By Kyle Gehman, BA Development Studies
While some students used February’s reading week to their academic advantage, the SOAS men’s football team was busy going on a fairytale run in the Les Parisiennes sports tournament in Paris which ended in a tense final against the hosts Sciences Po.
The group stages kicked off on a blustery morning on Friday, 18 February in circumstances well accustomed to the team in their previous months of playing. Firstly, French public transport strikes forced an early warm up of jogging to the train station from the hostel to catch one of the few trains running, whose platform was located only after a few well-intended, but poorly-received attempts of questioning information officials in what can only be described as a ‘French-like’ language. Secondly, to avoid forfeiting the match for lateness, a second, more fast-paced jog, was conducted from the station to the pitches which left many players reeling after the previous night’s shenanigans.
‘The first day was quite difficult,’ defender Katsumi Shimmura said. ‘Transportation was a complete mess and we barely had time to have breakfast. The only thing I could eat was an orange that I had on the train.’
Once on the pitch though, it was business as usual. The first match against Amsterdam University College 1, we saw the Dutch take first blood with a smart finish to make it 1-0. However, on the ensuing kick off, midfielder Kyle Gehman took a long range shot from the halfway line that knuckled in front of the goalkeeper before nestling in the bottom corner to tie it up just before halftime. The second half saw both teams pressing for a winner until forward Bertie King brought down the ball, spun his defender and coolly slotted the ball for what proved to be the winner.
‘It felt great to get the winner against Amsterdam UC,’ King said. ‘Having played every league game this season nursing a hangover, I’m glad I could use my experience for good, for once, and help the team win an important group match to kick off the tournament.’
To pass the time before the next fixture, the squad cheered on the SOAS volleyball teams and the women’s football team and joined in on some of the other activities held by the tournament organisers; namely zumba dancing and consumption of sandwiches containing baguettes that bred suspicions of being surplus from World War II.
The second game saw SOAS face up against the team they would eventually play in the final: Sciences Po 1. Already shocking pitch conditions were worsened with a short, but aggressive downpour of rain. For a team used to playing on London pitches such as the self-described Hackney Marshes, this proved to not be a problem. Partway into the first-half, the game saw its only goal when the ball found the feet of forward Manny Arber who smartly shot the ball low into the corner as the French opposition bemoaned the referee for a call not made in the build up play. Solid defensive work and a handful of saves from stand-in goalkeeper Israfeel Kusi-Addo saw the game close with a 1-0 win.
‘We struggled to retain possession for large parts of the game which makes it hard to compete,’ said Arber. ‘But we showed good resilience to not concede and take the chance when it came. Overall it was a very competent display because no team is going to control every game.’
The final group game against Télécom Paris saw the boys continue what they had started with a comfortable 3-0 win. There were two goals from Gehman and one from forward Omar Ghosaini. By reaching top of the group, an automatic place in the semi-finals against Sciences Po 2 was confirmed for the following day. The day didn’t end there though as the team spent the remaining hours exploring local bars and restaurants and collecting grumpy interactions from French waiters who had probably accurately guessed that the SOASians had spent the day running circles around their countrymen.
With bellies full of delicious croissants, the team kicked off the semi-final with a vocal crowd of the home team’s supporters and a few equally dedicated fans in the away team section. The testy affair went into halftime goal-less, but with the English side creating a majority of the chances. These chances were finally converted when Arber bore down on the Sciences Po goal before squaring the ball to midfielder Ali Muttawa who tapped the ball in. A second goal was provided by Ghosaini after turning his defender and finding the back of the net with his shot. With the game ending 2-0, SOAS booked their way to the final for a rematch against Sciences Po 1.
We knew we were the best team on the pitch and now our eyes were on the final.
‘It was a great team build up, a lovely assist, and it’s always great scoring with the boys,’ commented Muttawa on his goal. ‘We knew we were the best team on the pitch and now our eyes were on the final.’
After a last-minute game delay, the final match began. The first half saw few, meaningful chances created for either team as nerves of being in the final appeared to unsettle both teams. SOAS’ nerves were put to the test as they quickly realised that both the referee couldn’t speak English and that Sciences Po was unwilling to translate. The second half got off to a bad start when a perfectly placed volley from Sciences Po’s captain found the top corner and a mix up at the back led to a second goal for the French side. After this, the tempo of the match increased and SOAS quickly grew into the game creating several chances. One of which was converted by Ghosaini to make it 2-1. A few more chances and a penalty shout waved away by the referee after Muttawa was toppled over by an opposition challenge was all that was left though, and the game finished as a 2-1 win for Sciences Po.
Although disappointed, the team didn’t walk away empty handed as they returned to London with copious amounts of wine in their bellies, smells of three-day unwashed football socks in their noses, and newfound love and appreciation for each other in their hearts.
The team poses for a photo after a day of going undefeated in the group stages. (Credit: June Derz)