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Active Cultures: Nigerian soccer gets a foot up.



When the Nigerian Olympic soccer team won the gold medal in Atlanta last summer, Wale Haastrup was sitting in a crowded Mexican restaurant, trying to catch the game on an alternative broadcast since no one at NBC seemed to care about soccer. But that will change, Haastrup predicts, when the seven-year-olds now taking to the game are 22 and American soccer can attract pro-fessionals from Italy to Brazil. "In ten or fifteen years, if it's run well, soccer is gonna be like the NBA," he says. "It will put American football on the side."

If Haastrup sounds a bit optimistic, that's because he's not just a soccer fan--he also plays for the local Gazelle Soccer Club, a group made up of Nigerian immigrants. This weekend he's helping coordinate the second annual All-Nigeria Soccer Tournament, a two-day event that will bring together Nigerian club teams from across America for a round-robin tournament in Chicago.

Haastrup left Nigeria in 1987 amid the country's political and economic strife, when it seemed that "every day there was a coup of the order." He quit his job as a graphic designer at an advertising agency in Lagos "to study and to be somebody" here in America. He took design classes at Harold Washington College and managed a McDonald's at Jackson and Wabash, where he met Desiree Sanders, owner of the Afrocentric Bookstore on South Wabash. In 1992 Sanders asked him to help manage her store, and the pair were married two years later. The store, which recently moved to the DePaul Center on State Street between Jackson and Van Buren, is now in its seventh year.

Just as the bookstore caters to American blacks looking to connect with African culture, the club teams give Nigerian-Americans a chance to stay in touch with their homeland and to socialize as well as play. Haastrup joined the north-side club the Pioneers at about the same time he began working at Afrocentric. The Pioneers dissolved two years later, and Haastrup jumped to the more zealous south-side club the Gazelles. With over 100 parti-cipating and nonparticipating members, the Gazelles function like a social club, informing Nigerians about common interests. Haastrup says the Gazelles are unique among soccer clubs in that they welcome all Nigerian people, bridging the differences among the multitude of tribes back home. "This club has everybody from Nigeria," he says. "Once we get here, we are all the same."

Haastrup says he relishes the chance to compete against international-caliber talent; this year's tournament features such players as Tony Igwe, rated 29th in a poll of Nigeria's all-time best. The Gazelles placed second at the first tournament, held last year in Washington, D.C., and this year they're the host team. They expect eight teams to compete, double the number at last year's event, and the round-robin format guarantees that every team will play each of the others at least once. That means each team will play at least three games per day. Haastrup says the format inspires an impromptu sensibility, so that a tired team might even call on a spectator to fill in for a shift. He uses the word parapo, or "come together," to define the way teams sometimes form on the spot during a competition, and this spirit, he says, defines the festival. Through the tournament, Haastrup says, the organizers hope to "grow the game and use soccer to build brother-hood, sisterhood, and cooperation."

The All-Nigeria Soccer Tournament takes place from 9 AM to 6 PM Saturday and Sunday at the Jackson Park soccer field, Stony Island and Lake Shore Drive. "All are welcome; kids are encouraged." There will also be vendors of Nigerian and Caribbean food. The championship game will start at around 3:30 on Sunday. It's free; call 708-283-9810.

--John Kline

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Wale Haastrup photo by J.B. Spector.

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