Soccer a sanctuary for Ali Kazemaini
On Halloween, a few hours before taking his daughter and son out to trick-or-treat, Cleveland State soccer coach Ali Kazemaini was remembering when the only link he had to his own parents was letters that were so sad he couldn't bear to read them.
But it was a happy event -- a very joyous one, in fact -- the day before that had him reminiscing. There was an earth-shaker on Cleveland State's soccer field Saturday, the kind of upset that almost no one was expecting to happen.
The Vikings, a very young and injury-depleted group that came in with a 7-9 record, were expected to be No. 1-ranked Akron's 15th victory of the season. A mere formality for the mighty Zips, right? They had not lost a regular-season match since 2008, a streak of 47 in a row with just three ties.
Yet Sunday, Kazemaini was reflecting on the Vikings' 2-1 victory -- before 1,877 fans, the largest crowd ever at Krenzler Field -- as being one of the most important in the program's history. And no one can put that history into more amazing, global perspective than he can.
"The soccer field has been a sanctuary for me," Kazemaini said. "I am fortunate that my upbringing was strong enough that I didn't go the wrong way. But soccer is what got me through it, and the city of Cleveland in particular. The people of Cleveland made a big mark on my heart.
"I played soccer collegiately here. I played professionally here, and I have a soccer academy that's been around for several years. I coached at John Carroll University. And when the opportunity came at Cleveland State, the school I played for, I thought that could give me another way to help local kids. At Division III, you can't give athletic scholarships and it leaves out some of the less-fortunate kids.
"This way, at Division I in my own backyard, I can keep helping kids in this community. It goes along with my upbringing about loyalty and understanding where you come from and giving something back."
Kazemaini had come to Cleveland State three decades ago to play soccer as a teenage boy very far from a home. A home that was, at the time, considered the United States' most hostile enemy. He'd ended up in Ohio when one of his club coaches in Southern California had taken the head coaching job at Cleveland State.
But how had he gotten to Orange County? His parents had sent him there from his native Iran, just as the storm that resulted in the Islamic revolution had begun.
His father, Kazem, was minister of sport in Iran, then, and he and his wife, Effat, made the decision at the start of 1978 that their three children would be safer out of the country. The two oldest were young adults, so they understood what was happening.
But when Ali, then 14, was sent to Germany, he thought he was just visiting. He had no idea it would be seven years before he would see his parents again.
From Germany, he went to live with a foster family in the United States that took him in for several months until his brother, who is 10 years older and initially was sent to England, was able to secure passage here, too, to be his guardian. Their sister remained in Germany.
"I'll never forget the date: Jan. 6, 1978," Kazemaini said of arriving in California. "And three days later, I went to a public high school without speaking a word of English. It was absolutely terrifying.
"I was a kid, and the magnitude of what went on between the governments back then was beyond me. The hurt for me of being away from my parents was the most important thing for me to try to get over. The politics of the situation -- I have to say it didn't really matter to me. I had to be so strong just to fight being homesick, nothing else made any difference. And soccer was the only place where I felt at ease."
Sports was also where Kazemaini most quickly picked up English. He didn't fully grasp the hostility between the nations until his freshman year at Cleveland State -- when American hostages were being held in Iran -- and he won the MVP honor at a tournament in New York.
"But they told me not to come up to podium to get the award, because people in the stands were starting to shout things because they'd found out I was Iranian," he said. "And they were throwing soda cans and stuff on the field. They said, 'Better just get on the bus and get out of here.'
"That was the first time, really, I said, 'Whoa,' and this was three years after I'd been here. It finally hit me what was going on. But I think people here in Cleveland took me in. The soccer community was so generous with me. There are a lot of ethnicities who live in the Cleveland area, so I wasn't alone. There were a lot of first-generation Americans here. That's why I've stayed so loyal to the town."
Kazemaini led the Vikings in scoring all four seasons he played at Cleveland State. He was such a strong player that the coach of the U.S. Olympic team wanted him for the 1984 Los Angeles games -- not realizing he wasn't an American citizen and that, in fact, his student visa actually had expired.
When this came to light, for a brief time it appeared Kazemaini might even get deported. He remembers at the time, he figured that actually wouldn't be the worst thing.
"I was still a kid, and I thought, 'I don't care. If it happens, I'll be reunited with my mom and dad,'" he said.
His contact with them since he'd come to the United States had been limited to exchanging letters.
"I cannot even describe how sad some of those letters were -- it got to where I wouldn't even open them," he said. "I was relocated across the world, and I had been very close to my mom, especially. And reading her letters -- I just couldn't take it."
He finally got to see his parents again in 1985, after he'd finished his Cleveland State career and been drafted by the Cleveland Force of the Major Indoor Soccer League. He'd been offered a chance to play professionally in Germany after college, but didn't want to leave the country. He'd realized by then how important it had become to think of the United States as his home.
He played professional indoor soccer from 1984-93, with stops in Tacoma, Wash., Baltimore and Canton, Ohio, along with Cleveland. Then he began coaching at Division III John Carroll University in suburban Cleveland, where he spent 14 seasons and went 177-61-13.
In the meantime, the Cleveland State program had fallen into hard times. The Vikings concluded a horrendous 0-17-1 season in 2005, the program's 12th year in a row with a losing record. So in December of that year, Kazemaini took on the task of improving the program at which he'd had most of his happiest memories during a difficult time.
The Vikings have been 33-47-13 under Kazemaini, with Saturday's victory being his biggest to date as Cleveland State's head coach.
"This win is so important for the program in terms of capturing interest of the local kids who would never look at us versus Akron, and also for recruiting outside the state of Ohio," he said. "We're excited for what this can do for us. This naturally gives us confidence. We go to Butler, which is also an undefeated team, on Friday. The remainder of the season, this gives us some momentum."
So how did the Vikings beat the Zips?
"We played our usual style for most of the game, but at the end of each half we pressured more," said Vikings sophomore goal keeper Brad Stuver, who made five saves. "We pushed an extra guy forward, which left our midfield a little more open, and so the defenders had to pick up more responsibilities. In the second half, we were able to capitalize."
The first goal came with 11 ½ minutes left in the match, as Aslinn Rodas scored on a cross from fellow freshman Caleb Eastham. Then just after the 9-minute mark, Akron's John Gulden was taken down in the penalty box, and Michael Nanchoff was able to beat Stuver on the penalty kick.
But the Vikings weren't done. Their pressing style to end the game got the best of Akron. Another freshman, Jordan Hart, got behind the defense, took a pass and beat Zips keeper David Meves with 7 minutes left. Akron out-shot Cleveland State 12-6, but the Vikings prevailed.
Winning the Horizon League tournament would give the Vikings the automatic bid into the NCAA tournament, but they would probably have to knock off Butler, the conference's regular-season champion at 15-0-1, to do that. The win over the Zips, though, gives Cleveland State more leverage for an at-large bid if it comes to that.
"Even with the injuries we had, we thought we could compete with them," Stuver said. "But it was kind of hard to imagine ourselves winning. This game at this point in the season is huge. It gives us all the hope in the world -- if we can beat the No. 1 team, we can beat any team out there.
"After the game, it was just chaos. Most of our freshmen, especially, had never played in front of a crowd that big. We were all running around the field on cloud nine."
Kazmaini was right there celebrating with them.
"He always tells us stories about how he came here and his experiences," Stuver said. "He really wants to get to know his players, and it's a special bond he has with our team."
Kazemaini's parents are still alive, living in the same house in which he grew up in Iran. He's gone back to visit them the last several years. He hopes next summer to take his wife, Michelle, 7-year-old daughter Zari (named after his sister, who also lives again in Iran) and son Ali Jr., 5, to see his homeland for the first time.
"I look at the world as being so small really," Kazemaini said. "I was able to go to a completely different part of the world and call it home. I'm not the type to look at the governments and all that. I don't get involved in politics. Sports is my thing. When I go back to Iran, my aspiration is to give back to the youth there, too.
"I feel fortunate that I'm in a business of being around kids and being able to make a positive impact with them. I present soccer to all of my players as like life."
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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