It was love at first sight for Chukwudi Chijindu and the sport of soccer.
The Fontana, Calif. native knew it was popular in his parents’ home country of Nigeria and became hooked during his first exposure to the game.
“My father and mother are both Nigerian and I just took an interest into it and I stuck with it,” said Chijindu, a forward for Chivas USA of Major League Soccer. My brothers played with me and when I started watching and playing it, I fell in love with it.”
Chijindu is just one of an increased number of African-Americans who are trading their basketball sneakers for cleats and taking to the pitch instead of the hardwood.
“There’s no question that there’s an improvement in the number of African-American players playing soccer,” Hylton Dayes, University of Cincinnati men’s soccer coach, told ESPN.com.
In the college ranks, African-American players have dominated the sport at the Division I level. The last three male Hermann Trophy winners, awarded by the Missouri Athletic Club to the top college soccer player, are of black descent (2007 winner O’Brian White of the University of Connecticut is Jamaican).
“That [progress] manifests itself in the Hermann Trophy candidates and Hermann Trophy winners,” Dayes added, who is the former chair of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America’s Black Soccer Coaches Committee. “So you can see that happening, but we also need to be cognizant that there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done. The majority of the good African-American athletes aren’t drawn to soccer.”
There are two main factors why African-American athletes aren’t drawn to soccer.
Financially, soccer is an expensive sport to play compared to basketball. In order to play against the top competition, players are forced to join club teams, which are often costly.
“We had some club teams after me and my mom wasn’t able to afford the wages so I would get sponsored to be on certain teams and they would help me out that way,” Chijindu said.
Secondly, soccer is simply not cool with African-American kids for lack of a better phrase.
Chijindu can remember getting grief from his friends because his heart was with soccer and not basketball or football. “Growing up, it wasn’t always easy…like loving soccer,” Chijindu added. “A lot of African-American kids chose football or basketball and looked at me funny because I loved soccer.”
Those same kids who looked at Chijindu funny should pay close attention to the demographic of the United States Men’s National Team that’s competing in the 2010 World Cup.
Of the 23 players on the United States roster, eight are African-American. The players are: Jozy Altidore, Edson Buddle, DaMarcus Beasley, Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu, Robbie Findley, Tim Howard, Oguchi Onyewu.
Soccer saw an increase in popularity in the United States across all nationalities following the 1994 World Cup. Because of that success, a campaign to bring the World Cup back to the U.S. in 2018 or 2022 has started.
Actor Morgan Freeman accepted an invitation this week to join the Board of Directors for the USA Bid Committee that includes Former President Bill Clinton and film director Spike Lee.
“As Mandela said once, ‘Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, the power to unite people that little else has,’” Freeman said in a statement. “I have seen the power that sport, and in particular soccer, can have on individuals around the world and that is why I am so honored to represent and support the United States through the conclusion of this noble effort to bring the tournament back to our country.”
Chivas USA midfielder Michael Lahoud remembers first hand the impact of the United States hosting the World Cup had on the sport.
“Well, I think the market for soccer is just grown tremendously,” Lahoud said, who helped Wake Forest University to a NCAA National Championship in 2007. “I think soccer is a sport that’s continuing to grow and hopefully reach the caliber of a NFL, NBA or baseball in this country. I think events like the World Cup held in the U.S. in 1994 and the United States soccer team having a historical run to the quarterfinals in the 2002 World Cup only spark interest within the country as a whole.”
The fastest way to spark interest in the sport with the African-American youth is the emergence of a superstar within the United States.
Altidore is the closest thing to an African-American superstar in the making but pales in comparison to Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Samuel Eto’o, all three who are from Africa but play in The Premier League and Italian Serie A instead of the MLS.
The average sports fan isn’t going to tune into the Fox Soccer Channel to watch the competition in Europe, which showcases the finest players in the world.
Until more players like Altidore, who started his professional career with the New York MetroStars (now known as the Red Bulls) before leaving for Europe, stay with the MLS, the sport will always lack a big name in the U.S. that kids can idolize and look up to. For example, when Lahoud was asked whom he idolized growing up, the 23-year-old named Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, two Brazilian superstars.
Chijindu has a word of advice for young African-American soccer players.
“Stay humble, stick to your guns and continue to work hard,” Chijindu said. “I’m not sure about other ethnicities, but I know for sure being an African-American kid in the United States, it’s not easy to stick with wanting to play soccer because you get criticized a lot for it. If that’s what he loves, anything is possible.”