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International Soccer Comes to McLean

Ambassador's Cup tournament features teams from more than 12 nations.

There are three international languages: love, music and soccer.

Around the world, soccer is by far the predominant sport, on par with American football and baseball, with legions of passionate, dedicated fans pledging their undying support to their favorite team.

The Northern Virginia region is a melting pot of nationalities and ethnicities, thanks to its proximity to Washington, it is a second home to diplomats and embassies alike.

Sooner or later, the international community and the soccer community were bound to come together; it just so happens that the meeting place is Lewinsville Park.

The first Ambassador's Cup soccer tournament will be held this weekend, June 25 and 26, on Fields 2 and 4 at Lewinsville Park, an opportunity for players from more than a dozen countries to put politics aside and kick the old ball around.

"In every country in the world there are these good-will tournaments and we just don't have one here," said Jon Gundersen, a retired member of the State Department who helped organize the upcoming event. "There's all this soccer interest growing in the region but no organized, friendly competition. We thought we should marry the diplomatic presence with the growing soccer interest."

The tournament is made up of 16 teams from Italy, Norway, Lithuania, Germany, Kenya, Malawi, Russia, countries on the Arabian peninsula and Southeast Asia, a team representing the United Nations, one representing the State Department and two made of coaches from McLean Youth Soccer, Gundersen said.

Each of the 16 teams were randomly drawn and placed into one of four groups. The tournament will feature a "round robin" style elimination, he said, meaning each team will have to play the other three teams in their division before moving on to another round.

An opening ceremony at 9 a.m. on Saturday will begin the two-day

tournament, and the opening kickoff will be at 10 a.m. The games are expected to last until early Saturday evening, and the championship games will be held Sunday at Lewinsville Park, he said.

"We've been talking about doing something like this for a long time, but it's only within the last six or seven months that we started working on it," Gundersen said.

He contacted members of the McLean Youth Soccer organization to see if there was an interest and was able to secure the artificial turf field at Lewinsville because the MYS season ended earlier this month.

"We're not sure what to expect," Gundersen said, "but it's something a bunch of us believed in. It'll be good for the kids to see and good for the international community too."

Some of the McLean Youth Soccer players will be acting as ball boys and girls during the games, he said, and may escort some of the players onto the field during the opening ceremony.

"All the information says this is our inaugural year, which is sort of presumptuous," Gundersen said. "There's a lot of enthusiasm about this, so there's no reason why it can't become a yearly event."

McLean Youth Soccer is, technically, hosting the tournament, said Jeff Lesher, director of communications for MYS. "We've done a lot of the logistics in terms of securing referees, getting permits and other things we need for a tournament like this," he said.

The tournament is "part of our efforts to fulfill our mission," he said, which entails "building a love of the sport by seeing different people of different levels of talent and skill play the game."

Gundersen's connections within the U.S. Department of State Foreign Affairs Recreation Association helped get the proverbial — and literal — ball rolling for the event, Lesher said. "We've had a whole bunch of folks respond, so it'll be interesting to see how the teams are paired up."

The love of soccer combined with the growing international community should make for a good weekend, he said. "Sports and music are vehicles for easier international communication, and this is a way to facilitate that."

As president of McLean Youth Soccer, Mike Reimer is hopeful the tournament will not only provide some great competition, but a little bit of world peace for the weekend.

"The soccer community tends to be separatists to some extent. If you're not associated with a certain club, there are thousands of leagues to choose from," Reimer said. "We're not only trying to build camaraderie with the embassies and their direct representatives and to show good will to the other countries, we're trying to show the United States that soccer is the number one sport in the world."

During the seating draw Saturday morning, Gundersen stood surrounded by more than 20 people, all eyes squinting in the brilliant morning sun, waiting to hear which division each team joined and how the games were to be played.

Representing the Iranian American team from Potomac, Md., Shar Hakimzadeh said the competition was starting to look tough.

"We play every Sunday in a club," he said. "This tournament resembles the FIFA World Cup, which is going to be held in Germany next year. This is just a great opportunity to be able to play against other countries."

His team was assigned to a group that also included Kenya and Israel and another team that was not yet declared.

"Nobody knows the level at which each team plays," he said. "We'll find out within the first few minutes of the game."

The big competition, Hakimzadeh said, will most likely come from the strong soccer countries, like Italy, Germany and Kenya.

"They've all won the World Cup over and over again," he said with a hesitant laugh and a little shake of his head.

Made up of players from 10 countries in the Southeast Asian region of the world, Indra Gunawan said his players come from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, the Philippines and a handful of other nations, pulled together within the past month or two in preparation for the tournament.

"We try to strengthen our relationships with other Asian countries through soccer," he said.

In a division with Germany, Malawi and a team of McLean coaches, Gunawan said the biggest threat in the division is most likely the German team.

"That's a big soccer country, but then again, so is Malawi," he said. "We'll have to have a little more practice this week."

Playing in a division with Italy, Russia and another team, the State Department team is hoping to win at least a few games, said captain John Hennessey.

"It's all good competition," he said. "I'm sure we'll have a tough time against Italy."

However, he's hoping the American team will be something of a sleeping giant.

"People probably don't expect us to do too well, being Americans and all," he said with a chuckle and the sly grin of a child who found Christmas presents a week early. "We'll surprise them."