Thursday, August 26, 2010

Making themselves at home on River City turf

Not Ghana back down
Young players from Africa nation training in Decatur
By Paul Huggins, Staff Writer, The Decatur Daily

They may live 6,500 miles away on another continent, but the teenage girls from Ghana looked no different from American teens when they entered Decatur Mall on Wednesday.

They went straight for stores with cell phones, iPods and shoes.

But, though they may look like typical middle school and high school girls while trying on shoes, when they lace up their soccer cleats, there is nothing typical about their play. They are the under-17 national team for the West African nation, and they have been in Decatur since Aug. 15 preparing for the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Trinidad-Tobago next month.

How good are these youths competing at the world championship level? Well, how many 13- to 17-year-olds do you know who could defeat a collegiate team from the Southeastern Conference, which they did Tuesday, knocking off Mississippi State, 1-0. Think of it this way: How well do you think a collection of football players from Brookhaven Middle School and Decatur High School would fair against an SEC team?

Local residents can see for themselves Thursday at the Jack Allen Soccer Complex.

Game against UNA

The Ghana team will take on the University of North Alabama women’s soccer team at 7 p.m. Admission is free. It will be the second of four exhibition matches against college teams, as Ghana plays Georgia on Friday in Columbus, Ga., and Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Monday.

“The were very, very good,” Edne Yeke, Ghana assistant coach, said about Mississippi State. “That is what we play, so that is what we expect.

“It was very tough, stiff competition,” she said. “That is what we want, and that is what we need. We came here purposely for training.”

Soccer is the biggest sport in Ghana, followed by field hockey and basketball, Yeke said.

The children play soccer at an early age but don’t become part of organized teams until they’re at least 10, she said. There are no youth, recreation leagues like in America, she said, and Ghanaian youths get invited to join club teams when they distinguish themselves on school playgrounds or just playing against friends in the streets.

Tonight’s game is especially meaningful for Sarah Beth Henderson, a freshman walk-on at UNA who played forward and midfield for Decatur High. The game is a chance to show her new teammates her hometown, but she said she’s most excited about the level of competition Ghana brings.

“This opportunity to play an international team is amazing,” she said, noting UNA has about 10 players from Great Britain. “We can help them and they can help us grow as a team. So we’re just thrilled to death. We’re all pumped for it.”

Scott Spencer, former head of the Alabama Youth Soccer Association, who steered some major tournaments toward Jack Allen and now coaches the Atlanta Beat, a women’s professional soccer team, helped set up the collegiate exhibition matches.

Tami Reist, president of the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said getting the collegiate competition was big for Ghana and that the team considered moving its training site to California until Spencer lined up the colleges.

The Ghana team chose Decatur earlier this summer based on the recommendation of a collegiate coach who brought his team to Jack Allen. The facility, which has 10 international size, lighted soccer fields with laser-graded turf, lived up to its reputation.

“We’ve enjoyed the fields,” said Ghana player Beatrice Sesu, 15. “We don’t have fields this good in Ghana.

“It helps us a lot,” she added. “It gets you used to the fields we will play on when we get to the World Cup.”

Yeke agreed that a key part of the team’s training is getting accustomed to the high quality fields, and she added that Decatur is fortunate to have such a nice facility as Jack Allen.

“If Africa can get such facilities you have here, no one can turn us,” she said.

Ghana also chose Decatur because coaches wanted to train in hot, humid weather like they would experience in Trinidad-Tobago.

The team, which is staying at the Country Inn & Suites, generally practices in the morning and early evening. The players take a day off training after an exhibition match, so they don’t have many days left to practice here.

Sesu said it hasn’t been all work while they’ve been in town. The team has enjoyed resting at the hotel and everyone looks forward to visiting the U.S. Space and Rocket Center the day before they leave for the World Cup on Sept. 2. The team also accepted a Decatur caterer’s offer to use her kitchen to prepare their own meals.

Jackie Grimsley, owner of The Casual Gourmet, has brought the team into her kitchen on Somerville Road Southeast several times.

“A lot of what they cook is not much different from what we eat, except everything is much hotter. It’s unbelievably hot. It will get rid of every evil spirit you ever thought you have,” she joked, noting they use a lot of habanera and chilli peppers.

“And they’re eating a lot of steamed veggies. They do fresh vegetables every day,” Grimsley said.

Sesu said getting to cook their own food is a big help not only because it reminds them of home, but much of the American food is too greasy compared to what their stomachs are accustomed to digesting; so getting good, familiar food also has helped with training.

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