A TEAM OF THEIR OWN

They fled war-torn nations and came to St. Louis. They pursued their passion for soccer at Soldan High -- and got a coach who didn't know the game. Then the real lessons began.

Two thoughts occurred to Coach James Hammond as he marched up and down the sideline of the field where his team, the Soldan Tigers, played its first scrimmage game of the high-school-soccer season. The first thought, sparked by the 10 years he spent as an officer and physical-training instructor in the U.S. Army, was that he wanted more than anything to see his team win. The second, born more recently, was that it would probably be better for the team to lose.

It was the second half of a game against the junior-varsity Billikens of St. Louis University High, a perennial power in soccer whose varsity team went to the 1999 state-championship final. The score was tied 1-1, and Hammond's own players, an undisciplined, unorganized, unconditioned mob of flailing arms and legs, stampeded over his training instructions like a herd of clubfooted buffalo. They were all over the field. They weren't passing the ball. The defense wasn't communicating. The forwards dribbled the ball the length of the field and were too tired by the time they got near the goal to do much but stop to catch their breath. The sweeper -- where was the sweeper?

"Come on, guys," Hammond called, alternately clapping his hands and folding them across his chest. "Show me something. Show me something."

Edin Coralic, center, surrounded by teammates Spahic Aldin, Armin Smajic, 
Vedmir Vranjkovina and Adnan Jahic after Soldan’s win over SLUH. "It was a great game," Coralic says. "We played as a team."
James Hammond
Edin Coralic, center, surrounded by teammates Spahic Aldin, Armin Smajic, Vedmir Vranjkovina and Adnan Jahic after Soldan’s win over SLUH. "It was a great game," Coralic says. "We played as a team."

Granted, his team was at a disadvantage. Most of the players were new this year, and they had only been practicing together a few short weeks, whereas the other teams were loaded with experience and had started practicing much earlier, in the summer. But that was tough. Life was tough. The military taught Hammond that you worked through these sorts of things.

What the 35-year-old coach was more concerned about than the game were the players themselves. Except for Mahdi Botan, a 17-year-old from Somalia, every member of the team was newly arrived from Bosnia. Though Hammond was informed every day by the boys that Bosnians are some of the best soccer players in the world, and though these kids did have the technical skills to blow most other teams out of a contest, their conditioning and ability to play in concert were almost nonexistent.

They were also arrogant about Hammond's skills, sniffing at his advice as if it were yesterday's lunch. Not that he was any expert, as the referee of this particular game publicly noted on several occasions. But when Hammond was called on the first day of school this fall and asked at the last minute to coach the team, he told them that he didn't know a thing about soccer, absolutely nothing, and in fact hadn't played a game of soccer since long before any of these kids were born.

So when the school's athletic director told Hammond that if he didn't coach the team, Soldan wouldn't have a team, Hammond felt the old, familiar nudge of a challenge. He hadn't gotten to where he was now by treating challenges like unsolicited junk mail, and when you came from behind like he had, you learned to take things on.

Hammond's response was instinctive. He dipped into his store of self-discipline, agreed to take the position and rented three how-to-play-soccer books and a video. It was tough, but life was tough sometimes.

Now, after a few weeks of practice, Hammond questioned whether he had done the right thing when he accepted the coaching position.

But something else about the players was bothering Coach Hammond that day. He knew as well as anybody that this was about more than a game of soccer.

All of the team's members, including Botan, had come to the United States after violent expulsions from their civil-war-torn countries. They moved from one country to another -- Germany, Denmark, Egypt -- trying to learn new languages, tolerating strange customs and following different rules, and when they were politically or socially ostracized in one place, they went to another, then another, then another. Now Bosnians made up almost one-third of Soldan's student population, and though they rarely talked about the atrocities that had punctuated their young lives, Hammond knew that the past hung over them dark and rippling, like a shroud.

But that was the roster life handed them, and Hammond knew from experience that you sometimes took it in the gut. These kids were starting all over again, and if they were going to succeed in the United States, they would have to meet the challenge head-on. To do that, Hammond knew, they had to learn discipline. Without it, they would fail -- at soccer, and at anything else they pursued.

If this game was any indication of how much discipline they had learned from him so far, they were in trouble.

"Come on, guys. Take it down. Show me something. Show me something," Hammond called.

In the last few minutes of the game, SLUH scored again, and Soldan lost 2-1.

But that was OK. There would be another scrimmage against SLUH in a few weeks, and maybe, Hammond thought, this loss was exactly what the boys needed.

Back in 1993, a year after civil war broke out in Bosnia, Edin Coralic knew exactly why his family was on the bus leaving their hometown. "I understood that if we hadn't moved, we would have been dead by now," says the 18-year-old. "I was 10 or 11 when we left, and I remember getting on the bus. It was the only bus that would leave my city for the next two years."

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