New home brings Mather new look
Updated: October 27, 2011 8:10PM
Mather has enjoyed a tremendous boys soccer season, going undefeated in the Premier division and capturing the Public League title.
It is a team of many interesting parts and pieces, and perhaps the most dynamic and unorthodox are the five starting players who hail from Lagos, Nigeria.
The five young men, friends of a local club soccer team, arrived here in two separate groups beginning two years ago. Lagos is nearly 6,000 miles from Chicago.
“The idea of coming here and being able to study was very exciting for me,” senior forward Qudus Lawal said.
“I thank God and feel blessed every day since I’ve been here,” senior forward Chizom Ogbonna said.
The other Nigerian-born members are defenders Enitan Junaid and Hassan Ibrahim and junior midfielder Eseh Godman.
The dividends for Mather have been many. In the team’s 8-2 regional championship victory over Roosevelt on Saturday, the Nigerians accounted for four goals, including Lawal’s two-goal, one-assist game.
Lawal, an athletic and versatile scorer who has registered a hat trick in four games this year, is arguably the best player in the Public League. He was eligible only for the state tournament last year, but made his presence felt and helped the Rangers qualify for a Class 3A sectional final.
Mather has now dropped down to Class 2A and is a threat to take home a trophy.
Junaid is Lawal’s equivalent on the back.
“The thing is, we play like a team, we’re a family, but not just the guys from my own country,” Junaid said. “That’s why we’ve been successful this year, because we get all 11 to play together.”
Lawal said the team has cohesion not just because of the solidarity of the Nigerian players but the acceptance of their teammates.
“I think we brought a little bit of our style, what we learned in Nigeria, and put that together with the American style and it’s been a very good mix,” Lawal said.
First-year coach Branko Cvijovic took over the program when his predecessor was dismissed after Public League officials learned he knowingly used a foreign-born player who was too old to compete under IHSA bylaws.
“What they’ve done is brought the Brazilian style to our team,” said Cvijovic, who characterized it as a creative and constantly attacking style.
If part of the players’ assimilation process was adapting to their adopted culture, it also was about responding to a new coach.
“I had to prove myself to them,” Cvijovic said. “For the first month, every time I said something, they just looked at me. I knew I was being judged because they were taught under some of the best coaches in the world. I have to live up to their standards.”
In addition to Lawal, the team’s other offensive standout is senior forward Steven Younus, who arrived from Baghdad two and a half years ago.
“You hear a lot of different languages at our games, but when it really comes down to it, we’re speaking just one language and that’s soccer,” Younus said.