COLUMN: Local and international sports bring us together


Rob Le Cates

Nicholas Bays is a fifth year sports media relations major and can be reached at 217-581-2812.

Nick Bays, Sports Columnist

 Two men walk into the Charleston Dunkin’ Donuts. One of them is a born-and-raised “towny” of Charleston while the other is a man from the Ivory Coast who works and lives here. The two do not meet up to talk about their different countries, politics, or even their choices in coffee. No. One thing brings them together: football (or soccer, whatever you want to call it).

Originally, I met with a man named Ali Aminlin to discuss the EIU Pick Up Soccer Facebook group. This group that provides local community members a chance to get together and kick a ball around and engage in a fun, commonly shared interest. 

I first interacted with this group about a year ago when I was looking for local places to talk about soccer, play soccer, etc. I went on Facebook to see if I’d have any luck and sure enough, when I typed in, “Soccer EIU,” I found this group.

And how lucky I was.

When my schedule permitted, I would go play pick-up soccer with members of the group. Well, I stood on the field while everyone dribbled circles around me and scored on the goal I was supposed to be covering.

But I didn’t care. This group was fun, and everyone was so kind. This towny who hadn’t kicked a soccer ball in 15 years and had no idea what he was doing was allowed to come on and play with individuals who had been playing since they could walk.

“It started like this,” said Aminlin, the man in charge of the group. “You invite one friend to invite another friend and another friend.”

And that’s how the group blossomed. From its inception of providing a space to international students, the group now has, as of Nov. 27, 517 Facebook members.

“And then international students, most of them from everywhere,” said Aminlin. “We love soccer as one.”

When asked about how many countries are present at any given game, Aminlin said that one can expect to see at least five different countries represented with many players coming from Ghana and Nigeria. Picture that: in corn country in the heart of the Midwest, people of various nations coming together to play a game.

It was this aspect of the group I found fascinating. The way it brought so many people together regardless of who they were and where they’re from. I thought it was beautiful. And admittedly we did chat about this for quite some time. That’s when it hit me: yes, we were brought together from the soccer pick-up group. However, what truly brought us together was for our love and passion for the game.

For me, that love started two and a half years ago when the pandemic first hit. While I was waiting for most of the traditional American sports to resume, I noticed that soccer leagues in Europe were still playing. So, I asked a buddy of mine what team I should follow (FC Bayern München by the way), and I started watching. 

And I didn’t stop.

I fell in love with the game for it gave me a space that I needed during a dark chapter in my life and the lives of others. For Aminlin, he’s been a fan his whole life.

“Back home (in the Ivory Coast), we played on the road,” said Aminlin. “We used to play there when I was a kid. We put two rocks together as nets and we played. We enjoyed it.”

From here, we both began talking about our favorite players, who the next up-and-coming international teams were, and so on. Aminlin described the brilliance of Ronaldinho’s technical ability and why he roots for FC Barcelona. For an hour and a half, we both poured our hearts out about this game we had come to know and love. I realized as I took another swig from my cup that had it not been for the game of soccer itself, I would never be sitting down talking to this man who was born on another continent halfway across the world.

Had it never been for people coming together to celebrate their joy for this sport, I would never have had the chance to talk with this guy about how I believe Ousmane Dembélé is one of the best players in the world when he’s healthy and the US Men’s National Team.

This soccer group brought us together to have this amazing afternoon chat. And it’s the love of the game that brought people out to the group to play and get to know each other in the first place.

This story was written while the FIFA World Cup was being held in late 2022. How fitting. A tournament where peoples of various nations come together to play or watch the game they know and love and meet others who, while coming from their own origins with their own stories to tell, join in celebration of the game of soccer.

As Barney Corkhill of Bleacher Report wrote in 2008, “When Pele, the king of football, described the game as, ‘jogo bonito,’ meaning, ‘the beautiful game,’ men, women, and children around the world nodded in satisfactory agreement. Finally a phrase had been uttered to do football (soccer) justice.”

From the packed stadiums in the UEFA Champions League Finals and the bustling streets full of pride in the FIFA World Cup to the field house at Eastern Illinois where armatures and former ballers come together to pass the time, soccer brings people together in a way that is truly unmatched. 

Jogo bonito. It truly is a beautiful game.

Nick Bays is a senior sports media relations major. He can be reached at [email protected] or at 581-2812.