By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – With approximately 4 billion fans and more than 250 million players, soccer is the world’s most popular sport.
It’s a game that brings people from different cultures and backgrounds together. No matter where you’re from, there’s a good chance you can find kids kicking around a soccer ball.
The sport’s global reach was on full display Saturday, when students from more than a half-dozen countries shared the same field at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
“We’ve all played soccer from our childhood on. That’s the sport we love and that’s the passion we have,” said Daler Rahimov, a UNK freshman from Tajikistan.
Rahimov is president of the UNK Men’s Soccer Club, a new student organization formed earlier this semester. Part of UNK Student Engagement, the group is currently comprised of about 20 members, all international students from countries such as Japan, Korea, Morocco, Nepal, Nigeria, Oman, Sudan and Tajikistan.
“Most of them played pretty high-level soccer in their home countries,” said adviser John Falconer, who previously coached a local youth soccer club team.
The UNK club allows them to continue competing at a high level. The group practices three times a week and they played their first match earlier this month, a 1-0 victory over the Wayne State College club team. A rematch against the Wildcats is scheduled for May 1 at Foster Field.
Starting this fall, UNK will compete in the Kansas, Missouri Soccer League, a 28-member league that includes men’s and women’s collegiate club teams from Illinois, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Kansas State University, Wichita State University, Creighton University and University of Kansas are among the current members.
“I can’t wait until we start playing those teams,” said Falconer, a senior advisor to the chancellor at UNK. “It will be fun, because our guys are good.”
Falconer serves as a “semi-coach” for the UNK team, with several players also assuming leadership roles.
That’s another benefit. The organization gives students an opportunity to improve their communication and team-building skills while developing new relationships on campus.
“We’re not only practicing, but we’re also having fun,” Rahimov said. “We communicate and engage with other people, which helps to brighten our day.”
Nasser Al-Gheilani, a junior from Oman, has met a lot of people through the club and he hopes to create connections with even more soccer-loving Lopers moving forward. The organization is open to both domestic and international students, with new members welcome to join at any time.
“If anybody is looking to play soccer, our organization will be here,” said Al-Gheilani, the group’s secretary.
“We’re welcoming everyone who is passionate about and enjoys playing soccer,” Rahimov added.
Since the soccer club isn’t affiliated with UNK Athletics, members currently pay for travel and other expenses. However, Falconer would like to find funding sources to ensure the group is affordable and accessible for anyone interested.
“This team is about the student experience,” he said. “I think it really enriches campus.”