Soccer is often referred to as the beautiful game, because of the grace and skill some of the sport’s finest athletes show when they play. Another reason for its beauty is its diversity. It’s a universal sport that is embraced by the world. The culture and style of play changes from country to country. It brings people together regardless of their nationality and background.
That has been the case for the Charlotte Independence.
The franchise’s 21-man roster includes players that speak five languages and who are from nine countries on five continents.
“It is interesting how players, based on clubs they’ve trained with or areas of the world they’ve grown up in, all have different styles and slightly different philosophies,” coach Mike Jeffries said.
Players from Spain often had more of a technical upbringing, while guys from Cameroon had a greater emphasis on athleticism.
Jeffries said the language barrier occasionally arises when he might need to explain something. Fortunately for him and the rest of the team, all of the players have been playing soccer at a high level for some time, so they are often able to figure things out by reading the game. Goalkeeper Kyle Renfro said body language can be just as important as verbal communication, at times.
Aside from coaching, the most important responsibility Jeffries has been given is creating and maintaining a positive culture for the players, coaches and everyone else involved with team activities on a daily basis. His role is to set an inclusive environment, where the standard is everyone treats one another with respect.
Jaime Siaj, a forward from Spain, has been in the United States for a while. He spent two and a half years at Pfeiffer University in Misenheimer, before he came to Charlotte in December 2016. Siaj wasn’t a stranger to America before attending Pfeiffer. He studied abroad in Miami while in high school. However, life in South Beach is different than a rural North Carolina town.
Siaj said being around people from different places has helped him grow personally and open his mind.
Being a part of the Independence has pushed him to get to know his teammates who are literally from all over the world.
“If someone doesn’t speak your language you learn from how they look at you, how they want to say something and struggle,” Siaj said. “I would tell them how important it is to be able to communicate with someone from a different place.”
Midfielder Lewis Hilton, who is from a small town in southwest England, arrived in the United States in August 2012.
He said moving to the United States to attend Young Harris College was a gamble since he didn’t know where Georgia was. It was a bit of an adjustment for Hilton when he arrived.
Hilton joined the Independence in December 2015. It has been good for him to be surrounded by other international players, because they relate to one another.
“We’re in the same boat,” Hilton said. “Most of us are away from families. We stick together a little more, I suppose.”
The seating arrangement of the team’s locker room reflects its great diversity. To Hilton’s left is Renfro, a native of Lynchburg, Virginia. French midfielder Yann Ekra, Japanese midfielder Jun Marques Davidson and Bilal Duckett, a product of Atlanta, are to the left of him, while Ugandan defender Henry Kalungi and Uruguayan midfielders Alex Martinez and Enzo Martinez also sit nearby.
“Every morning, the conversation is always different,” Hilton said. “We are learning about different things and Jun has played all over the place. We get to learn about different cultures. It’s a real enjoyable environment.”
Hilton added everyone’s mentality is the same despite their personal differences. They are all competitive and passionate about winning, which brings them together as a team.
Renfro said he has taken elements from each one of those soccer cultures and implemented it into his game.
Playing with a bunch of different guys from all over the world has taught Renfro that everyone has a story and is here for a reason.
“Everybody in the league can play,” Renfro said. “It’s just having the confidence to play, trust yourself and your teammates that they’re going to get the job done.”
That’s what ultimately unites the Independence, which is one of the ways soccer works to bring people together from everywhere. Diversity, that’s what makes the beautiful game beautiful.