Washington’s soccer community is a tapestry of cultures and backgrounds, crossing ethnic, economic and generational boundaries. It unites Salvadoran immigrants in Langley Park with Koreans in Annandale and mixes the young, hip crowd with the white-collar. From Annapolis to Manassas and Fredericksburg to Frederick, soccer embodies the area’s rich diversity and tells stories of who we are and from where we came. With the World Cup, the planet’s most popular sporting event, two weeks from kickoff in Brazil, The Washington Post profiles five individuals with deep emotional ties to soccer through divergent life experiences.
In a cramped office on the top floor of his Cleveland Park home, Len Oliver lifts a tattered manila folder chronicling his influence on American soccer: page after page of names and addresses, like a voter registration roll, for almost 5,000 individuals who have passed his national coaching courses since 1980.
“I am threatening to write to them to ask, ‘Are you still in the game?’ ” Oliver said.
He is still very much in the game, even at age 80 and in need of a hip replacement. He has been inducted into six halls of fame, most notably the national one, and continues to turn up at seminars and matches. Former pupils attending D.C. United games make a point of visiting Section 306, Row 1 at RFK Stadium to say hello.
“That is the most wonderful part of teaching: People come up and say, ‘I took your course, and it made a difference in what I do in soccer,’ ” said Oliver, who is also the former director of coaching for the DC Stoddert Soccer League, a 5,000-member youth operation.
Those seeking his wisdom are parents wanting to learn fundamentals before their children begin playing; former players seeking a coaching license; foreign visitors from delegations sponsored by the State Department. (The number of countries on his list has surpassed 90.) They all come to Jelleff Boys and Girls Club in upper Georgetown to receive instruction.
Until his two daughters started playing in the 1970s, Oliver never thought of coaching. He was a player. Inspired by their father, a Scottish immigrant, Oliver and his twin brother played in the streets of northeast Philadelphia. “A drunk named Riley would interrupt the game,” he said. “You had to dribble around Riley.”
When the narrow lane became too cluttered, they moved to a dilapidated cemetery. Tombstones served as goal posts.
Oliver starred at Temple University in the early 1950s, served on armed forces teams in Germany, made the national team and Pan American Games squad, and ran in the American Soccer League, a circuit for semipro clubs from ethnic enclaves in the Northeast.
In 1960, upon accepting a job with the CIA, he was sold by Philadelphia’s Uhrik Truckers to Baltimore Pompeii for $350. As part of the deal, he was promised as many steamed crabs as he could crack after a match.
He would head over to Bud Paolino’s Restaurant and Bar on East Lombard Street in Highlandtown and put in a long night’s work.
In 1961, after losing to Newark Portuguese on a bitterly cold day at Ironbound Stadium, he approached Pompeii’s lone traveling fan, his girlfriend Eleanor. He proposed. “We had lost, so I had nothing else to lose,” he said. He didn’t lose her. They’ve been married for 52 years.
He last played competitively in 1966 before pursuing a doctorate at the University of Chicago and a career with the National Endowment for the Humanities followed by a private practice in continuing education.
Through coaching courses, he remained in the game.
“It took me back to my roots, to being a kid, where I had such joy playing in the streets with my brother,” he said. “I liked being out there, taking guys out, passing the ball, making an overlapping run. I enjoyed the sport but I enjoyed the people I associated with.”
Every so often, Emile M’bouh will encounter someone who wants to relive the joy unleashed by Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions more than 20 years ago in Italy.
“They will say, ‘Come to my house, we must watch the match again together,’ ” M’bouh said, laughing. “I can’t remember how many times I’ve seen the game, but every time, it’s special.”
M’bouh, who has coached youth soccer in the Washington area for more than a decade, was a starting midfielder on the Cameroon squad that shocked Diego Maradona and defending champion Argentina, 1-0, in the opening game of the 1990 World Cup.
In a top-25 countdown this year, The Guardian in England called it the No. 1 “stunning moment” in World Cup annals, ahead of Uruguay defeating host Brazil in the 1950 finale.
Featuring several players from the French lower divisions, the Lions went on to win their first-round group and reach the quarterfinals before falling to England in overtime. Along the way, with their untamed style and unbridled goal-scoring celebrations, they became tournament darlings.
They also helped alter the perception of African soccer, which to that point was viewed as an incubator of rich individual skill but naive to modern demands.
An African team has never reached the World Cup semifinals, but since Cameroon’s odyssey, Senegal and Ghana have gone to the quarters and Nigeria and Ivory Coast have displayed a capacity for international success.
“Everyone was saying Argentina would score six goals against us,” said M’bouh, who will turn 48 this week. “They thought we were secondhand people, a secondhand team. They hurt our pride. When we stepped onto the field, we wanted to change their minds, change their beliefs.”
Before the opener in Milan, both Cameroon and Argentina were allowed access to an indoor space for warmups. “We started singing our songs and doing our dances from home,” M’bouh said. “Argentina was afraid to come into the room. They knew they were in for a battle.”
A battle, indeed: Two Cameroon players were red-carded for harsh challenges.
“You came to win,” Maradona told M’bouh afterward. “You fought like lions.”
Upon their return home, the country celebrated for days. Much of West Africa joined the party. The Lions were kings.
M’bouh also played for Cameroon in the 1994 World Cup but without the same success: The squad was outscored 11-3 in two losses and a draw.
After a pro career marked by stops in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, M’bouh thought of returning to Cameroon to mentor young players. But with the support of friends and family in the United States, he moved to Washington in 2001. He started an academy, joined the staff at Bethesda Soccer Club and launched The Lions Soccer program in Montgomery County. This spring Howard University named him top assistant for the men’s team.
The approach of another World Cup — and another appearance by Cameroon — has rekindled M’bouh’s memories of the upset that shook the sport’s foundation.
“We were unknown to the world,” he said, “but after that game, everyone knew about Cameroon.”
Yousef Al Otaiba arrived at Georgetown University in 1991 with two suitcases and an expectation to play for the Hoyas right away.
He knocked on Coach Keith Tabatznik’s office door and said he wanted to join the squad.
“I was naive enough to think that Americans don’t know how to play soccer, and no matter what school I go to, I will try out and probably be on the team,” Al Otaiba recalled.
He made the team the next year as a walk-on winger. Thirteen years later, Al Otaiba returned to Washington — as the United Arab Emirates ambassador.
He was born and raised in Cairo to an Emirati father and Egyptian mother. Before reporting to Georgetown, he had never stepped foot in the United States.
“Adjusting was difficult for me,” he said. “Once I got on the team, I had a pack to be with. I was part of something. We ate together, practiced together, did things together on weekends. I went from not knowing what I was doing — just a random guy from Egypt — to being part of a group. It was such a fun time.”
Al Otaiba played in his sophomore and junior years but shredded a knee ligament during offseason training and missed the 1994 senior campaign, Georgetown’s first NCAA tournament team. In all, he made nine appearances and one start, with one goal.
“I was a left-footed attacker,” he said. “My right foot was for balance only. I got mocked.”
Al Otaiba learned the game in Cairo, playing at school and then in the streets until the dinner hour. A quiet block, a handful of friends, a few stones to serve as goal markers — game on.
In his youth, his nickname was “Fofana” — homage to a French-based left-footed wing from the Ivory Coast, Yousouff Fofana, with whom he shared the No. 9.
With family ties to both Egypt and the UAE, Al Otaiba’s allegiances were split in 1990 when both nations qualified for the World Cup.
At private school, he played for teams that competed in tournaments in the Middle East and Europe. He became a supporter of Al Ahly, Egypt’s most decorated club, and attended matches with friends.
In 1994, when the World Cup came to the United States, Al Otaiba was a ball boy for the Saudi squad, which trained at Georgetown. As a reward, a team representative offered tickets to first-round matches. He also attended the 1998 and 2006 tournaments.
The embassy has gotten involved in growing the sport here. In partnership with Manchester City, the Premier League club owned by a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, the UAE has funded new fields in Harlem, East Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and Washington’s Adams Morgan.
“Soccer is in my blood,” Al Otaiba said. “I loved playing it and now I love watching it. There is a beauty to the game that I can’t resist.”
Willie Ibarra’s eyes were fixed on Johann Cruyff as the Dutch master placed shot after shot past the powerless goalkeeper. It was the summer of 1980. Cruyff was employed by the Washington Diplomats during the North American Soccer League’s glory days. Ibarra was 12, the son of South American immigrants. He had signed up as a Dips ball boy — a gig that allowed him to attend practice.
“I always watched Cruyff,” Ibarra recalled. “He was giving directions, pointing, putting the ball wherever he wanted — bang, bang, bang.”
And as the sessions concluded, Ibarra said: “I remember him puffing cigarettes on the field. My dad turned me and said, ‘Don’t you dare!’ ”
Ibarra, now 46, is a member of Generation NASL, young Americans swayed by U.S. soccer’s first large-scale national league. They saw Cruyff and Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and George Best, Carlos Alberto and Teofilo Cubillas. Long before the era of cable, satellite and live streams, the primary way to see the globe’s stars perform was catching an NASL match in person.
Ibarra lived in Upper Marlboro and attended Dips summer camps. As a ball boy, he ran the RFK sidelines. The New York Cosmos were the league’s glamour team, awash in international stars and colorful characters. The visiting player who most inspired him, though, was Darryl Gee, a Howard County native.
“That got me,” Ibarra said. “The PA announcer would yell, ‘Maryland’s very own, Darryl Geeeeee!’ I thought, ‘Dang, he is from Columbia, Maryland.’ ”
Ibarra did not reach Gee’s acclaim. He played at Douglass High School, Prince George’s Community College and Salisbury University before competing in the area’s ethnic leagues.
His family upbringing and exposure to the NASL set him on a 22-year instructional path that has included coaching stints at Gwynn Park High School, PGCC and the Soccer Association of Columbia; coaching education for the Maryland state association; and a tenure at Gee’s academy.
Ibarra’s soccer roots run much deeper than the Dips. As a child, because of his father Saul, “my world was Peruvian soccer.” He remembers, at age 7, accompanying his dad to the Ontario Theatre at 17th Street and Columbia Road in Adams Morgan to watch closed-circuit broadcasts of Peru winning the 1975 Copa America.
Three years later, he was visiting relatives in Lima while the World Cup was unfolding in Argentina. They gathered in his grandparents’ living room and surrounded a small black-and-white TV.
“My grandfather would tell me to go buy bread two or three blocks away,” Ibarra said. “The streets were empty.”
Born in the United States and entrenched in the soccer system, Ibarra combats outdated attitudes about the American game. “The typical Latino mentality looks down on American soccer,” he said. “I ask my dad, ‘When was the last time Peru went to the World Cup?’ It was 1982. I said, ‘Dad, we were in the 2002 quarterfinals.’ ”
Ibarra runs a real estate company out of his Laurel home before heading to the fields to develop players and future coaches.
“That is my sanctuary,” he said. “That is where I am happy. That is where there is no stress.”
From his prison cell at Wormwood Scrubs in west London, Paul Hill could hear the roar. Less than a mile away, at Loftus Road stadium, Queens Park Rangers had scored.
Serving a life sentence for a crime he did not commit, a flawed case that rocked the British judicial system and inspired the Hollywood film “In the Name of the Father,” the Irishman ached for freedom. He longed to experience the joy of attending a match and see his beloved Arsenal.
Over 15 years of imprisonment ending in 1989, soccer offered hope and sustenance: a kickabout in the jail yard or gym, a scratchy radio broadcast, worn newspapers and fanzines, a card from Scottish club Celtic FC, the euphoric pulses of QPR supporters carrying across the A40 roadway.
For Hill, the game was a lifeline to the outside world.
“It was escapism,” said Hill, who has lived in Washington for much of the past 20 years. “It took your mind away. You looked ahead to the next match. Without marking stripes on a wall, you kept time by matches. Soccer was my calendar.”
Hill was a member of the Guildford Four, who, amid sectarian violence and the rise of the Irish Republican Army, were coerced into confessing to bombings that killed five people in two pubs in England in 1974.
During years in solitary confinement, he said, prisoners housed above his cell would dangle a transistor radio on a string outside his small window so he could listen to Arsenal matches. He was oblivious to global news. “It wasn’t the Falklands; it was how Arsenal was doing.”
He traces his soccer roots to street games in Catholic west Belfast — “School bags were our goal posts, lamp posts were our corners” — and attendance at Distillery (Catholic) and Glentoran (Protestant) matches.
He visited London and stayed with his uncle Frank, a pastry chef, whose apartment was on Conewood Street, steps from Arsenal’s old hive, Highbury. He was at Wembley in 1969 when third-tier Swindon Town stunned the Gunners in the League Cup final.
Upon his release, Hill became as famous as the players he idolized. He wrote a memoir, “Stolen Years”; met Nelson Mandela (with whom he had exchanged letters while both were imprisoned); married a Kennedy (Courtney, daughter of Robert); partied with Northern Ireland icon George Best; and attended matches with the Who’s Roger Daltrey, Simple Minds and the Pogues.
After some wild nights, he would head straight to London’s Euston Station with a six-pack, a bottle of vodka and a ticket to Glasgow for a Celtic match later that day. “It was the greatest train ride in your life because, at every stop, more and more Celtic supporters would get on,” he said. “You would have a sing-song all the way.”
These days, with flowing hair belying his 59 years, he lives on the edge of Georgetown and backs humanitarian causes. He has been separated for years but remains close to the Kennedy clan.
His daughter Saoirse played in the Stoddert League before enrolling in prep school in Massachusetts. Hill would take her to games at RFK Stadium, a venue honoring the grandfather she never met.
Once, while attending a game at a very young age, she saw Mia Hamm. The superstar asked what her Gaelic name meant.
With her father’s hand on her shoulder, she replied softly, “Freedom.”