Closeup — Jacob Mulenga

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Soccer hasn’t always been at the top of Zambian national soccer team member Jacob Mulenga’s favorite sports list.

When he was young, he was addicted to motocross.

His weekdays were spent going to school, but his weekends were filled with motocross training and racing.

Soccer didn’t become a part of his life until high school. Even then, though, he said he “mainly just watched.”

Motocross was fulfilling his competitive desires. Soccer was for fun.

“I did not play for any youth teams or academies—just playing for fun at school,” he recalls. “I learned a lot basically from watching. I learned a lot from watching on TV.”

But after high school, he decided to get serious about soccer.

“After High School I thought, ‘OK, now before you decide what you want to do with your life, play football for a bit and see what happens.’…(former Zambian player and coach) Kalusha (Bwalya) saw me play…and said ‘You know you could be good at it.’ For me it was still a dream.  I would joke about it with my friends in high school, ‘One day I will play professional football.’”

Despite not playing soccer until late in his career, his rise to elite level was fast.

He made Zambia’s national team when he was 20, and he scored in his first game—a 1-0 victory against Togo in a World Cup qualifier in 2004. From there he went to the next two World Cup qualifying matches in Senegal and Mali and became a fixture on the national team.

But his rapid success didn’t turn into confidence.

“It was scary. I was nervous. It was a whole new world to me,” he says. “I had never been in front of the public eye that much before. I had no idea what playing for the national team was. You hear about it; you read about it. Now you put yourself in a position where you are ready to be criticized. Everything you do—good or bad—is going to be criticized and you are going to have someone say something about it.”

He gradually became comfortable, though, and in 2010 he scored two goals in two games at the Africa Cup. The following two Africa Cups, in 2012 and 2013, though, were met with disappointment. He didn’t play in either one, including in 2012 when Zambia won the title.

“For me it was really hard, you knew in 2010 you played a big role in the Africa Cup and now you could not be part of it,” he says. “That was a big blow for me…you are happy but every time someone talks about it, it reminds you of not being part of it.”

“I used to ask God so many times, ‘Why is this happening to me when I come to you, pray to you…and everyone else is okay? What did I do to deserve this? … For me it is always why? Why this? Why that? Stop with the why. First of all I learned…that you are not in control. No matter how much you try, you are not in control of things that happen…if I did not have Jesus…I would be so lost.

“I know that I am extremely blessed. I am someone who can do anything in football. I know my strength does not come from me. It comes from above….God won’t take you to the next level if you don’t know how to handle the pressure…the higher you go the worse (the pressure) becomes.

“Everything that is built without God is not worth building. I am not going to sit here and lie and say, ‘I live a perfect, God-fearing life.’ I have problems sometimes. My faith is tested…You have so many challenges. You have so many things that come to you. You want someone to talk to. I think when you bring someone to Christianity, you really have to help them understand, ‘Listen, God is going to be the center of your life.’…It is not saying you aren’t going to have challenges. You are going to have challenges as a Christian and you are going to have trouble as a Christian…But you know in all that, you are going to be victorious.”

By Brett Honeycutt

Brett Honeycutt is the managing editor at Sports Spectrum magazine. 

 

 

Closeup — Cyrille Domoraud

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For Cyrille Domoraud, the 2006 World Cup represented both the greatest triumph and most difficult challenge of his career.

In late 2005, Domoraud, then a 34-year-old fullback from Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), captained the Elephants’ national soccer team to its first-ever World Cup berth, a historic event that prompted a temporary ceasefire in the nation’s six-year civil war.

But Domoraud rode the bench the first two games—close losses to Argentina and the Netherlands—before getting a red card in the Elephants’ final game, a win over Serbia and Montenegro.

“It was a blow to feel like my efforts hadn’t been rewarded,” he says. “But that’s part of the job.”

Earlier in his career, Domoraud might have called the whole episode bad juju. As a native Ivorian, Domoraud grew up in a culture steeped in witchcraft. As a young player he used to wear a good luck ring—one of many talismans he owned, some of which he received from his parents—in the hopes of currying spiritual protection and fending off evil spirits. But thanks in part to the faithful witness of his sister, Domoraud became a Christian in 1999 and eschewed his superstitious upbringing.

By then, his impressive playing career was in full swing. After starting with several French clubs from 1992 to 1999, he spent a season with Italian Serie A giant Inter Milan in 1999-2000 before playing with teams in France, Spain, Turkey and, finally, his homeland. His last professional season came in 2008 with Africa Sports Abidjan.

Since retiring, he has devoted more time to his Cyrille Domoraud Training Centre in Abidjan, which has produced, among others, Ivorian striker Wilfried Bony of Swansea City (English Premier League). But Domoraud will always be remembered in the Ivory Coast as part of the famed 2006 World Cup team, despite the temporary frustrations that followed.

“I was just delighted to be at the World Cup and thank God for allowing me to be a part of it, for it was He who enabled me to go,” Domoraud says. “It was a miracle—a great moment He gave me in my life and in my career. I would never have thought about becoming a professional football player but for His leading. So rather than ask why the negative things happened, I thank God for the chance to be part of His kingdom and to play in the World Cup.”

By Joshua Cooley

 

 

 

Closeup — Fabio

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Fans call Fabio “the blue wall” and consider him a hero.

But for Brazilian goalkeeper Fábio Deivson Lopes Maciel, who has won numerous titles and been on Brazil’s national team at every level, the road to the titles is what’s most important.

In 2007, his career was interrupted when he ruptured the ligaments in his left knee during a key game for his club, Cruzeiro, which was playing against its rival. Some thought he would never return.

“It was a difficult time but important for me to revise my way of living and it was essential so God could work in my life in a way that I had never allowed him,” he says. “God is the basis of my life.”

Adding to his troubles was the fact that people doubted that he was even injured because his right knee hit the goal post, but it was his left knee that was injured.

“People doubted my character, suspicious, said I was lying, that I was actually taken off the team,” he says. “The pain brought me closer to God. It was the pain of an injury, the recovery of the crowd, the loss of a title, to see the world commenting the atypical goal that I took from my back by doubting my character which has become the largest and best decision of my life: to accept Jesus as my Lord and Saviour. I gave my whole life to him.”

Despite doctors telling Fabio he would return in six months, he was back on the field in half that time.

The following season, Cruzeiro made the finals once again, and this time his team won.

“Many would say I was not going to play football and not return to Cruzeiro,” Fabio says. “But God put me down to restore me giving me the opportunity to walk with Him and to put me where I am today. God is amazing. Exactly one year after the hard times I went through, He restored me. The pain I went through turned into a great victory. I played in 200 games for Cruzeiro, I was a champion and considered the best goalkeeper of that tournament.”

One more title followed in 2013 and Fabio was named best goalkeeper of the Brazilian Championship. The experiences led him to the understanding that God is real and directs all things.

“Everything that happened in my life was planned by God,” he says. “He determined everything…My basis is God in my life. He waited to put me in places and give me things I never imagined. Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined the life and blessed family I have today…He is a true God who makes it happen.”

By Brett Honeycutt

 Brett Honeycutt is the managing editor of Sports Spectrum magazine.

 

 

Closeup — Lee Young-Pyo

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When it was all over—the Fred Astaire footwork, the subtle wizardry, the impressive globetrotting—there was only adoration.

As Young-Pyo Lee walked off the pitch for the final time as a professional soccer player in the Vancouver Whitecaps’ 2013 season finale, the crowd at BC Place stood en masse and showered the Major League Soccer defender with cheers for two stellar seasons as a hometown Whitecap and 14 years of sublime professional soccer. The sellout crowd—21,000 strong—raucously chanted “Y.P. Lee!” Some fans held up a massive South Korean flag with an image of Lee in the center, covering the traditional yin-yang symbol. His teammates encircled him and tossed him up into the air over and over, like Little Leaguers at the denouement of a feel-good movie.

“God is the most important thing to me, not football,” Lee says. “Football is only one of many ways I can glorify and serve my Lord.”

Lee, who was 36 when he retired, became one of the most popular and decorated Asian footballers in history. The native of Hongcheon-gun earned 127 caps—third-most all-time among South Koreans— and competed in three World Cups (2002, 2006, 2010), helping the Taeguk Warriors reach the 2002 Cup semifinals.

After starting his pro career in 2000 in the South Korean Professional Football League, the 5-foot-10, 150-pound Lee made the jump to Europe’s upper echelon in 2002 when he signed with PSV Eindhoven of the Dutch Eredivisie. He followed a three-year stretch in the Netherlands with stints in the English Premier League (Tottenham Hotspur, 2005-08), the German Bundesliga (Borussia Dortmund, 2008-09) and the Saudi Arabian Professional League (Al-Hilal, 2009-11).

For his final two seasons, he opted for the MLS’s Whitecaps despite reportedly receiving far more lucrative offers overseas, partially because he thought Vancouver would provide a better chance for him to learn the business operations side of soccer.

What Lee marvels at most, though, is not his illustrious soccer career, but his salvation. Growing up as a nominal Buddhist, he put his faith in Christ after some Christian friends shared their faith and challenged him to read the Bible.

“When I honestly searched for the truth through reading and close friends, I was amazed,” Lee says. “God showed me that He did exist, and my heart was changed forever.”

By Joshua Cooley

 

 

Closeup — Brad Guzan

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Our biggest breakthrough moments sometimes come when we least expect them.

In 2005, United States goalkeeper Brad Guzan had thought he played poorly in place of Chivas USA’s injured keeper. The squad finished with an abysmal 4-22 record in its first season, and Guzan believed much of it fell on him.

“I was young,” he says. “I wasn’t sure I was ready mentally, physically. And I wasn’t sure if I was good enough. We were not winning games…So that point was definitely a low for me. There were a lot of question marks going through my head.”

At the end of the season, however, Guzan received an email inviting him to the U.S. National team’s camp in January. It was an invitation to represent his country. The thing he least expected.

It was a huge confidence boost after a rookie year that seemed like it couldn’t have gone worse. And two years later, his stardom continued to rise, as he was named the 2007 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. This led to an opportunity to play for Aston Villa in one of the world’s best soccer leagues, the English Premier League in 2008, where he has remained ever since. Being in such a competitive league hasn’t been easy, but he has come a long ways since Chivas USA’s 4-22 record in 2005.

“It was a trying four years for me, the first four years in England,” Guzan says. “It was difficult because you would play a game, do well and the next week you would find yourself on the bench. So it was inconsistent football that I was experiencing and I was looking for the consistency… (But) you have to be professional. You have to be persistent…You just have to keep fighting…I knew that if I kept going I would be given an opportunity at some point.”

One thing that has remained consistent, in a position as mentally staking as goalkeeping, is the thing keeps him steady in all circumstances—good or bad.

“When things are going well for you, you can’t get too high,” Guzan says. “When things aren’t going your way, you can’t get too low…I think as athletes, everyone gets caught in the heat of the moment, then maybe do things that they regret later on. For me, I am no different. I am not perfect…But God loves everyone. You have to be able to open yourself to Him and allow Him into your life. And if you do that, the forgiveness, the relief that comes off your shoulders, knowing that you have God’s love, you are able to follow Him through your life’s journey.”

In March of 2013, Guzan started in place of an injured Tim Howard for the men’s national team in two 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil qualifiers and did not give up a goal in either match.

“For me, how my personal life, my faith life and my sport life—they all come together,” Guzan says. “I think they have to. I think that is just natural. You don’t have one without the other and most importantly you have to have Jesus in your life…As I said, it hasn’t always been a rosy road to success. There are always going to be bumps along the way. And through those difficulties, Jesus is what helped me get through all of those struggles.”

By Stephen Copeland

Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum magazine.

 

 

Closeup — Eddie Johnson

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In 2001, at age 16, U.S. professional soccer player Eddie Johnson became one of the youngest players to sign with a Major League Soccer team. Now, at age 30, the accomplished striker for D.C. United has garnered a list of accolades including MLS Comeback Player of the Year (2007, 2012), 15 USA International Goals, 11 World Cup Qualifying Goals, FIFA World Cup with USA (2006, 2014), and CONCACAF Gold Cup Winner (2007).

His most important victory in life, though, happened at age 18 when he accepted Christ.

“As a child, my grandma made us go to church every Sunday, but I never looked forward to it,” admits the Florida native. “But over time, I began to realize I was missing something. At just the right time, God sent a friend into my life to guide me. He encouraged me to begin my day by reading the Bible and showed me how to turn negatives into positives.”

“Through God’s faithfulness, my life has changed completely,” Johnson shares. “Before turning my life over to Christ, I got easily frustrated with circumstances, didn’t handle relationships well, and had a bad attitude that often got me into a lot of trouble. With Christ working on my heart, I began to think positively for the first time in years and become more patient.”

It is that outlook that has helped him deal with untimely injuries and a few bumpy seasons. He was able to fight through and return to the field to earn Comeback Player of the Year honors twice.

Johnson has also learned the importance of forgiveness.

“Through Jesus’ example of forgiving my sins, I have learned to forgive others and not hold grudges like I used to,” he admits. “Luke 6:31 says, ‘Just as you want others to do for you, do the same for them.’  Who am I to judge others when so much has been forgiven of me?”

Johnson may be fierce on the soccer field, but his heart for the Lord is helping transform the lives of those around him. And learning the value of a forgiving spirit has been the key.

By Jenna Sampson

 

Closeup — Isaac Díaz

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From the time Isaac Diaz was a baby and had a soccer ball in his cradle, to playing as a professional athlete in packed stadiums, soccer has always been a part of his life.

And he succeeded despite being from such a small town of about 12,500 people.

“Our town, Fresia, is very small but did have a soccer academy for youth. In addition to playing locally, my father took me all over the country to gain experience in tournaments and regionals. I was fortunate to progress to the pro level, and to play in packed stadiums is a great thrill for me. “

Tragedy struck, though, and reality hit Diaz. The faith that meant so much to his parents and that they took so seriously wasn’t as important to Diaz. But after he had time to contemplate it, and after God revealed Himself to Diaz, he embraced it and committed his life to Christ.

“My family was always attending church, but honestly, I went primarily because my parents expected me to,” Diaz says. “I can still remember exactly where we sat in the pews. With my brother’s death, I finally realized how real God was to me—and all that He meant in my life. I believe 100 percent that no one can live without God!”

Even though Diaz’s faith carries him through each day, he understands that he isn’t immune to hardships. His faith doesn’t prevent bad things from happening, but it does help him get through tough times when they come.

“Sometimes life as a pro soccer player can be very difficult,” he says. “The environment of uncertainty that surrounds a club and the playing time decisions coaches make about players can often lead to self-doubt and anxiety. And then add to that the never-ending chants by crowds that are impossible to ignore. But I know that as long as my faith is in God, I can be at peace and follow the path He has laid out for me.

“I have learned that God will often do impossible things. I just need to trust in Him and His Word.

“King Solomon was incredibly wise. When he became king at a young age, the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘Ask for whatever you want me to give you’ (1 Kings 3:5). Of all the things Solomon could have desired, he asked for a ‘discerning heart.’ He knew that relying on God to lead him was the answer to a successful life. In Proverbs 3:5-6, Solomon wrote from personal experience, ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding; think about Him in all your ways, and He will guide you on the right paths.’ May you also come to trust in God and know Him with all your heart.”

By Brett Honeycutt

Brett Honeycutt is the managing editor of Sports Spectrum magazine. 

 

Closeup — Ricardo Salampessy

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King David has always been an incredible example in the Bible of giving thanks to God in good times and in bad. And when you meet Indonesian soccer star Ricardo Salampessy, you quickly understand why David is his inspiration. The 30-year-old defender for Persipura has celebrated amazing victories, and also some difficult moments. And through it all, he has had a heart of gratitude to the Lord.

“I thank God that I grew up in a Christian family where I was taught about Jesus,” he shares. “I learned to depend on Him completely when I thought my career was over due to a knee injury. Through prayer, I realized that football could interfere in my relationship with God and became aware of my need for daily time with Him. I recovered from surgery and returned to play sooner than expected – and with a stronger relationship with my Savior.”

Salampessy joined the professional ranks at age 20, and since then, has appeared on the Indonesian national team 20 times. He has earned Best Player and Best Defender honors, and has dominated the field in the Indonesian Super League (Indonesia’s highest football league) for Persipura since 2006.

“Through football, I have learned much about the world, life, myself, and, most importantly, my Savior,” he says. “I have had the privilege of visiting continents and regions I never imagined I would see. I have met interesting people and learned about their cultures. I have learned to be independent, a sportsman, a hard worker, and mentally strong. And…I have realized I must rely on Christ in each of those areas of my life.”

It is that reliance that brings King David to mind again.

“If he defeated a giant, he praised God for His strength and protection; if his army claimed success in war, David gave the credit to God; if he enjoyed prosperity or even suffered pain, he thanked God for His enduring love,” shares Salampessy. “David is an example for all believers of what our lives can be like when we pursue God with all our heart.”

By Jenna Sampson

 

 

Closeup — José Luis Vidigal

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The second of 12 children, including four who played soccer, José Luis Vidigal understands what it means to fight and jostle for attention.

During an 18-year professional career, Vidigal spent the majority of his career in Italy and Portugal before retiring in 2009. In between he represented Portugal in 28 games, including seven on the U-21 team, six during the 1996 Olympics where Portugal finished fourth, and 15 from 2000-02.

That last stint included four games in UEFA Euro 2000, including the semifinal loss to France.

But the most memorable and most exciting game was a 3-2 comeback victory against England. Down 2-0, Portugal scored three goals and went on to win their Group going 3-0 in the process.

In the knockout round, Portugal won its first game, 2-0, against Turkey before losing 2-1 to France in the semifinals.

“I’ll never forget this game (against England) because we were in a pretty unfortunate situation,” Vidigal says. Although we lost 2-1 (to France in the semifinals), I still believed that something good could come out of it. Without a doubt, it was Jesus Christ who made the unfortunate situation of a great result. Jesus changed my life. From the beginning I thought I could do it all myself, in relationships with my family, and in my professional and social worlds. I believed in my own abilities, but it did not help.

“When I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, then everything became brighter. I learned to forgive and help. My life changed. “

He played for nine more seasons after UEFA Euro 2000 and soccer was no more No. 1 in his life.

“I believe in Jesus because I know that my life does not end here in this world,” Vidigal says. “I do have a special place next to Jesus, and He accepts me. I want more people to have faith and realize that they should accept Him, because otherwise they will have a difficult time at the end of this earthly life.

“My motivation in everything comes from the Lord, because I live and work for Him. I want to be an example of God on Earth. If I did not do that, and if I was not motivated by God, it would be hard to tell people about Him.

“My favorite Bible verses are: ‘We are more than conquerors through him who loved us.’ (Romans 8:37)  and ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16).

“The first verse is closely connected with my profession. I believe that I can spend my days in victory. I do not mean winning in soccer or any other sport, but in life. John 3:16 is the foundation of my faith. “

By Brett Honeycutt

Brett Honeycutt is the managing editor of Sports Spectrum magazine. 

 

 

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