Enthusiast works to improve Columbia's soccer scene

Wednesday, September 19, 2012 | 7:50 p.m. CDT; updated 7:53 a.m. CDT, Thursday, September 20, 2012
Omoro Ewharekuko passes the ball to another member of the C.P.L. soccer team. Ewharekuko, a Nigerian immigrant, started the Columbia Premier League two years ago in hopes of promoting better competition in men's soccer. The league is meant to mimic the English Premier League.

COLUMBIA — At first glance, Omoro Ewharekuko is just like any other soccer fanatic.

A visit to his apartment finds him bouncing a ball while intently watching a rerun of an international match that was played months ago.

Columbia Premier League Championship

C.P.L. vs. Renaissance F.C.

When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Cosmopolitan Park

Official Website

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He has to leave for work at Walgreens in a few minutes, but that’s not his real job.

You can call him “Commissioner.”

Ewharekuko, 34, is at the center of men’s soccer in Columbia. His project is the Columbia Premier League, and he is passionate about delivering the best product he can.

Ewharekuko — everyone calls him “O” — and his friend Osa Onaghise created the league to fill a glaring need for a competitive men’s recreational association in Columbia. Both men played in a different Columbia league for years before growing tired of beating up on other teams by large margins.

“That was my selling point,” Ewharekuko said of his new league. “The games are not going to be 8-0, 9-0.”

The Premier League began in 2011. Ewharekuko and Onaghise assembled more than 100 players to make up six teams, with the higher level of play being the biggest draw.

“When you’re winning games big, it’s not fun,” Rick Messner, the player-coach for Jazz International, said. “This is definitely much higher competition.”

While the league has been a big success so far, Ewharekuko faces constant challenges to keep it running.

Columbia’s Cosmopolitan Park charges $136 to reserve a soccer field for the day, a fee the league has paid nearly every Sunday since April 22, with the only exceptions being when teams are competing in other tournaments around the state. Ewharekuko is in charge of collecting money from teams every week and making sure a full crew of paid referees is present for every contest.

Add to that workload the stress of dealing with players who are upset with referees and game results, and Sundays can get hectic.

During a Sept. 16 semifinal game, one player told Ewharekuko the league would owe him a new ball if no one went to grab his out of the woods after the game.

“O has the most thankless job of anybody here,” Messner said. “He’s gotta put up with us.”

These things are small prices to pay for Ewharekuko, who gets a thrill from tasks such as scheduling games, keeping track of statistics and updating the league’s website. He emigrated from Nigeria with his mother in 1991 and has found a way to translate his nation’s favorite pastime into a full-time American hobby.

“All we know is soccer,” Ewharekuko said of his native country. “We’re not good at swimming or anything else.”

He picked up the game as a 2-year-old, and is now slowly building a soccer empire in mid-Missouri.

In 2013, the Columbia Premier League’s third season, Ewharekuko anticipates a merger with the same Columbia soccer league he and Onaghise, who is also from Nigeria, left two years ago. The plan is to double the number of teams to 12.

Tougher schedules are also in the works. Next season, Premier League teams will travel to Moberly, Kansas City and St. Louis to face off against the best men’s squads Missouri has to offer.

“We’re excited about it,” Onaghise said. “It’s going to be way bigger than what we have this year.”

Now nearing the end of its second season, the Columbia Premier League’s championship game is set for Sunday. The game fittingly features Ewharekuko’s C.P.L. against Onaghise’s Renaissance F.C.

Although the season will be over soon, Ewharekuko won’t have much trouble continuing to compete. He seems to have a built-in radar for pickup games around the city.

"Anywhere there is soccer," Ewharekuko said, "I am there."

He has a blast on the pitch, playing nearly any position and simultaneously shouting directions to teammates. He is the player-coach for C.P.L., in charge of substitutions and formation switches, but he doesn’t let his on- or off-the-field duties distract him when the ball is at his feet.

The Columbia Premier League is Ewharekuko’s chance to channel his passion into the Columbia soccer community.

Playing soccer is the easy part.

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