Before stepping on the field to face a suburban powerhouse in his first-ever American soccer match, Maneva Tanambelo asked his coach if he could play barefoot—the way he played in the country he left just a few months ago.
Maneva (pictured), who’s 13, of Madagascar, is a talented member of a new squad of international students from Fair Haven School who made their debut on their school soccer team this week. Many of them are immigrants and refugees who had developed skills playing pickup soccer, but had never played in an organized league, on a grassy field with referees.
Maneva joined the team after moving to the U.S. from Madagascar in July. Coach Frankie Labbate quickly saw in him the potential to be a star player.
His journey onto the soccer field—complete with unfamiliar footwear—highlighted the way Fair Haven School students from all over the world are helping each other navigate new customs, and finding a place to shine amid unfamiliar terrain.
Just three days after holding their first-ever practice, Maneva and his teammates made an impressive effort in their first game Thursday: They lost by one goal to a formidable foe, a team of North Haven kids who have been playing in leagues for years.
Maneva and his new teammates got their first taste of formal American soccer Monday, when their team held its first practice. The team is technically a citywide soccer team for New Haven public school kids in grades 6 to 8, but the coach and most of the kids hail from Fair Haven School.
Labbate rounded up his players in the school gym Monday at dismissal time. They headed to the nearest field—Criscuolo Park, which is nine blocks away. They don’t have a bus. So Labbate and the kids formed a “walking bus” and headed East on Exchange Street. Some years, they make a stop at John C. Martinez School to pick up other kids. Monday, they headed straight to the field at a swift clip.
Freddy Seminario (at left in photo), a cheerful 6th-grader who volunteered to play in goal, led the pack up Chapel Street.
Baldredin Ahmed and Omar Fadhil, whose families moved to New Haven last year as refugees from Sudan and Iraq, followed closely behind, chatting in Arabic with Mohamed Naji and Ahmed Abdulghany. Baldredin and Omar, who are in the 8th grade, both grew up playing soccer but had never played on an official team.
Behind the quartet of Arabic speakers, other kids chatted in Spanish.
Pedro Sanchez, who just moved to the U.S. from Puebla, Mexico, and Maneva, who speaks Malagasy and French at home, stayed relatively quiet on the walk. Maneva said he was looking forward to playing soccer, something he did a lot growing up.
“In Madagascar, soccer is very popular,” he said. His family moved to the U.S. in July so that his dad could begin a PhD program in anthropology at Yale. The international kids have converged at Fair Haven school because it’s a neighborhood school serving a community of Latino immigrants, and also because it’s the official welcoming spot for all newcomers to the U.S. who join New Haven public schools in grades K to 8.
When they arrived at the park, Badreldin exclaimed in Arabic when he discovered a seagull occupying the field. The park has a seaside feel: It sits at the confluence of the Mill and Quinnipiac Rivers, which become tidal and salty as they near the Long Island Sound.
Before stepping onto the field, kids had to put on cleats, a first for many players. Maneva and at least one other player discovered they had brought cleats for the wrong kind of football—American football.
At 3:30 p.m., 8th-grader Luis Gonzalez led the crew in a lap around the field. They ran with views of Fair Haven’s iconic wind turbine and the mighty new Pearl Harbor Memorial “Q” Bridge.
In warmups, they deciphered new terms—like “high-knees” and “butt-kicks”—by watching. Labbate put them in position to give them a sense of the full field.
“This goal is huge!” remarked Freddy as he stepped into place.
Labbate placed the four Arabic speakers in a line on defense. Badreldin cartwheeled to his spot. He helped translate the game plan for Mohamed, a 7th-grader new to the country from Yemen.
The team brought a variety of soccer allegiances to the field. Mohamed showed up in a T-shirt bearing the name of Lionel Messi, the famous Argentinian striker who plays for FC Barcelona.
Jonathan Encalada, whose family hails from Ecuador, bore the name “Chucho” shaved into the side of his head. That’s the nickname for Christian Benítez, an Ecuadorian soccer player who died last summer at the age of 27. Labbate placed Jonathan on attack, along with fellow Spanish-speaking students.
Maneva, a head taller than many of the players, deftly dribbled around his opponents during a quick scrimmage.
“I didn’t realize how good he was,” Labbate remarked. “He could run circles around” the best player on the team from last year.
The crew started out with 12 players Monday.
By Thursday, when the team returned to Criscuolo Park for its first game, it had gained a few more.
The Fair Haven kids eyed their opposition, an army of players big enough to field two teams. North Haven coach Nick Mongillo said his team has 27 players, most of whom have already played organized soccer in the North Haven Soccer Club. They started practicing on Sept. 12. In addition to playing in their town club, some of the kids play in private leagues, Mongillo said.
Fair Haven’s squad, by contrast, included several kids who have never played organized soccer before.
Kids like Benjamin Kwakombe (pictured), originally of Congo. Benjamin said he just moved to the U.S. two months ago by way of Namibia. He said he had played lots of soccer back home, in a different setting.
In Namibia, Benjamin recalled, “we were play without shoes.”
“We make ball from plastic,” he said.
The field was “like this, but sand.”
Maneva, too, is used to playing without shoes. Before he stepped on the field for the game against North Haven, he asked his coach if he could play barefoot.
“I can’t feel the ball,” Maneva told him.
Labbate had to say no: “They won’t let you on the field.”
Maneva donned his cleats and took the field in a position he called “post six”—left midfield.
Sharon Arnold, Fair Haven School’s gym teacher of 20 years, positioned herself at the sideline and snapped pictures with a telephoto lens. Fifth-grade teacher Sherri Deegan joined her. “It’s important to show the kids we care—not just about that little sliver of their lives in school,” Deegan said.
North Haven dominated much of the first half, charging hard towards the goal then sparing New Haven by missing the target several times, or kicking it right to the goalie. Freddy caught a few shots in his arms and gave the ball to Mohamed, who’s taller, to clear out.
Some of the newcomers on Freddy’s team were still learning the rules.
At one point, after Mohamed had kicked out a ball, the referee blew his whistle and stopped play. He called out to Mohamed to retake the goal kick from the box—not from farther out. Mohamed, who speaks little English, didn’t get the direction.
“The box,” the referee said, gesturing in the air with his hands.
Mohamed obliged, and sent the ball spinning into the air under a clear blue sky.
New Haven’s defense proved hard to penetrate until the end of the 30-minute half, when North Haven scored a goal.
“Not a bad first half,” said Labbate at a half-time huddle. The score was 0-1.
Labbate told his team to fill the defensive box, spread out, and “relax. You know how to play soccer. Some of you have been playing for a long time.”
After the half, Luis Rodrigeuz (pictured, leaping behind Maneva) of Fair Haven tied up the game 1-1.
By halftime, a formidable cheering squad had assembled, including Fair Haven’s principal, assistant principal and art teacher.
Raul Chavarria and Carolina Paredes (pictured), of Mexico, waved signs for their son, Alex, a 6th-grader making his debut on the team.
“Cesar! Arriba!” called out another proud dad.
On the field, Fair Haven’s players used a mix of Arabic, Spanish and English.
“No lo dejas!” called out one player, urging a teammate not to leave a man unguarded.
“C’mon, Luis, corre con él!” urged another.
“Go, Brad!” called out a North Haven kid to his own teammate.
Coach Mongillo said all of his players speak English fluently; all but a few are white.
Freddy warded off a half-dozen shots on goal before North Haven scored two more.
Luis Rodriguez, who was sprinting like a cheetah the entire game, tore away on a fast-break, got a one-on-one with the goalie, and popped the ball in, leaving the score at 2-3.
The game ended abruptly—there’s no scoreboard or visible game clock in the park—before Fair Haven could continue its comeback.
The teams shook hands.
Maneva appeared disheartened by the loss. He said he found the game frustrating. The shoes didn’t help.
Coach Labbate consoled his players.
“We’ve had three days of practice, and we faced one of the best teams,” Labbate said. “They play year-round, and they’ve been playing since they could stand up.”
“North Haven is known for soccer,” he continued. “We played one of the best teams we’ll play all season, and we only lost by one goal.”
Labbate said he was proud of his new players: “For their first time in a full match, they did great.”
Past Independent stories on Fair Haven School: