I'm not particularly interested in youth soccer, have no connections with the Atlanta area, and am usually pretty skeptical about "feel-good" stories. But I was powerfully moved by "Refugees Find Hostility and Hope on Soccer Field," which appeared on Page 1 of yesterday's New York Times. It wasn't only the subject matter, although that could have sufficed: the story tells of the Fugees (short for refugees), a boys' soccer team that plays against staggering odds in Clarkston, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb. All the team members have fled some of the world's scariest places (Afghanistan, Bosnia, Burundi, Congo, Gambia, Iraq, Kosovo, Liberia, Somalia, Sudan) and were placed by resettlement agencies in this town of 7,100. "Some have endured unimaginable hardship to get here: squalor in refugee camps, separation from siblings and parents," reporter Warren St. John tells us. "One saw his father killed in their home."
The boys are lucky: their coach is an extraordinarily compassionate and dedicated woman who is herself an immigrant: Lula Mufleh grew up in Jordan and graduated from Smith College in the U.S. They are also unlucky: many people in Clarkston, including the town's mayor, feel threatened by the refugees and have decided to ban soccer from the town park, the only place the Fugees can afford to play.
It's a terrific story. But the best thing about it is what it isn't. It isn't melodramatic. It isn't florid. Most important, it isn't about Warren St. John. Unlike too many newspaper journalists these days, St. John stays quietly in the background and lets the story tell itself.
This is harder to do than it seems. It's much easier to stack the decks and turn the boy refugees into Dickensian heroes and the town officials into ogres. And it's tempting to turn a long feature like this one into a showcase for one's own writing skills. St. John resists both pitfalls. He chooses his words carefully: he doesn't use needless synonyms for "he said," and he picks his adjectives with exquisite care. He alternates adroitly among descriptive passages, quotations, and tense play-by-play--very different styles of writing, yet here part of a seamless whole. He makes connections subtly, never allowing the reader to feel manipulated.
As I said, not easy.
Take a look at this excerpt and see whether you agree. Then read the whole story now--this week--before the Times charges you a fee to see it.
After being ejected from a game against the Fugees in November, a rival player made an obscene gesture to nearly every player on the Fugees before heading to his bench. And opponents sometimes mocked the Fugees when they spoke to each other in Swahili, or when Ms. Mufleh shouted instructions in Arabic.
There were even incidents involving referees. Two linesmen were reprimanded by a head referee during a pregame lineup in October for snickering when the name Mohammed Mohammed was called.
Ms. Mufleh tells her players to try their best to ignore these slights. When the other side loses its cool, she tells them, it is a sign of weakness.
Ms. Mufleh is just as fatalistic about bad calls. In her entire coaching career, she tells her players, she has never seen a call reversed because of arguing.
The Fugees are perhaps better equipped to accept this advice than most. Their lives, after all, have been defined by bad calls. On the field, they seem to have a higher threshold for anger than the American players, who often respond to borderline calls as if they are catastrophic injustices. Bad calls, Ms. Mufleh teaches her players, are part of the game. You have to accept them, and move on.