They might have had a hard time talking to each other, but a group of young teenage boys from the United States and Japan could still kick a soccer ball around a circle, face off in an impromptu sumo wrestling match and cheer each other on.
The Schwan’s USA CUP at the National Sports Center in Blaine has given players, parents and coaches from different countries a unique opportunity to connect and one way this has happened off the field is through the homestay program.
“Even if they don’t speak much of the other language, they find ways to communicate,” said Terry Wolkerstorfer, director of the St. Paul Blackhawks soccer club, who has hosted teams from Iceland and Norway. “They all speak soccer, video games and movies.”
According to homestay program coordinator Vicki Barnes, local families during the July 12-20 soccer tournament opened up their homes to three teams from Japan, and one team each from Costa Rica, England and Mexico.
Six families from the Blaine Bandits U14 boys’ soccer team each hosted two boys from an Ibaraki, Japan, U14 boys’ team. When they were not playing or watching the other team play soccer, they had a picnic at Lakeside Commons Park in Blaine, went to games for the Minnesota Twins and Minnesota United FC, and visited Minneapolis City Hall and Northtown Mall.
“It’s important for kids to be exposed to kids from other cultures,” said the Ibaraki boys’ team coach Hiroaki Saruhashi through a translator.
The translator Jason Savageau grew up in the Twin Cities, but lived in Tokyo, Japan, for 10 years where he was president of a design-build construction company. He moved his family back to Minnesota after the tsunami hit in March 2011.
When Savageau was not around, the boys tried an iPad app that translated their speech to the other person’s language. Connor Mann of New Brighton, one of the Blaine Bandits’ players, said there was a lot of laughing at each other because the app was not always accurate, but it helped them have some basic conversations.
“They wouldn’t experience this in a hotel,” said Connor’s mother Karen.
There was a record 1,007 teams from 17 states and 17 countries competing in this year’s Schwan’s USA CUP, so an extremely small percentage actually stay in homes.
The homestay program goes beyond the host families. Volunteers welcome teams at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, transport teams to hotels and connect teams with hosts to make everyone feel more welcome.
“That’s the whole reason for this tournament, for cultural diversity and experience,” said Barnes, who is in her first year overseeing the homestay program, but was previously a volunteer since the Sons of Norway started the tournament in 1985.
A lot has changed in the tournament since 1985 beyond many more teams being involved. The big difference is the level of competition has ramped up as the National Sports Center has recruited around the country and world to bring in better teams. Two of the Japanese girls’ teams who are staying with families are from a prestigious soccer school in Tokiwagi that has four alumni that were on the 2011 Japan Women’s World Cup championship team, Barnes said.
Barnes can recall there once being 30 teams staying with host families, but that was when the National Sports Center split up teams among different local teams. The organizers moved away from this because they felt a one-on-one team exchange was a better experience for everyone. The homestay program around 1995 started working exclusively with international teams.
Brief exposure to new culture
There was an adjustment period for both the Japanese and American boys when the Ibaraki and Blaine Bandits’ teams came together.
Karen Mann said when the Ibaraki U14 boys’ team got off the plane, “they looked shell-shocked,” but every day the players started coming out of their shell and began talking more to the Blaine Bandits’ team as best they could.
Cheryl Paquin of Blaine said the Ibaraki players they hosted would make a point of giving them a gift even if they received something as simple as a can of bug spray. The Blaine Bandits made t-shirts for their own team and the visitors and gave them their old soccer jerseys.
The family of Maria Ahrndt of Andover took the two Ibaraki players they were hosting bowling for their first time.
Soccer is strongly gaining on baseball in terms of popularity in Japan, according to Ibaraki coach Saruhashi, but the fields are in rough shape. So while the American boys would usually lace up their shoes, the Japanese players would run around barefoot when not playing a tournament match to feel the soft grass on their feet.
Other big differences a few Ibaraki players commented on was how the houses are much larger and farther apart, the streets are more straight and food portions are much larger.
From living in Tokyo the past 10 years, Savageau became quite good at cooking Japanese cuisine. The Asupara Bei-kon, Yakitor, and Bei-kon tomato he grilled at the Lakeside Commons Park cook-out July 15 were quickly devoured, but the hot dogs, burgers, chips and salads went just as fast.
“They’ve really wanted to try American food,” Karen Mann said. “One small (Ibaraki) kid ate a half-pound burger.”
Staying in touch
It is a little early to know how much the Ibaraki and Blaine Bandits’ teams will talk after they go their separate ways, but Bandits’ coach Eric Peterson would love for his team to take its first international soccer trip to Japan next year. The fundraisers to make this possible are already in the works.
Wolkerstorfer was well versed in international relations when he began volunteering for the homestay program in 1999. He was a soldier, a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press, worked in President Jimmy Carter’s administration on international environmental issues and traveled across the globe for when 3M employed him. He has been to well over 100 countries.
A truly memorable experience was playing soccer games on the northern tip of Iceland near the outer border of the Arctic Circle. As opposed to the 100-degree temperatures the Iceland teams had to deal with in Blaine, the temperature was hovering around 50 degrees in the Iceland tournament they played in even though both were in July, according to Wolkerstorfer.
“The wind was blowing off the glaciers and onto the field,” Wolkerstorfer said. “Parents were turning blue, their teeth were chattering. The host team brought hot coffee, tea and blankets to us.”
The St. Paul Blackhawks more recently hosted a team from Norway and will be traveling there Aug. 8.
“It makes you much more than a tourist because you’re with families and seeing things the way they see them,” he said.
Eric Hagen is at email@example.com