PORTLAND — Rocco Frenzilli has heard his soccer players speak many different languages .
Over the past few decades at Portland High School, Frenzilli has watched numerous refugees settle in Portland, filling his Bulldogs’ roster with boys from a variety of countries and backgrounds.
But they all spoke a common language when they took to the soccer field. Frenzilli’s Portland program has successfully embraced and benefited from various waves of immigrants. The key to it all was simple.
“It’s the game,” Frenzilli said. “Soccer united these kids. It’s universal and it speaks one language. All we needed to do was fit the pieces together and get the kids in America to understand that these people are coming here. There’s a reason for them coming here, and we’re going to welcome them the best that we can. Any of the kids that have come in from other countries, we’ve let the game be the teacher. It’s made the transition relatively easy for us.”
Frenzilli was a coach in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when a number of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand settled in Portland.
“It was quite a situation,” Frenzilli said. “I was a teacher in the middle school at the time. I remember meetings lasting for hours where facilitators would come in and try to re-acclimate us to the culture of the people coming to the United States — what kind of people they were, where they were coming from, how to act and react to some of the situations that presented themselves.”
It was a new process then. Not a lot of schools in Maine had dealt with this many refugees arriving at one time. Portland became the hub of refugees resettling in Maine.
“It turned out to be really wonderful,” Frenzilli said. “The kids came out. They went to Portland High and played soccer for me. I obviously cut my teeth on that situation.”
Soon came more refugees, some from Afghanistan and, later, from Africa. One player from Afghanistan, Mohammad Nabi, played for Frenzilli and then became the Portland varsity coach for a few seasons before Frenzilli returned. Nabi’s son, Fazal, then played for Frenzilli, and his sister Mashale played for the girls’ team.
“We still have them coming in,” Frenzilli said. “We’re still enjoying the opportunity to work with them. Now, a lot of them are Americanized enough where the kids that we had are now having kids. It’s been great. It’s been great for our kids and great for our city.”
The game itself provided a common bond with the local players and provided a common goal. All players brought their respective skills and dedication to the game and a team grew from there.
“They’re all on the field and they’re soccer players,” Frenzilli said. “They’re not from Somalia or Afghanistan or from Liberia. You’re not from wherever. You’re on the field and you’re developing with soccer players. The kids have realized that and have gone with it. I think it’s been a very positive experience for everybody.”
Portland has reached the Class A state final twice, losing in 1994 and 2010.
Frenzilli said what was important in Portland was having communication with players and families. Between escaping their native countries, leaving refugee camps and relocating to the United States, the families and kids had been accustomed to surviving on their own.
“One of the big things we found was the communication part it and the structure of an organized program,” he said. “
Frenzilli speaks with Lewiston High School coach Mike McGraw occasionally during the year. They compare notes about what is working in their programs. Some among Lewiston’s large population of African immigrant students originally settled in Portland before moving here. Others, like Yusuf Yama, have gone the other way and relocated to Portland.
Frenzilli often hears from alumni who went to college and found how the dynamic and diverse experience in high school gave them a great advantage.
“We try to make it and they try to make it a real positive experience for themselves,” Frenzilli said. “Our kids really find it comforting and a part of their lives. They can walk around campus and have classes together and hang out together with people from other cultures in college. It’s a great melding experience for all involved.”
While the Lewiston boys’ soccer team has also benefited from the increase in resettling refugees, Edward Little in Auburn hasn’t seen the same influx. There are many African students at EL, and many participate in a variety of sports, but the number of African players specifically on the boys’ soccer team hasn’t changed much.
“My numbers have been pretty consistent the last few years,” EL coach Matt Andreasen said. “I thought that my first year here. I had a couple of kids playing. I thought gradually through the years we’d see that number get bigger, but it hasn’t. It’s been pretty constant the last couple of years.”
The Red Eddies have several Somali kids on the team, including top scorer Maslah Hassan, who played for EL as a freshman, transferred to Lewiston last year, but moved back to Auburn this year.
“I think the number of Somali students at Edward Little is getting bigger,” said Andreasen. “So I think it’s only a matter of time before some soccer players appear.”
Andreasen is excited about that possibility. Having played high school soccer for his father at Greely High School in Cumberland, Andreasen grew up playing and subsequently coaching a very different type of game than what the Somali kids bring.
“That’s what makes it exciting, because we can almost blend our styles together,” Andreasen said. “One thing I’ve noticed, especially with the Somali boys, is that they’re very good on the ball. They like to take kids on. They like to take kids one-on-one to create for others. My game was always simple — moving off the ball and making runs to space. It’s great because I think we can find some common ground between the styles and better ourselves.”