repair it.
Just when the game seems to be slipping away, a Yemen player dribbles down the sideline and passes a bouncing ball across the middle of the field to Mateo, who strikes it on the volley. He rips it right into a crowd of players—it deflects off of someone at the edge the 18-yard box and takes a wicked turn, landing softly in the top left corner of the net like it was dropped there out of the sky. A shorthanded goal to tie the game, from Mateo—the maestro, the leader—the man Faress handpicked to rejuvenate the team and the club and the First Ward.
The crowd and the bench explode. “Holy shit!” Faress yells, and, hands on his head, walks in a circle around the bench, in a fit of manic joy and disbelief. The crowd is on its feet now, and loud. Chants of “Let’s go Yemen!” turn into a frenzied song of “Hey-oh! Hey-oh! Hey-oh!” and they stomp their feet on the bleachers. Just like that, Yemen Elite is back in the game. “You see!” Faress says. “They’re not invincible!”
But then, a little later, there’s a scrum in front of Yemen’s net, and the ball bangs around off of feet and shins and into the net, past Semir, the Bosnian goalie, who promptly goes nuts, screaming at the ref, having to be held back by another Yemen player. “Every fucking year!” he says. From his point of view, there was a clear handball in the box, and the goal should not have counted. But it did.
“Where’d you get your license, ref?” Admir yells from the stands. “Chuck-E-Cheese?”
“I can’t believe we’re losing our cool after one goal,” Faress says, and shortly after, Mateo ties the game with a low, curling free kick from about 30 yards out, and the chants come back: “Mateo! Mateo!”
There is under a minute left in the game, and Yemen is hanging on. Before the game, Faress said he thought Elite’s best chance to win would be to keep it even and then get to a penalty kick shootout, where anything can happen. They were close. But it wasn’t to be.
A Raiders player receives a pass cleanly, breaking through the Yemen defense in a few long, fluid strides, and coldly puts the ball away, out of Semir’s reach and into the back of the net. Now, past the 90th minute of the game, in stoppage time, it was up to the referee how much longer the game would go.
“He’s gonna call it, he’s gonna call the game now, I know it,” Faress says, nervously packing the balls away in the bag near the bench. “He was just waiting for them to score. I know it.” The ref blows his whistle. The game is over. The fans start to clap. “Great game, you guys played great.” Admir lost his voice yelling.
The ride back in the van is quiet, but not somber. Faress and his players know they played well, and scoring two goals when down a man against a very good team is something to be proud of. That’s what he’ll tell the fans back home that couldn’t make the trip. “I probably have six missed calls, 10 or 15 text messages waiting for me,” Faress says.
They go back up the escarpment, the view now in pitch darkness except for the streetlights, just pinholes poked in a black sheet of construction paper held up in front of a flashlight. Faress says that was the first time all season the Raiders brought their full squad. “They pick the best players,” he said. “They go shopping.”
So does Faress—just at a different type of store. The Raiders’ coach gets his players from the top clubs and programs in the area, from Division I schools and suburban turf fields. Faress searches the halal markets, the corner stores, and the vacant lots where kids play pickup.
The van passes downtown Buffalo and the grain elevators on the waterfront, down into the narrow, dark, bumpy streets of the First Ward, past the red brick housing projects where people sit outside in the courtyard in white plastic lawn chairs and low, dull chatter rises up, bass booming in the distance and a car alarm blaring somewhere else. Faress turns the corner, stopping to drop someone off at a small, white house with no front lawn. In the next two months, Yemen Elite tears through its schedule, finishing second in the league. On August 10, the team beats the top-finishing Amherst Sharpshooters, 2-0, to win the BDSL championship.
But that’s two months away. Now, Taha Omar, one of older players on the team, is sitting in the front passenger seat next to Faress. “Nothing better than being home,” he says softly.
“Ain’t it?” Faress says. “Home sweet home.”blog comments powered by Disqus
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