By Ben Pope, Medill, Immigrant Connect

My first soccer practice in the fall of 11th grade is not like any before. My attention keeps being drawn to one player. His name is Miguel, and his addition to the team is announced by our coach verbally and by a mere wave by Miguel himself.

For an hour and a half, we practice. The sun is fading behind the pine trees surrounding the practice field and casts sandy divots and sporadic tufts of grass into flattering shadows.

When Miguel runs with the ball, he appears to be floating, unhampered by the poor grass conditions and the usual ball-handling awkwardness that plagues the rest of us on our mediocre-at-best team. When he shoots, the ball curves gracefully into the corner of the net, just as he presumably intends.

But is it really what he intends? I have no idea. I don’t ask him.

He makes the team easily, and we get to know him somewhat. Miguel is a recent immigrant from Brazil, and for the rest of our suburban Raleigh white-kid squad — myself included — the language barrier seems just as stark and impenetrable as the talent differential. He speaks Portuguese, and we very much don’t.

The team, “MG United,” poses for its end-of-season photo, with Miguel standing in the center. (Photo Scott Pope)


For all of his obvious talent and experience at the sport, we have no way to describe the formations we play, which position within it he should play or how the American version of soccer at the youth level differs from the South American version — less acceptance of foul-drawing flopping, more emphasis on low-risk clearances rather than creative plays. Explaining drills, which focus on just one aspect of the game and often require specific situational instructions, proves equally difficult.

Our best player is separated from us socially and culturally, resulting in simmering frustration for all of us.

As the season progresses, Miguel consistently dekes, evades and maneuvers through opponents, but his contributions usually become all for naught when attempts at teamwork fail, passes miss their mark and he ends up out of position. He is a great player on his own, but unable to translate that greatness without understanding English or America, and the losses pile up as quickly as they had before his arrival.

The situation improves, albeit painfully slowly, as the autumn proceeds and the advancing dusk light pushes practices earlier and earlier. Miguel memorizes chunks of English, and the rest of the team learns a few targeted Portuguese phrases. It helps with communication, but only to an extent.

Our final record that season is poor, as usual. At the end-of-season dinner, the team manages to garble a rough “Adeus” — “goodbye” in Portuguese — and Miguel takes his biggest English step forward yet, telling the rest of us that he is excited to continue improving together as a team in the spring.

Come February, however, when the late afternoon sun illuminates a field with even more divots and even less grass after a winter of wear, and the team gathers for its inaugural practice of another inevitably defeat-laden season, Miguel isn’t there.

He is absent for the second practice, too. And the third. And the fourth. Gradually, he — and his talent and culture — fade like the light out of our memories.

I have not seen Miguel again. None of my teammates have either. No word arrives back about his whereabouts, and no one at the school knows any of the details behind his sudden departure.

But I hold out hope to this day that, somewhere, he has become the great player I saw in him on that brisk fall afternoon three years ago.