*Update: This story has been updated to correct name of the hometown of Lorie Morgan.
COLUMBIA — The first weekend of the Show-Me State Games brought soccer to the numerous fields at Cosmopolitan Park devoted to the sport. With the World Cup and the games overlapping (and more Americans watching the World Cup than ever), fans on and off the fields were anticipating matches on far-away pitches and playing with renewed passion.
Mahamat Ali Tchetchere, 30, Columbia
Mahamat Ali Tchetchere had a simple, matter-of-fact reason for liking soccer.
"It's the most beautiful game ever," he said.
Tchetchere is originally from Chad, where soccer is the "main sport," and said he didn't know how to calculate how long he's played.
He moved to Missouri from Chad in 2004 to go to school. He recently completed his master's degree in business at Columbia College, always taking the time to find a pick-up soccer game.
This was Tchetchere's fourth year playing in the Show-Me State Games, and he plays regularly in a Sunday league at Cosmo Park. He said the U.S. has become "invested" in soccer, but he thinks the World Cup team has room for improvement.
"They’re not there yet," he said. "They’re good, but they’re not World Cup title winners yet."
Tchetchere said he's rooting for all the African teams, but their lack of scoring aggravates him.
He was even less optimistic about his home country's soccer team, which has never qualified for its continental tournament, the African Cup of Nations, let alone the World Cup.
"No, no, that's a team you don't talk about," he said laughing. "They're not that good."
Lorie Morgan, 56, *Chesterton, Indiana
Lorie Morgan, her friend Amy Gastineau and Gastineau's infant daughter found a shaded spot to set up their blanket. Beyond the fence and a small hill in front of them, they watched Morgan's daughter, Ashley Morgan, play in the Women's Open competition.
Lorie Morgan was too far away to cheer loud enough for her daughter to hear, but she remarked quietly whenever Ashley got involved in a play.
She said her daughter, who is 28, got into soccer when she was about 8. Ashley Morgan played soccer at William Woods University, where she earned the American Midwest Conference's Player of the Year award in 2007, and her mother said she later had the opportunity to try out for professional soccer teams.
In the process, Lorie Morgan became a fan. "I really like watching soccer now," she said.
She said she's enjoyed watching the World Cup, and she's rooting for the U.S., but she likes the Germans for their sportsmanship.
"If they knock somebody down, they help them up," she said.
Mostly she liked watching all the teams, she said, because she appreciates the abilities and talents of soccer players.
"I love their ball skills, the way they play off the ball," she said. "I love the one touch passes and stuff. What they can do with the ball at their feet is amazing.”
Chris Miller, 46, Ashland
The Show-Me State Games soccer commissioner Chris Miller said he played most sports as a kid, including baseball, basketball and football, but he eventually had to make a choice.
"When I realized I wasn’t going to grow anymore in eighth grade, I didn’t want to get my a-- whipped every day in football," he said. He's stuck with soccer since.
Miller said he has been one of the two soccer commissioners at the State Games for six years, and he's also head coach for the soccer program at Southern Boone High School. Miller came to Missouri about 20 years ago and started the soccer program at Moberly High School. He said he noticed the popularity of the sport grow in his time here as it has moved from bigger cities to smaller communities, and the quality of play has improved.
"When I got here, there were two classes and maybe 100 to 130 high schools that had soccer," he said. "Now there’s 230 to 240, and that’s over the course of 20 years. That growth is slow and steady, but it's still growing and it's one that men and women can appreciate."
With the World Cup going on, there's more attention brought to soccer by the competition, especially with the U.S. team's improving world standing, he said.
"The team with the most fans in Brazil is the United States," he said. "When you see that, and everybody says, 'Oh, soccer’s not an American sport,' I kind of beg to differ."
Trying to explain why he likes soccer, Miller remembered a debate he had with a friend from college.
"He’s like, ‘What’s this whole thing with the World Cup?’" Miller said. "He said, 'I tried to watch it, I just can’t get into it.' So we went back and forth a long time about why it’s a fun game to watch. He’s like, 'How is 0-0 a fun game to watch?' Well you know, there’s a lot going on out there you have to appreciate."
On the field below, Miller watched as players, some of whom play for him at Southern Boone, scrambled for the ball and any opportunity to score.
The pick-up group Team Z-International has been playing on Saturdays for more than 30 years, said player Jorge Ricci said. They play in an over-40 league in Kansas City, and made the trip to Columbia for the Show-Me State Senior Games, where the team played in the over-50 men's division.
Players from Z-International, from left to right: Kevin Schorgl, Steve Giambrone, Walter Klammer and Jorge Ricci.
Z-International is the team's sponsoring company, and the players were quick to point out their diversity: they have players raised in Italy and Argentina, among other countries.
"This really is an international group of guys," said player Kevin Schorgl who competed in the games for the first time.
The members of Z-International grew up at a time when soccer was gaining interest in the U.S. Many people didn't know the sport when Schorgl started playing in 1971.
"I lived down the street from a school that had a soccer program, and they played after school," he said. "We were like, ‘What are they doing over there? I’ve heard of that. Let’s go play with them.’”
Steve Giambrone, like some other players on the team, said he started playing in the mid- to late-1970s when he was in high school and the sport was just moderately popular in the U.S.
"Most of the high schools didn’t have actual sanctioned teams, they were just clubs," he said.
Walter Klammer had a similar experience. His high school didn't have a team, but he became interested in playing when he was 18 while attending the University of Missouri-Kansas City in the early '80s, where he joined the club team. He said the challenge of the skills involved attracted him.
"I had played kickball in grade school, and that was the closest thing," he said.
Over the years, the players have noticed growing interest in soccer in the U.S.
"The generation that’s growing up is growing up with soccer now," Schorgl said.
Klammer attributed the growth to a concerted effort by soccer organizations to get kids playing, as well as the relative simplicity of the sport.
"It's kind of a simple game, you don’t need to suit up like you do in football," he said. "You basically need a ball and a field of grass."
Ricci, who grew up in Argentina, said he remembers needing even less.
"You go down the street and you've got all these kids just playing improvised games," he said. "You don't even need grass. They play in the street, they play on patios, they put two cans up and it's a soccer game."
The members of Z-International are passionate about professional soccer, too. A few are Sporting Kansas City season-ticket holders, and some of them attended games during the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. Giambrone will be attending two games later in this year's World Cup. Part of the reason he loves the sport is in his team's name.
"It’s international," he said. "Just about every country around the globe plays it. It’s kind of an international language. Anywhere you go, everybody knows the game and understands the game."
Supervising editor is Mary Ryan.