For Lagos Kunga, It Takes a Village.
Juergen Klinsmann, newly appointed U.S. National Team Coach on player development in the United States has said: “This is the only country in the world that has the pyramid upside down. You PAY for having your kid play soccer.” Because your goal is not to have your kid become a professional soccer player, your goal is that your kid gets a scholarship in college, which is complete opposite rest of the world.” Klinsmann is asserting that in addition to the emphasis on education and the college game in the US, soccer is a rich kid sport, while in the rest of the world it’s a poor kid sport.
Klinsmann continues, “We all [came] out of moderate families and fought our way through … so we need to keep this hunger throughout our life. I compare it to basketball here, because I look at these guys and they are coming from inner cities. So we need to find ways to connect, however that could be, to connect with Hispanics, to connect with everybody in the soccer environment in the U.S., and to get kids who are really hungry…”
Twelve year old Lagos Kunga and others like him are perfect examples of the awesome talent that has been overlooked in the past years of U.S. youth development. For Kunga, this is no longer true.
Decatur/DeKalb YMCA is a soccer club featuring the DDY Wolves. What makes this club so special is that 30% of its participants are on scholarship as part of the YMCA’s mission that anyone who wants to play, will play. Of that 30%, one half receives full scholarships.
This is due in part to a nearby community of refugees in the Clarkston area who are living with huge financial challenges, and with gang and drug activity being a grave reality. Kids like Lagos Kunga who choose to play through the International Community School in Clarkston have little or no resources. No shoes, no equipment. Balls, shinguards and uniforms are supplied by DDY. Registration fees are “comped” or drastically reduced. The recreational level teams formed at the International Community School are integrated into the DDY leagues.
From there, opportunities are available for select and elite programs through DDY. For each age group there are a significant number of talented kids on each team with little or no resources. It’s in cases like these that an unofficial “Soccer Village” or support team has organically responded. Coaches and teammate parents front funds for kids who need assistance. Buses pick up kids for practices, and team parents make arrangements to deliver kids from areas that buses don’t reach. Parents pool funds for the kids who can’t buy shoes. They toss an extra pair of socks in their cart or bring a pre-game meal. Coaches too, make a huge difference. Schools know that refugee parents are working, often at menial jobs with long and abnormal hours, and further, need the help of translators to communicate. In Clarkston, if teachers have challenges at school with a player, it’s the coaches they call. Coaches and team parents provide guidance and tutoring.
Kids are held accountable. They must stay in school and attendance and passing grades are part of showing they are responsible enough to play beyond the recreational level. With financial needs, kids with select/elite abilities must prove their resourcefulness (to arrange rides), punctuality and consistency in dedication. They can’t lose their jersey, be truant from school, or have behavior issues.
Once the young players prove themselves, their ability can shine. And the village continues their support. Coaches spend hours helping refugee parents who speak/read only Farsi, Portuguese, French or Bantu navigate complicated elite and ODP registration forms, and help obtain the required physicals.
Which brings us to Lagos Kunga. Quiet, unassuming and intelligent, Lagos is from Angola having moved here via Russia, six years ago when he was not yet seven years old. His parents speak only French, and though his father is unemployed due to a severe work related injury, his mother works long hours at a chicken processing plant in north Georgia. Kunga began playing through the international Community School in Clarkston, and his entire team was promoted from the DDY rec division by an ICS teacher/coach who worked to get the team into more challenging matches.
Kunga’s soccer support system is the same as all others from his community, regardless of ability. When he broke his arm, it was his team players’ parents who took him to the doctor for x-rays and covered the medical bills. A team parent arrives at practice early to help him with his homework. He plays alongside kids from very affluent families and it’s a tight community-based team. They all live within five miles of each other and support each other.
Now, at only 12 years old, Kunga is playing for the U14/98 Wolves. Through the logistical support from his teammates, the team’s parent support system and mentorship from his coach and DDY Director of Coaching, Jeff Newbury, combined with his tremendous ability on the field, Kunga was selected to the 98 Region III ODP team.
Lagos Kunga was also one of two players from Georgia and 12 total players from Region III to be invited to the Under 14 US Soccer Federation’s National Team ID Camp in Carson, California. While we won’t know the results of the selection process until November, his play was well received, at least by the media:
Jahmal Corner, ESNN and TopDrawerSoccer reporter writes of Kunga’s play in Carson: “The opposing side, however, had a little too much firepower. Particularly striker Lagos Kunga, who would prove to be the best player on the field on this day. Kunga didn’t just combine speed and power to make lethal runs – he always made the right play.”
So, perhaps Juergen Klinsmann will see a bit more of Lagos Kunga in the years to come. Certainly this young athlete is helping to prove “Klinsy” right… and he has a Village to thank for it.