Game On: Soccer the Universal Language

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You don’t need the studies — which do indeed exist — to confirm that soccer is a universal language. This fall’s South Portland boys’ soccer program is a real-life representation.

With 18 new Mainers having immigrated to the United States in 2022, the uniting dialect at practices and games is the sport they play.

“When I came here, I didn’t speak English or whatever, but I was communicating by just playing soccer,” said South Portland senior captain Divin Mpinga, the team’s leading scorer who was a new Mainer not long ago, immigrating to Maine from the Democratic Republic of Congo, via Brazil and Texas, in March of 2020. “Whether you can say something or you can’t, you’re playing the same sport, and that’s a good connection.

Greg LevinskyMost of the new Mainers were born in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but they’re also from Gabon and Haiti. The new Mainers make up more than a quarter of the program, which fields varsity, junior varsity and first teams. Six play on varsity, four start. They’ve contributed to the Red Riots on-field success, leading the Class A title contenders to a 9-1 start.

One new Mainer, Mechak Mafuta Afawa is a key cog on the Red Riots back line, playing organized soccer for the first time. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mafuta Afawa immigrated with his parents and his three younger siblings to Maine from Brazil this past April.

Mafuta Afawa, a junior, started playing and watching professional soccer when he was a little kid, he said through an interpreter. Although he didn’t play for a school team until this year, his family couldn’t afford a specialized soccer school in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Quick to list off his favorite professional soccer players, Neymar, Messi and Ronaldo, Mafuta Afawa is thrilled to compete in an official league.

“In Congo, I was just able to play street games,” Mafuta Afawa said. “It’s a dream come true to play soccer in a place that offers all these opportunities.”

South Portland coach Bryan Hoy, who teaches English at the school, has never seen so much interest in the program during his 16 years at the helm. The new Mainers on the junior varsity program encouraged their teammates to stick around for varsity games, thumping beats on the bleachers and providing a raucous atmosphere.

“It’s raised our brand of soccer because they know what it’s supposed to look like,” Hoy said. “They definitely have a lot of energy. You don’t get this soccer-like atmosphere in most places.”

Mechak Mafuta Afawa
Mechak Mafuta Afawa came to South Portland in April and now stars on the soccer team. (Portland Phoenix/Greg Levinsky)

South Portland High School’s student services, athletic department and external organizations ensured the new Mainers could play this fall, organizing registration, physicals and transportation to and from the school for games and practices. Greater Portland Health provided the physicals this past summer. The Maine Association for New Americans (MANA) organized a driver and van for the student-athletes to travel to the physicals over multiple days. Community sponsors and donors contributed funds as well as donations of cleats, shin guards and other soccer equipment. The Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine, MANA, South Portland Transportation Department and community ensure student-athletes get rides to tryouts, practices and games, said Sheanna Zimmerman, English as a Second Language teacher and coordinator.

Drew Folley, another senior captain, said the new Mainers have “fit right in.”

“They’re just fun guys, talented as well,” Folley said.

Sure, Mpinga is the team’s top offensive threat, but he’s a coveted part of the program for more than just that. Mpinga serves as a translator for Hoy during pregame, halftime and post game speeches, relaying information to his teammates in Portuguese and French.

Mpinga, who is among a handful of other South Portland boys’ soccer players who immigrated to the United States during their childhood prior to this year, sees himself in many of the nearly two dozen new Mainers who arrived in 2022.

“When I got here, I would find people who came from my country to help me talk with the coaches, and now I get to do that same thing,” said Mpinga, who also speaks Spanish and his native Lingala. “People helped me when I needed help, so I’m going to do the same thing.”

Through school but also soccer, Mpinga picked up English. He’d connect what his friends in Maine would say to the action they’d immediately carry out on the field. Mpinga now tells the new Mainers to be patient, and they too will pick up English.

And in the meantime, there’s already a language everyone on the team knows.

“You may not speak [English] but you can communicate with your feet playing soccer,” Mafuta Afawa said.

Greg Levinsky is a Portland native and follower of local sports. He is an alumnus of Deering High School and Boston University whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe, Detroit Free Press, and several Maine newspapers. He can be reached at [email protected].

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