*Story by Director of Public Relations Randy Sarvis
Real Madrid is one of the world's most famous fútbol teams. Its roster includes players from 10 countries. Counting the United States, Wilmington College's men's soccer team features players from 13 nations.
The 20 student-athletes playing soccer — born and/or residing in countries outside the continental United States — come from: Sweden, Norway, Germany, Poland, Ghana, El Salvador, Brazil, South Africa, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Vietnam and Ethiopia. (Costa Rica, Czech Republic and South Korea are also represented among WC's student body).
Head coach Alex Van der Sluijs claims the team's diversity as a "great asset," one that not only enhances the quality of play but also serves to educate.
"Most domestic students have only known people with similar backgrounds to themselves," he said. "Being a part of a team with such a diverse background helps bring about a mutual respect that, regardless of where you've come from, we all share a similar DNA with our love for soccer and Wilmington College.
"It's amazing to see these friendships form so quickly and they are formed around the passion for the beautiful game of soccer."
Van der Sluijs said his players' journeys that led them to WC are as varied as the diversity they represent at their small college in middle America.
Swedes have been coming to WC regularly since the mid-1990s when former head coach Bud Lewis established that continuing connection. Indeed, he began attracting internationals in the late 1970s and 80s. Most universities in European countries do not offer sports, so the opportunity to become a student-athlete and play the game they love while studying in America is especially appealing.
"I like being in a sport setting everyday but, at the same time, have the opportunity to excel in the academic world," said Niklas Martensson, a senior from Sweden.
Junior Gabriel Nygard added, "I wanted to try something new and I love adventures. I thought coming to the U.S. would give me experiences I can use throughout my whole life and future career."
Anton Berglund is a junior from Sweden. Born in Vietnam, he was adopted by a Swedish family when he was three months old. Several other Scandinavians also were born outside of the countries in which they have lived much or most of their lives.
Andrej Mira is a junior born in El Salvador whose family moved to Sweden and freshman Dawid Bogaczewicz and his family moved to Norway from his native Poland seven years ago. His father retired from the Polish military and found a good job in Norway. Freshman Christian Minutella is another Norwegian on the team.
Two players are from Brazil: sophomore Thomas Sousa, whose family now resides in New Jersey, and junior transfer student Igor Granja. Freshman Adriel Ortiz Rodriguez left Puerto Rico in 2017 and relocated with his family in Springboro.
"I moved for a better opportunity in soccer and for better academics — (WC) is a better college for my major (exercise science)," Ortiz said.
Five players were born in Africa and several faced extreme danger and hardships that led to their families coming to America.
Michael Owusu is a freshman born in Ghana who came to the U.S. in 2013 and now resides in Bellbrook. "I didn't have a lot back home and I fought to get by," he said, noting his mother remains in Africa. "Everything I'm doing here is for her because she did not get what I'm getting here."
Another freshman, Elorm Dogbey, also was born in Ghana and has lived in Dayton since 2013. "The main reason why my dad moved me here was for better education," he said, adding how impressed he's been with "the brotherhood" within the soccer team. "Wilmington has a lot of friendly people that make it feel like home."
Freshman Bruce Anthony too was born in Ghana and lives in Dayton.
His parents were among the 4 million persons displaced by a civil war in southern Sudan in the mid-1990s, a brutal conflict with mass killings, slavery and children forced into joining militias. Anthony was born after his family navigated their way from Sudan through Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast and ultimately to Ghana, where they lived in refugee camps for more than 11 years.
They came to the United States as part of a refugee resettlement program sponsored by the Catholic Church. Anthony said America offers him a "better education and the opportunity to achieve" his goals. "What I like most about Wilmington College is the teachers are willing to teach you and the students here are very nice. Playing soccer makes it even more fun."
This year, freshman Micah Wallis, who was born in South Africa, joined his brothers, Nati, a junior born in Ethiopia, and Noah, who was born in America, on the team. A family in Clarksville adopted the Wallis brothers, who share their home with numerous other siblings.
The diversity on the team by no means ends there.
Leon Tank transferred as a junior from a university in his native Germany to come to WC "to get to know a different culture," while Alexis Arevalos is a freshman born in Mexico whose family resides in New Carlisle.
Felix Maurer and Ludwig Lantz are first year students from Sweden. Maurer considered attending other American colleges, but "the thing that set Wilmington College apart was the feeling I got from Coach Alex (Van der Sluijs) and I talked to Nils (Asteberg) a lot during the time I was choosing colleges." Asteberg is a 2018 WC graduate from Sweden and assistant coach this year, who helped recruit Swedish players when he was in school.
"I like that it's not a big college, which makes it easier to know people, staff and teachers," Maurer added. "The soccer is fantastic. We have a good team and everybody wants to win. It's also great with so many internationals, especially coming from Sweden."
Lantz concurred, adding that the prevalence of international students, including so many Swedes, made the prospect of coming to WC most appealing.
"The people here are so nice and polite," he said about the College. "There's a great atmosphere with our team. Everybody has different backgrounds, both as soccer players and as people. You can make friends worldwide here."
Daniel Kappelin is another senior from Sweden, but he was born while his Swedish family lived in Connecticut. He holds both Swedish and American passports, which presents advantages for everything from ease of travel without a student visa to navigating requirements for securing an American driver's license and presenting an I.D. at the grocery store.
Interestingly, Kappelin said the presence of fellow Swedes on the team "helps me stay motivated and maintain my identity."
Junior Oscar Björnerstedt is a Swede who spent a year of high school in California. He believes American culture better "fits" his personality. "I miss my friends and relatives in Sweden, but I moved to the U.S. because I wanted to see something different — and I knew the U.S. would offer me that. I like to meet people from different backgrounds."
Maurer said being on a team with so many international student-athletes made the initial adjustment to America and Wilmington College less anxiety-filled than it might have been if he were going it alone.
"For me, coming from Sweden, knowing you're not the only one makes me love the diversity," he said. "You feel more relaxed because you know that others are gong through the same thing. Also, I think it makes the team better because we get some different thinking and different playing styles, which benefits the team — if you ask me."
The Polish Norwegian, Bogaczewicz, describes the team's diversity as "amazing, especially when all of the players are so talented. It also makes the soccer community bigger, something that makes it easier to get to know people."
Berglund said he doesn't often think about the diversity of his teammates. Rather, "I just see it as a team."
Ortiz mentioned an added benefit of learning about different cultures. "You pick up some words — even some bad words," he joked. "It's really fun to get to know people here."
Micah Wallis mentioned how the team's racial diversity offers an added benefit for him. "Before, I have always played on predominantly white American teams and never with another African besides my brother. So I'm very happy to be on a team with such diversity."
Anthony concurred: "It makes me feel like I'm home because I have friends that are just like me, coming from another country."
"The diversity is really cool," Nati Wallis added. "There are people from all over the world and it is cool to learn about different (soccer) styles and cultures."
Nygard also appreciates his WC experience. "I am surrounded by a great group of guys and coaching staff who care about us — that makes it even more fun to go to practice everyday. Most importantly, with soccer, I can do something that I love to do everyday."
Martensson said the diversity has brought only "positive things" for him personally and as a team dynamic. "It is also a great experience to learn about different cultures for the players that come from America,"
Finally, Benny Spirk is a senior player from Wilmington who has witnessed the impact of internationals on the team for years as he grew up around WC soccer. He said the international players provide an distinct element most other teams do not possess.
"They give us a unique playing style that is formed from talented players from all over the world — that makes us an exciting team to watch," Spirk said, adding that their presence at WC has "helped me grow" both as a player and as a person.
"At the end of the day, we may not all come from the same place, but we are all connected and brought together through the beautiful game of soccer!"