Football Book – Update No. 11: From Brianna Pinto to Anson Dorrance

Die deutsche Version des Interviews findet ihr hier.

Dear soccer fans,

…and again there is news: Brianna Pinto has decided to give the book to Anson Dorrance. The coach had no choice. He had to go along with it. Why? Read it for yourself in the interview…

Since Anson Dorrance has experienced a lot in soccer, our conversation got longer and longer. His statements gave me reasons for more and more questions. That’s why we’re celebrating a premiere today: the first three-part interview on my blog will follow… Part 1 today, part 2 on July 8, 2022, and part 3 on July 10, 2022.

Enjoy collecting impressions!

Yours

Lisa Blue

UNC Women’s Soccer Head Coach Anson Dorrance at work. Photo: Athletic Department, University of North Carolina

Mr. Dorrance, at first, I would like to know why you decided to take part in the football book project? What was your immediate reaction when you got the book?

Actually, I did not have that much of a choice. Brianna Pinto just left it on my desk with a note. So, there was no possession about it. So I was not in a position to reject it. I really like Brianna. So the book was there and it looked very interesting so I jumped in.

Honestly, I thought, Oh my god what a pain in a rear end? It takes me three to four hours a day to clear my emails. So for me, my days are just very, very busy. I am talking to many people all the time, like with you. I talk with my players all the time. Right now, I get my professional players to the team. They want to play during this transfer window.

So, for me, it was just one thing after another. So, my first instinct when I saw the book, was: ‘Oh my god, more work, what an absolute drag”. But then I opened the book up and I saw and I was thinking: ‘What an interesting project’. So I thought that it was really interesting and then, honestly when I started writing, I sort of got into it. And what I got into was, you know, Rainer Maria Rilke. Because I was thinking about the game so much differently than most people because I am a philosopher. For me, there is a different perspective. I think that perspective of looking onto the game through that extraordinary Rilke poem ‘The man watching’ is a really interesting way to look at.

Rilke is a famous German poet. I put that poem in at the end because I really think that our game has all kinds of valuable things to teach us. What’s really interesting is: We don’t learn in our game through success. We learn in our game through failure. Because then, we do become more resilient. We appreciate the fact that we grow through failure. So, don’t be afraid of failure. Don’t be afraid of challenge. And right now, what I am starting to see which isn’t good, is: We are all becoming so fragile. So this is where I still see sport has value. And even value in a university setting. Because we are all what is called the ivory tower. The ivory tower are all those professors who think that this an absolute waste of our association. To have an athletic team associated with university. This takes away from the mission. And the mission is a normal one. And I completely agree with the mission of the academy in the ivory tower. It’s to educate our young people to extend their minds. To make them more productive. I guess, I have a more practical view of the value of athletics. Because I really think that I am in full support of ‘The great man theory’ of education. That you can learn how to be a great man by studying the great man, and woman obviously, of our cultures to sort of how we want to live our own lives. And so for me, sports has value, because it teaches you very practical things about how you can conduct our own lives and will have huge value. And even huge value for the academy because then you have a resilience. It’s going to have you equipped.

Also the respect and the social aspects, friendships, helping together.

Yeah. And these are issues that aren’t really addressed in the academy or the ivory tower in the academic environments directly. Are they addressing it directly? Of course. When you read Shakespeare, you are learning about relationships. And you are getting an education in so many different positive ways. But I think sport has value as well. So, for me, all these different things have value. And what I really enjoy about the book was for me to give my tiny slice of perspective on the value of athletics. And I certainly did my tiny intro into what the academy would appreciate which is the study of brilliant writers like Rilke that have an extraordinary and powerful invaluable inside and how we can grow up in the most extraordinary way in the world.

So what I love about ‘The Man Watching’ poem, the Rilke poem, is: He talks about the way you grow. And the way you grow is being defeated by greater and greater beings. And so I thought there was, since in my opinion, so much correlation between the struggle of learning how to play the game and the challenges of winning the game. And basically, real life. So I shared a poem that I just absolutely love, that in my opinion captures our game and our game I think has value because it teaches us about life and I think our game has so much similarity to the life experience itself. That’s why I selected that poem.

Perfect. I am just a bit surprised that you know Rainer Maria Rilke cause he is quite famous in Germany, but I did not know that he is also famous in the US.

You should read that poem because that poem is very powerful. You will see why I have picked that poem as the metaphor for football, for soccer. So I think once you read it, you’ll be impressed why I picked it.

I’ll do this, thank you very much. That leads me to the next question. So, what do you like most about soccer? Is it the match itself or is it coming together with the people, to communicate with them? To have teamwork, or is it international tournaments? Or is it to get to know other cultures?

My love for the game has evolved with time. So when I was young, obviously, what you love about it, is the ball itself. So I think that you begin with this love of the ball and love of playing the game. Apart of playing the game is playing with your friends. So, there is certainly a social aspect about it that makes the game unique. But also it’s, you know, the feel of the ball on your foot, the satisfaction of achieving something which is very difficult because doing something with your feet is a wonderful challenge.

So I think, at first it is love of the ball, love for the game, love of playing with your friends. And I am a citizen of the world. I was born and raised overseas. What you learn to appreciate, certainly I learn to appreciate as an American is: This is the world’s game. Of course, where I was brought up – I was born in Bombay, India – at the age of three, we moved to Calcutta. From there to Kenia, from Nairobi, Kenia, to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, then to Singapore, Malaysia and to Brussels, Belgium. And while I was in Brussels, I was sent to a Swiss boarding school in Fribourg, Switzerland. So, for me, this is my life. I am a Citizen of this world. And of course, what’s the world’s game? Football is the world’s game. When I started getting involved in soccer, it was the game I could play at the college level because of the University of North Carolina.

I love all the sports. The one I was best at to play at the college level, was soccer. So I jumped into soccer and just loved it. Loved the competition of it. I loved the challenge of it. And then slowly but surely, my love of the game spun me into organizing the game, so I became a leader in the state of North Carolina trying to get US soccer affiliated with the leagues in North Carolina, in the teams. Then, when I ended up the US women’s national coach, I became a national leader, and actually a national leader promoting the Women’s game. Because while I was in UNC when I was hired I was hired to coach guys that I played with. So I was very young. But my ambition was not to be a football coach. I wanted to be an attorney, a lawyer because my father was starting his own oil company and he wanted me to be his corporate attorney. I loved my father, I was a dutiful son. And so I went to law school basically because my father wanted me to. And the family joke at that time was: If I became his corporate attorney at least I would not have audacity to steal from my own estates. That was the family humor. That I would serve the family and the company and not, you know, stealing money from the company and putting it into my own pocket.

Then I went to law school and I absolutely hated it. While I was in law school I was coaching the men here at UNC part-time because the guy before retired and recommended me to the athletic director. While I was finishing the law degree – and most people finish the law degree in three years – it was taking me into my forth year to finish it because I was taking the semester to coach the men here. And the part-time men’s position was then changed to a full-time position, because they gave me a women’s team.

So, I was coaching the men and the women AND I was going to law school. I was overwhelmed. I was getting 4 to 6 hours sleep every night. That’s not enough for me. And so I came home one day and my poor wife who thought she was going to retire on a yard in the Mediterranean married to a guy who was running an oil company now was married to a football coach. You can imagine the incredible tragedy that I was bringing home when I told her I was quitting law school. But honestly, she knew I loved football and she wanted me to be happy. So she had no issue. The only one who had an issue with it was actually my father who was obviously disappointed because he wanted me to work with him and constructing the oil empire for the Dorrance family. But the football and the coaching was too much fun, and then, for ten years, I coached the men and the women. And a part of that was in 1986 when I was appointed the women’s national coach. And when I was hired, we were a new nation in international football. When I was hired we have never won a game in international competition, and five years later, we were World Champions. So, obviously, I am pretty proud of that, because we beat the world in its own game. It’s not our game. It’s your game, it’s the world’s game. And we were World Champions in fact.

The beginning of pressing in soccer…

My favorite moment in 1991 World Championship was beating Germany. Because the Germans had an outstanding team, and the coach of the team was the coach that trained the coaches in the Bundesliga. And so this guy obviously was not famous for coaching women. He was famous for coaching men that coach on the highest level in German football. His name was Gero Bisanz. We beat him 4:2 and he was so embarrassed. And sitting on his right shoulder was sitting Tina Theune-Meyer, his assistant. Basically, he told the world and the press that we cheated. And how do we cheat? Well, we pressed. And back then, no one pressed. Everyone played a very classic and formal 4-4-2. There would be a low line of confrontation where you would let the other team do a staging area in the defensive third by passing the ball around the back and then they would probe by sending a ball in the midfield and send a defender in the midfield to create numbers up around the ball and then they would probe another ball forward. And of course, we run into them. We would grab the other team by the throat and squeeze the air out of them. So when the Germans won the ball, we didn’t give them a platform to play make from. We high pressed.

So in the press conference he claimed that this was a form of cheating. And of course, now everyone presses. But back then, we were unique. Because no one pressed. We were the only team in the world that pressed. Then, what was really nice, was that after being chastised by Gero for cheating – and of course we didn’t – Tina Theune-Meyer who was a very graceful and wonderful woman came up to me and apologized for Geros remarks in the press conference. And basically said that our team was magnificent and we deserved that victory. And it was just another measure of my respect for her, who eventually of course, coached Germany and did an outstanding job. So I have huge respect for Tina. She tought me a lot about the game. She had called me up to a clinic in Canada and I was invited to it. I listened to her speech and a lot of the ideas she had I stole from her and injected into my college program, and also injected in the US national team.

When I was being brought into Canada to listen to Tina speak, Germany had hired a field-hockey coach to transform German field hockey. And what this coach had done which was revolutionary at that time is the old traditional idea for player development was maximum repetition.

So, you have these exhausting 3 to 3,5 hours practices. Of course, the idea was: The more often you touch the ball, or in field-hockey the more often you hit the ball, the better you are going to get; touching and hitting the ball is everything. And this German field-hockey coach took German field-hockey from basically nowhere to the top of the world with these revolutionary ideas. And what were these revolutionary ideas? They were the maximum length of the training session should be an hour and a half, and even though you don’t get the amount of repetitions you would get in a three, three and a half to four hour practice, what you gain in is an incredible excitement about playing and you come to practice basically rested, invigorated, excited to play and you fall in love with the game. And with the enthusiasm that comes back the next day with similar passion to again, you know, play the game with the sprint etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. And of course my practice is back then were about two or two and a half hours and I was thinking this is crazy while listening to Tina speak about this German field hockey coach that revolutionized not just German field hockey. But then the German Football Association also adopted this as a coaching principle. I stole that idea from Tina, came back to the United States to my college team and all of a sudden I went from these two and a half practices to an hour and a half very nervously, thinking I was going to ruin my players but I had faith in what Tina was telling me and all of a sudden she was absolutely right.

We came to practice with more energy, we were more aggressive in our training and all these things as any coach will tell you, are critical for player development. So I learned a lot from her. And I appreciate this form to share that in because I have huge admiration for her for what she told me. But also how gracious she was in the 91 World Championship by the way these lessons she taught me. She didn’t teach me post ‘91. She taught me pre ‘91, so maybe in ‘87, ’88, ‘89 and so I just owe her a wonderful deed for her willingness to share how much they have learned from field hockey.

The Competitive Cauldron and the critical pillars

That’s a great story. So you had influences from Germany for example, you told. What would you recommend young people who read our interview and want to become coaches? What can they do to become a good coach?

Well, if you look at my program… I talk about three pillars that make the difference in my program but also in the United States. The first pillar, we establish very early is called the Competitive Cauldron. And this is very much along the nature of pressing. This is a very aggressive practice where everything is recorded. Where every single aspect of the training environment has a winner or a loser. If we have, let’s say, a 30 player training raster and four are goalkeepers, we have a competition among the 26 field players to be the best in 28 different competitive categories. And some of these competitive categories are categories everyone would understand. Like speed. So with laser timers, we line the team up and they sprint to these things so we know who our fastest player is and who our slowest player is. We also have laser timers at 10 meters and 30 meters away from the start. So measuring two aspects when you sprint for 30 yards. One is your acceleration which is the amount of time that it takes you to hit the 10 meter lasers. So we measure your acceleration, we measure your speed. We measure your vertical jump, we measure your agility. They are all ranked from 1 to 26 as field players. The goalkeepers are doing the same thing but obviously their platforms are different to the field players. So they’re having this battle for goalkeepers on a raster from 1 to 4: Maybe a distance of drop kick, distance of punt or distance of goal kick or distance of how far they can throw it. So they‘re competing in similar sorts of things. And the field players are also having technical measures: The distance they can serve the ball, how far they can head a ball. So we have all those different technical things. Then in the United States, because baseball is such a popular game, all of us understand radar guns. A radar gun is when a coach stands behind the catcher in baseball. And the pitcher is trying to throw the ball as fast as possible to the catcher. The radar gun measures how fast the ball is moving. The best pitchers in America throw the ball 95 to 100 miles an hour. Most of the pitchers make millions of dollars in Major League Baseball and the pitchers that throw only 70 to 80 miles an hour, of course, they end up as youth baseball coaches. They never made it.

So what we do is to measure the power of a strike. So we have our manager sitting behind the goal and the players have four opportunities to hit the ball as hard as they can. They get a measure of how hard they hit it. We get a measure of their average strike. One thing I have learned in the women’s game: Without even assessing who the leader in the women’s team is, I could have this women’s team line up and shoot the ball into the goal with me standing behind it with the radar gun. And I will tell you, almost in order who the leading scores are. Because in women’s football, the power, and obviously the accuracy that you can strike the ball with will determine whether you are a leading goal scorer or not. In the men’s game power is certainly an element. And what’s even more important in the men’s game is accuracy. But in the women’s game, power tops accuracy. So with the radar gun, you can determine who your leading scores are.

We also have tournaments. And your win-loss-percentage in tournaments is a factor and all these different elements measure into the Cauldron. So, what we create is an incredibly training environment. We also have five different one on one ladders where you play each player on the team to see who – what we call – the alpha is. Who is the best one-on-one player?

And now we are seeing everyone playing. The defenders along with the attackers. Because a defender can often times win because even though they are not as good at beating the player off the dribble as the attacker is, they are very consistent in stopping the attackers. Sometimes a good attacker loses against great defenders. Because the great attackers – and no better example from ‘The Man Watching’ – the German coach trying to coach Cristiano Ronaldo to defend at Manchester United. Because the last thing that Cristiano Ronaldo ever wants to do is to ever defend. He wants to save all of his energy to attack and now this German coach has come in and he is asking Cristiano to defend which of course is ridiculous. Because that man is made millions on his ability to score goals and beat players off of the dribble. Because now pressing is such an important factor in success in higher levels, poor Cristiano is asked to defend. So it’s no longer just enough for him to just look good with perfect hair and a perfect physique but now he actually has to defend as well.

So we have all these different elements that are required to basically compete. So you know where you are staying. We have 28 different categories. We have an algorithm because we have x factors attached to the 28 competitive elements of the cauldron. There is an algorithm that will project the best player in practice at the end of the season. And sure, that top player almost perfectly reflects the best player on the team. Because the girls who work hardest in practice are the ones that are the best players. And so the ones who win the most compete the hardest etcetera etcetera etcetera. So, that’s one very critical pillar.

Another critical pillar, and a lot of coaches talk about this now, and it’s becoming more and more a part of the dialogue even more on a professional level, is the character of the players. Obviously, a lot of times when they are talking about the character of a player, that you know, without complaint, supports the team and its mission. There is nothing worse and by the way, television is so excited about this drama. One of the favorite moments for television showing a football game is certainly when a goal is scored or when a red card is produced. Or when there is a severe foul or if there is an opportunity to see if this goal is an offside goal or not or whether or not it’s a penalty kick or not. The other favorite moments for television is when a player is substituted. And why is this a favorite moment for television? Because the camera follows the player off the field when the player has been substituted out of the game. Why is the television camera doing that? Because everyone in the world is curious to see how pissed the player is at the coach for pulling the player out of the game.

When coaches talk about character, they talk about the compacity of the player, they gracefully leave the field for a substitute. And I watch it like all the rest of us do because it’s human, it’s dramatic. But the coach obviously approaches the player to thank him for the minutes. And you can see the players that are absolutely pissed. They avoid the coach, avoid the coach’s hand, avoid the coach’s touch. And then the camera continues to follow that player to the bench. As the player is, you know, talking to his teammates “I can’t believe, I was subbed out”. We are looking at the human drama of the unbelievably selfish player that has no personal character that he cares less about the team in the mission, that it’s all about him and it’s all about how he was disrespected and poorly treated by the coach and blablablablabla…Which is a disgusting and childish way to react.

And so the second critical pillar for us is: Are you core valued? These are a principle set we expect to live by. And these aren’t just behaviors on the soccer field. This is who you are. But who you are also determines the way you react to adversity. The way you can gracefully embrace or reject the coach whose only job is to try to win. And your only job, honestly, as a human being, is to be able to handle all of these challenging circumstances and situations. So, in my opinion, the most important thing is this character piece. All of our girls memorize each quotation in the thirteen Core Values. They have to be able to recite them publicly. Whenever I meet with them, and I meet with them formally three times a year. They have to recite them for me because they have agreed on their Core Value recitation. But also every player evaluates each other on a five-point scale on how effectively they live these core values.

Every teammate lives these core values. The top award is not the MVP. It is the Kelly Muldoon award for character.

So for me, this is very, very important. And if a girl doesn’t support the core value system and doesn’t live them, if they are on a scholarship, we try to get them to transfer. If they’re not on a scholarship, we try to get them to quit. Because clearly they do not belong in our team. Because this is the way. So, that’s the second critical pillar.

The third thing is one of my main jobs. One of my main jobs is to get everyone’s personal narrative to the truth. When that player comes off the field in a professional game that is disrespecting the coach. That player’s personal narrative is not at the truth. Because there is a reason why he was subbed out.

Either they are losing energy – so not fit enough – or they’re shaking responsibilities.  Or there is a tactical change because the team is behind and so they’ve taken out a defender and they added an attacking player and this player, you know, has a personal narrative that says “No, it’s not about the team. It’s about me.” And so the third critical pillar is for me to get every player’s personal narrative to the truth as fast as possible. Because every player comes into our environment with their personal narrative. And very few players have the narrative that’s the truth.

And here is a cliché I stole from Nick Saban who is a famous American football coach at University of Alabama. And not a soccer coach. This is the American football version. His statement is: Average players want to be left alone. Good players want to be coached. Great players want the truth. And so my job is to – first of all – assume everyone is a great player or at least wants to be. And then I try to give them to the truth. And while you try to give these players the truth, you can see whether or not, even in the way they act, whether or not they are average players or good players. Because the average player doesn’t want to hear any criticism. They just want to be left alone. The good players, yah, they want to be coached but they don’t really want the truth. They want you to sort of surround it, you know, with the old psychology, methodology of good comment, criticism, good comment. So basically, the criticism is surrounded by positives. So this poor fragile human being can leave the coaching player conference with their esteems intact. But the truly great players don’t care about all that. They want to become brave. They want to know what they have to work on immediately. And one of the greatest players that I have ever coached is a woman by the name of Michelle Akers who was such an extraordinary player for the United States. And the opinion of most people is that she is the greatest player of all time across the world, all cultures. She was a player without a weakness. She was one of the greatest headers in the world. She could score with her left foot. She could score with her right foot. She could run past you. She was strong enough to post-up. She was brilliant on the ball and she could play any position: You could play her in the nine, you could play her in the ten, you could play her in the five, you could play her anywhere.

And she was just as good in that position. She`d be the best in the world in that position. And what was interesting when I coached her is: Every single time I met with her all she wanted was criticism. She would brush off my compliments very fast to get what she was there for. She was there for me to tell her what she needed to do to become the greatest player in the world. And so, it was so wonderful coaching her. She and I are still very, very close and I love that. I didn’t have to worry about what I was going to say to her. And so many players are so fragile. You can’t really say anything to them. They are so fragile about this and you mention this and all of a sudden their confidence is shattered. And we had players that would tell their mum she was playing so badly because of my criticisms of her. And that destroyed her confidence. So I used to get these text messages from her mum about how I destroyed her daughter. How did I destroy her daughter? I destroyed her daughter by coaching her. So, what’s the job of the coach? Our job, our main function is to sit there and kiss her rear end all day? Our main function is to hold each player accountable.

And yet, there are some that come from such fragile environments of parents that have done nothing but, you know, lavished praises upon them. The criticism shatters them. It’s pretty difficult. You find out that you’re not God’s gift to the game. And yet you’re going to have the strength to survive this.

And to reflect and handle that.

Yes, exactly. Most of the three main pillars, the competitive cauldron, the core values, trying to get everyone’s personal narrative to the truth. Probably, the three most important aspects of what we do here at the University of North Carolina. Of course, if you look at the US team, that’s what we instilled into them, way back in the day and this day, that’s the quality that separates the United States: Our compacity to compete. Because right now the Germans are tactically probably more advanced as are the Dutch, as are the French, as are probably the English. The French and the Japanese are better tactically. The French are certainly as good athletically as the United States. So why does the United States still compete at the highest level?

Well, it’s our compacity to compete. That’s the area that still separates the United States. Because we don’t have a football culture like you do. We don’t turn the television on and all everyone talks about is football, no. We talk about basketball, we talk about baseball,…

Ice-hockey…

Yeah, I mean, there are so many sport distractions. And so this is the quality that still separates the United States. Our compacity to win, to compete. And when I was the National Coach for eight years, we instilled that in the US National team. They still live it to this day.

The second part of the interview will be published on July 8, 2022, and the third part on July 10, 2022.

Fußballbuch – Update Nr. 7: Von Michael Lahoud zu Kelly Conheeney

– ENGLISH VERSION BELOW –

Liebe Fußballfans!

Lange gab es keine Neuigkeiten rund um das Fußballbuch. Wir leben in einer besonderen Zeit und aus diesem Grund sind manche Dinge einfach anders und dauern ein bisschen länger.

… Jetzt darf ich wieder freudig vermelden, dass das Fußballbuch erneut einige hundert Kilometer zurückgelegt hat. Es waren sogar rund 2.000 km an der Zahl. Denn Michael Lahoud aus Texas hat das Buch an Kelly Conheeney in Kalifornien weitergegeben.

Lasst uns gespannt sein, wohin das Buch als Nächstes reist!

Sportliche Grüße

Lisa Blue

 

ENGLISH VERSION: 

Dear soccer enthusiasts!

There has been no news about the football book for a long time. We live in a special time and for this reason some things are just different and take a little longer.

… Now I am happy to report that the football book has once again covered several hundred kilometres. In fact, it travelled around 2,000 kilometres. Michael Lahoud from Texas has passed the book on to Kelly Conheeney in California.

Let’s be curious where the book will travel to next!

Sportive regards

Lisa Blue

Football book – Update no 6: From Ryan Smith to Michael Lahoud (English Version)

Dear football fans from all over the world,

As announced before, the football book has travelled from London to Texas. Michael Lahoud, former MLS player and Sierra Leonean international, has immortalized himself in it and answered my questions about the book, but above all about his life story… Read for yourself what wonderful experiences he could make through football…

Enjoy, take care and stay at home!

Lisa Blue

 

 

Interview with Michael Lahoud

 

Lisa: Hello Michael, Thank you very much for your time. It was so nice when I heard that the book went towards Texas and now we are talking with a time difference of seven hours. Football really connects people

Why did you want to take part in this project and what did Ryan tell you so that you wanted to take part in?

Michael: You know, I think what really interested me is – I am a big believer that things happen for a reason and that things are coming to your life at the right time. So, Ryan and I, we have been catching up and when he messaged me about the book, it came at the perfect time because I started reflecting back on my career. I started reflecting back on this season. And I really needed to be reminded of why I play this game. So it was just really the right time to be able to be given a blank canvas, to write something, to be a part of something, and really to give back to the game of football something that has given me so much. I want to give back so this story seems like a perfect opportunity.

What do you like most about the game? Is it about the connection of people from everywhere, is it the team feeling or what do you like?

It’s multi-fascinating, I absolutely love playing. It’s a place where you can dream in football or it’s a place where it doesn’t matter where you come from, your background doesn’t matter. Personally for me, football was the place where my background, my story, my socio-economic status doesn’t matter. In football age, race, nationality: It does not matter. We are all connected by football. And I think that I got to know there what really inspired me is anything that was given to me, anything that was taught to me, it has really started to inspire me to pass that knowledge on. I believe in young people, in young footballers. I used to be a young footballer and someone believed in me and so, whenever I get up there with young players and I see a little bit of myself in them, makes me that much more passionate about playing the game.

How hard was it? You have been a refugee when you came to the United States. Did you came on your own or with your family?

I came to the US as a refugee, I traveled by myself and I was awarded an emergency reason when I was six years old. I had no clue what was going on around me, but there is a tragic civil war going on in Sierra Leone at that time and that visa saved my life and football, really, saved my life. And when I came here, it didn’t know what was going on. I knew that I was going to come to reconnect with my family, my immediate family. But it was the best thing that probably could happen to me that I was too young to know anything. But I am very grateful for that visa, and that’s something I will never forget.

I imagine it must have been so hard because you were six years old, a little child…

Yes, it was difficult. It was hard enough when you go to somewhere new. The language is very difficult. English is spoken around the world but it’s unlike any other language. So I was learning English in school back in Africa. But what really made it difficult for me was, as a child, from Sierra Leone, we just grew up as Sierra Leonians. We never talked about what race you where, what you believe … It was really was we are just like all the same. And when I came to America… It was the first time that I felt different. And it was the first time it was hard done how different I was. So, I was so confused because I was like – God damn –  I have never experienced this before. And the easiest way to tell who you are if no one says it for you is: who you are not. So I just started noticing all the differences. That was very difficult for me.

Did you make experience with racism or how did you feel?

No, I lucked out. The first day I came to school in America, I met my best friend. Believe it or not: It was football that connected us.

That is really the power of football. It really unites the world. When I came to school, I was so afraid. A group of kids where playing football. Really, I wanted to be seen and I did not want to be seen because I hoped that no one sees me because I don’t know, I am the kid that’s different, that’s new. That is different. And of course, whenever you don’t want that you will be seen. The ball came to me, someone kicked the ball at a bounce. And the students said: ‘Hey, throw the ball.’ And I have never thrown a ball before, so I was very nervous. I did the one thing but I did not know how to do. I got the ball and I volleyed it back to them. And they have never seen that before. I volleyed it so hard and I kicked it over the roof of the building. I had the respect of everybody immediately. I was the kiddy who was new and nobody noticed. It didn’t hurt that the first person that came over to me was a most popular kid at school who said: ‘Hey, I have never seen anyone do that! You’re my new best friend.’ And he took me to his family. He was like: ‘Oh, this is my goalie, he can kick both – soccer balls, tennis balls – on the roof’. I could not believe it.

Did you get the chance to live in a family there because you were very young or was it like a refugee home?

My family was here. It was really interesting being in Sierra Leone and my family being here. I didn’t realize that I was so grateful for that. We all have family that is our blood. And we have the people become family to us. Because of that day it was like I was adopted.

He was like your brother…

Yes, really. It was really like I became part of them, it was offered this adopted family. They were so awesome to my biological family and they were so loving for me. My parents worked all the time. My mum, in particular, she’s a nurse, so it was really difficult for us trying to make sense of life here from where we came from. But my best friend, his name is Jack Wolf, I am forever grateful for what they meant to my family and I, over the years, what they made for me over the years.

Michael Lahoud played for Miami FC. Photo: Alenny Orovio
Michael Lahoud played for Miami FC. Photo: Alenny Orovio

In your story you wrote down into the football book, you wrote about the sports psychologist Dr. Cristina Fink. That she changed your life…

She was a part of my club at the time of the MLS (Major League Soccer). She was in Los Angeles. Here in Americas we do trades. It is similar to the basketball system. I am grateful that one trade allowed me to meet Dr. Cristina Fink. From the moment I met her, I knew that I need to work with her. It was never anything she said but she has this presence. I didn’t know her story or her background. She is a former Olympian, a high-jumper, from Mexico City. She is a very, very, very brilliant woman. I really knew that I wanted to get better. I wanted to be the best possible footballer I could be. I knew that I was given a talent. I knew my career could go places but I knew that talent wasn’t enough. I wanted help. There was a point where I needed help to get there and that was a very humbling experience. It was the first time in my career that I experienced not being the star. I experienced not being ‘the football player’ and that’s very humbling, if you experience it, when you get at professional sports. I think that adversity is the best thing that can happen to footballers, especially to young footballers. So, it was the right time for me to meet her and so, I was the only person in the team who was going to see her. Everyone, at that time, saying sports psychologists were not really like popular here, especially in America. But I did not really know who else was doing it but once she told me that this was a big thing throughout the rest of the world. And ‘in America, you guys are behind.’ And this aspect with sports, especially with football… That really helped me seeing that even the greatest of football stars, they needed help longer way to get there where they are. You can’t do it on your own. And so, it was just a perfect fit.

In what way did she help you at most?

Part of it was mental coaching but it never felt like coaching of any sorts. It just felt like someone who believed in me, who saw more in me that I could see. More than my talent. I think, every coach that I ever played for, saw, but could never put into words. She was the first person who could.

How old have you been when you met her the first time?

I was 26 years old. I was really haunted by this feeling of doing well is not enough. I have to kill it, I have to be the best of the best ever, I have to leave, everyone has to leave watching me with standing ovation. That’s not realistic. There is always someone who is better than you, who is better than you at something. Cristina didn’t try to take that away from me. She just gave me another perspective. She said: ‘Don’t lose that, and use another way of looking at it, use another way of motivating yourself. It’s not out there. It was always inside of you’. The most amazing things she said to me apart from playing for the love of the game was: ‘A good player doesn’t have to show that he is a good player. He just is one’. That stripped away that feeling of: ‘I need to prove, I need to prove, every day I need to prove,’ and really giving your validation to other people. Other people decide how you are doing. She said: ‘No. You know, a good footballer knows he is a good footballer. He hasn’t to tell the world, he has to know.’ In football, you have to fulfill your job.

It was those type of conversations that were so enlightening. In football, as much as to have talent, I would always think my way through. It came so naturally to me that I would – you know, in my head, I prepared the match as a young boy. At university, neither as a pro, I would get my mind ready and so to be on the work with someone who helped say: ‘Hey, here are some things that you are doing that will help you.’ And, ‘here are some ways that you can actually use to develop your mind to the next level.’ It’s really an incredible experience.

Did you have an idol like Zizou or did you just try to believe in yourself and try what you could?

Yeah, absolutely. Zinedine Zidane was never my idol, I thought he was an amazing footballer. It wasn’t just the class of what he played. He almost played of an elegance that he was so good. And he knew it. And you knew it. But it was that he knew it. And he wanted you to know it. My idol was David Beckham. He was someone who showed me that you can be more than football. For him, it was the commercial aspect of things. But he was the modern-day footballer who did really take that to another level: That you can be more than football. And this means something different for everyone else. For him, it’s the fame. He is also a family man. You can actually be a footballer but you can still be more than football.

Additionally, I would like to ask you about your social engagement. What projects do you do for social purposes?

It is something that has become a passion along with football. In 2010, I met a woman who asked me a question which changed my life. She asked me: ‘How would you like to change the world?’ And I was just started on my career and I was never expecting anyone who was asking me that if it didn’t have to do with football. I answered: ‘Oh, I change the world with football, being an amazing footballer’. But it really invited me into, you know, that the world is bigger than just me. And there is a social currency that runs deeper than just what I see. It’s bigger than just me. It captured my heart in a way that I knew. That I would change, and I would never be the same. That question she asked me, invited me in a process of self-discovery. It has expended my mind. I really wanted to use football, rather than just that means it is from my own game. To use football as a platform to benefit others. When you are a footballer and you play every weekend – yes, you play for your own passions and your own desires – but you are only a professional because the fans pay to watch you play. Without the fans you’re just – you’re an amateur. What it means to be a part of the team, play for that badge: You play for a tradition that is bigger than you. The players that make the greatest impact in the game, they embody that, they take that on, this means more to them. That message of this means more. My life, my story, my career…It means more. And I really want to use that to impact my home country, my native country of Sierra Leone. Her question invited me of finding out more. Not just about who I am, but where I come from. It helped me to recover a part of me because of Civil War and moving to America. So I like to use my platform as a footballer to make sure that this war in Sierra Leone never happens again. I want to help the children to make sure that this never happens again.

She was helping my country to build schools in my home country. She is a former Peace Corp member. I could not believe the timing. I never had a person whose timing was that impactable to enter my life and enter my eyes.

What did you do?

I started up on a journey. I really wanted to build a school in my hometown in Sierra Leone. In five years, we did this along with my Sierra Leone national team-teammates; we partnered to build a school. That’s something I will forever be proud of. Along the way to that process, awful things were happening in that country; Cholera broke out in 2014; a friend of mine from Heidelberg and I, we teamed out to raise money for ‘Doctors Without Borders,’ and we created this campaign called ‘Kick Ebola in the butt’. People really liked it: They supported the cause and they supported the school. It is amazing what playing for something and using a sport that brings people that would have otherwise never been connected together – when you use that for a cause that is bigger than yourself, for a common cause, it’s amazing, the power of football. I think that encapsulated the power of football. Now, we are looking to take that school to the next level by really incorporating playing football. For these kids, we built a football pitch at a school. It is incredible power for them, also for the people in the neighborhood. It is a moment that I will never forget seeing the kids you are impacting and the gratitude.

Thank you very much for these stories! Now, I would like to come back to the topic of the football book. Why did you decide to take part in our project?

I believe in stories. The most powerful thing about every one of us is our stories and the stories can’t say being written. Being able to go back to Sierra Leone and witness the story that was being written there, it made me so grateful for the people who supported me and encouraged me through the process in building that school. What I played for, or what might have been if I hadn’t, or stopped because there are people who are counting on me that I didn’t know, that I’ve never seen before half-way across the world; who are counting on me to keep their dream alive and to see those people saying ‘Thank you! Because of your dream, we have a chance in life.’ When I think about seeing those kids, that’s what really touches me and I always remember.

We do live in a world of excellence and luxury. If I could give just one wish to other Americans, it would be the ability to travel the world. In Europe, you guys travel so much. Here in America, because the country is so big, a lot of people do not travel so much. Everybody should try to get other perspectives. We need each other, as humans, not just our neighbors.

Sierra Leone training camp ahead of Swaziland v Sierra Leone on 18 May 2014. Lobamba, Swaziland.
Michael Lahoud at the international match against Swaziland on May 18, 2014. Photo © www.XtraTimeSports.net / Darren McKinstry

When would the book be successful in your eyes?

It feels such an honor to be a part of this book because we all have stories as I said, and even as footballers, people think that everything is just ‘perfect’. They only see you from outside and there is much more to footballers, and human beings, as well. We have struggles, we have moments that change our lives. To be able to invite other people into our stories, it’s really an intimate experience of this book and I can really see it taking it off. I am really excited to go back and read stories. Go back and read my own story with a different perspective, in a few years. I think it’s a special project and it reminds us to be human. When I say that, for me, humanity, there is a sense of stories. The power of stories. That is something that we never lose. That stories make us human.

Thanks a lot for all the great impressions, Mike.

You’re welcome.