Bakary Coulibaly was angry. His South Bronx United under-18 teammates already made fun of him, and now, at a New York Red Bulls clinic in summer 2013, one of the under-16 kids was teasing him, too, saying he wasn’t good at soccer. Bakary trained harder than anyone else, but still they taunted him.
He lashed out and hit the kid. Another under-16 boy jumped into the fight, and Tenzin Yeshay, assistant coach of Bakary’s team, had to step in to calm Bakary down. All three players were sent home.
When someone teased you in Mali, you fought back. That was how you earned respect. I want them to start listening to me. This is how they’ll listen to me, Bakary told SBU’s executive director Andrew So a few days later. So wanted to understand what had happened; Bakary was a quiet and respectful kid, not the type of player who would snap like that. Then Bakary got into another fight; this time with one of his teammates, Iyayi Imade.
“You don’t want to kick anyone out, and the kids that you kick out are the ones that need [the club] the most,” says So, but he didn’t feel he had much choice. So wanted Bakary off the team until he resolved whatever was causing the outbursts. George Nantwi, head coach of the under-18 team, disagreed. He didn’t think benching his player would help. Besides, even if he kicked Bakary off the team, Nantwi knew he’d still show up at practice. “He doesn’t even know what suspended means,” Nantwi says.
Instead, Nantwi pulled Bakary aside, told him he needed to ignore the teasing and the reason kids were taunting him was because they knew they could wind him up so easily. Just walk away, Nantwi told Bakary, go to an adult. Talk to them. He told his player to contact him any time he needed to. “Kids like Coulibaly are why we do what we do,” Nantwi, who was born in Ghana and moved to the U.S. when he was ten-years-old, explains, “I was where they are.”
In 1998, when Bakary was two-years-old, his family fled civil war in the Republic of the Congo. His mother took him, his older brother Hackou and younger sister Aminata to the safety of the Ivory Coast. His father left for Egypt and then the United States in search of work. A year later, the family fled again, after fighting broke out in its new home, and settled in Mali. Soon after that, Bakary’s mother moved to New York to be with her husband, leaving her three children to grow up with their uncle in Nioro du Sahel, in the Sahara desert on the border between Mali and Mauritania.
Bakary didn’t see either of his parents again until he was 15. In June 2011, they brought him to live with them and his two American-born younger brothers, in Soundview, in the Bronx.
During his first summer in New York, Bakary was bored and lonely. America was not what he’d expected -- he was supposed to be rich and famous now.
“In Africa they say here is the best place in the world,” he says, “’America, America, America.’” But he missed home. Everyone he’d ever known was back in Mali, including Hackou and Aminata. He spent his days stuck inside his parents’ apartment, watching Malian television and eating his mother’s home cooking. The fast food people ate in America just didn’t taste good. He had nothing to do here, no friends to hang out with. And he missed playing soccer.
One of Bakary’s cousins, Ousmane Sanogo, was on the Red Bulls academy team in New York and was also friends with Nantwi. Sanogo knew what Bakary was going through -- he’d moved to the U.S. from Senegal just a few years earlier. He encouraged Bakary to try out for South Bronx United, and took him to meet Nantwi. Two days later, So, then head coach of the under-16s, called to speak to Bakary: he was on the team.
So and his wife Stephanie founded South Bronx United, the only youth soccer club in the South Bronx, in 2009. That first year So scoured local parks to recruit players. He balanced his job as a teacher at the New Day Academy with coaching the club’s only team, the under-13 team that grew up into the under-19 team Bakary now plays for. By 2010 SBU had four teams and So switched to a part-time teaching role. Two years after that So quit his job to run the club full time.
South Bronx United now has five competitive boys teams in the Cosmopolitan Junior Soccer League, two competitive girls teams in the Westchester Youth Soccer League, and a host of recreational teams. In 2013, the under-16 boys won the CJSL spring league and the under-12 boys added the CJSL City Cup. And last year, 16 of the club’s 17 seniors graduated high school, a rate of 94% that far exceeds the South Bronx average of just 56%.
But success didn’t come smoothly. Midway through the club’s 2011 spring season, So’s captain threw a punch at an opponent, and, after being sent off, ran after someone else. The player and several other kids left the team; the season fell apart. So wondered how he’d missed the warning signs. Wondered whether the kid, who had grown up in the midst of Sierra Leone’s civil war, was struggling with post-traumatic stress. The club was founded simply to give children a safe place to play soccer after school, but So resolved to offer more: social work and legal advice for the club’s players and their parents, and after school tutoring to ensure SBU’s kids succeeded at school.
Now a new team is moving in across the road from South Bronx United’s training ground at Macombs Dam Park. New York City FC will kick off its first season in the MLS at Yankee Stadium next spring. In April, NYCFC named eight New York City clubs, including South Bronx United, as official youth affiliates. Already, So’s club doesn’t seem so lonely in the South Bronx because it is part of something bigger. All of the competitive teams’ jerseys will carry a NYCFC patch this year and the MLS club sponsored SBU’s annual City Showcase Tournament last spring. When NYCFC launches its academy program next fall, there may even be opportunities for South Bronx United’s most talented players to take a step towards the professional leagues.
Before he came to America, Bakary had never played on a real soccer field; just rocky patches of bare earth back in Mali. His first practice with South Bronx United in October 2011 was overwhelming. He was shy and barely spoke English -- his first languages are French and Bambara. He’d never played with a real soccer ball, just cheap plastic imitations, and he’d never worn cleats before. Running in shoes was awkward.
Tall and skinny, Bakary had grown up playing goalkeeper, but now he wanted a chance to score goals instead of saving them. He had enthusiasm, but he lacked a good understanding of tactics. His ball-handling skills were weak and he was too slow. And though he looked intimidating, he was withdrawn and quiet; he played timidly. He listened intently, but So was never sure if Bakary really understood what he was saying. There were other West African players on his team, though, kids who spoke French. Bakary began to make friends, to relax a little.
The next year, Bakary’s team moved up into the under-17 bracket and Nantwi became his coach. That’s how you run? Nantwi asked Bakary after seeing his player lagging behind in a practice drill. You’ve got to run like your life depends on it, put all of your energy in. Bakary was also playing out of position. Nantwi wanted him at center back where he could anchor the defense, but Bakary wanted to play right back. He wanted to run down the field and attack.
Still, Bakary took soccer seriously. He always showed up early for practice and stayed late. Now he outruns almost everyone else on the team. And at the end of last summer, when Nantwi told him he needed to ignore the teasing, Bakary listened. He could still be quiet and preoccupied, still kept things to himself -- until recently, South Bronx United didn’t know that he wasn’t born in Mali -- but he began to tune out the banter.
In the fall season, when the under-19 team’s captain was forced to quit soccer due to injury, Nantwi was faced with a difficult decision: give the captain’s armband to one of that year’s seniors, or take a risk on a junior. The older kids were more mature but would graduate in the spring. The younger players would be around one more year before the entire team aged-out. Nantwi held off making a decision straight away, but the team struggled without clear leadership on the field, conceding easy goals.
Among the juniors, there was one standout: Bakary. He was the team’s best defender, and perhaps the kid with the most to gain from being thrown into a leadership role. But there were still questions over his temperament. Nantwi took the risk. At the spring warm-up game at Macomb’s Dam Park in March, he gave the captain’s armband to Bakary. His player stared straight ahead, preoccupied. “I don’t know how I became captain,” he explained later, unsure of himself.
But Nantwi’s gamble paid off; Bakary embraced his role. Where Nantwi used to send out messages to remind the players to show up for practice, Bakary took over. Coach and captain sat down and talked, about life, leadership and responsibility. And he finally relented on the one thing he’d never agreed upon with Nantwi: his position on the field. Coach, you should try me at center back, Bakary said a few weeks ago. I think I’m ready.
According to Tom DeMaio, whose job is to find college places for South Bronx United’s seniors, Bakary’s next challenge is to get admissions officers to take a risk on him. “His biggest hurdle is his ability to speak English,” DeMaio says. Though Bakary started learning English just three years ago, this year he will need to pass his New York State’s Regents Examinations, do well in his SATs and shine in admissions interviews.
DeMaio joined South Bronx United last summer after three years of working for the MTN Football Scholar program, which helps Nigerian student athletes attend college in the U.S. He assumed getting soccer players into college from the Bronx would be easier than from West Africa, but many of the problems are the same. Kids without U.S. citizenship or green cards cannot apply for federal funding, and their parents usually can’t afford tuition. The top schools often also require academic transcripts back to middle school, from before many of South Bronx United’s kids arrived in the United States.
On Sunday, Nov. 2, at Randall’s Island, midway between Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens in the center of New York City, South Bronx United’s under-19 boys kicked off their last-ever fall season. Twenty boys born in 12 different countries, fluent in 11 different languages, determined to end their youth careers with a trophy.
“This is it for them,” Nantwi says. “I keep reminding them of that. Just enjoy the ride.” Next year the players will all go their separate ways, but this team, South Bronx United’s first ever team, has never finished higher than second.
By half time SBU trailed the Westchester Flames 1–0. Running down the right wing, SBU’s Lancine “Youssef” Bamba was working harder than anyone else on the field and Bakary exuded confidence in the center of the defense. But as a team, South Bronx United was disjointed and a mistake in midfield gifted the Flames their opportunity to score.
“It’s not enough,” Nantwi said to his players, their expressions downcast at the break. “We’re too relaxed. They’re not better than us. We can’t lose this game.” His team fought back to score two goals in the second half, but lost 3–2. “It’s not enough,” Nantwi repeated at the end. “We’ve got to get it together.”
But there are signs of hope: there are leaders on the team, in vice captain Cesar Gonzalez, in Iyayi who fires the players up in the pre-game huddle and in Youssef, who never stops running. And in the team’s new centerback, where a kid from the Congo has found his home 62,000 miles from where he was born.