The average UC Irvine athlete either lives in California or comes from across the country to play the sport of their choice. Now, imagine traveling thousands of miles to attend school — not so average anymore, right? This is the case for four international student athletes who share similar experiences adjusting to life in the United States.
Omar Dweik, a second year business economics major and accounting minor, plays attacking midfielder for the team. Originally from Jordan, Dweik once played on the national team. He says the influence of soccer is much greater in Jordan, but at UCI, players have the chance to focus more on education. Dweik had several injuries before coming to play for UCI.
“I had surgeries on my knees,” Dweik said, “so I had no choice but to seek an education.”
Dweik’s family and friends may live 17 hours away, but he says he had to adjust immediately.
“You have to adapt. Back home in Jordan, we were more exposed to the world more than they are to us. That is why I feel for me it was easier to adapt here even though I felt a lot of the cultural differences.” Dweik explained how the media covers American culture, but knows Jordan is less exposed to America: “I think it was more of a culture shock for the people here at UCI than for me.”
Joel Vom Dorp plays center and right defender. The fourth year earth system science major is originally from Sweden. Vom Dorp, who has been playing soccer since the age of three, could not play collegiate soccer in Sweden and decided to come to UCI.
“After you are done with high school, you have to decide whether you want go to college or play soccer,” Vom Dorp said.
One of the challenges Vom Dorp faced was adjusting to the level of formality toward communicating ideas, which he had not previously experienced in Sweden. For instance, Vom Dorp said coaches are known on a first name basis in Sweden and that players were allowed to question coaches more in Sweden. “You as a player can learn more if you can question them and are proven wrong because that proves yourself. Obviously coaches tell me sometimes, ‘Joel you did this wrong’ or so, and in Sweden I feel like it was more acceptable for me to speak against and say like ‘but I was covering this’ or ‘I was doing this instead’ and of course you go back and forth with the coach you kind of argue who was right and wrong. In the end you get more of a picture of when you did something wrong.”
Both athletes talked about how UCI tends to focus more on strength and weights than their home countries.
“But it is still more physical in Sweden,” Vom Dorp noted. “People get super angry when I tackle players here, when it was okay in Sweden.” Dweik supposed that is because countries like Sweden and Norway are considered more physical because they are bigger by nature.
“I mean look at him,” Dweik said pointing to Vom Dorp, who stands above six feet tall. “Back home, it’s more about playing the game first and then being physical, but here I feel it is being physical first and then playing the game.” Players are made to lift weights every day, before practice and practice longer at three hours a day, five days a week.
Their teammate, Tian Keat See, will also attest to the importance of education. Originally from Malaysia, See says that he had the opportunity to play professional soccer right out of high school, but turned two offers down to come to UCI. See, a first year undecided major leaning toward biochemistry or business economics, plays goalie for the team.
“I found out about the collegiate sports here at UCI, which are professional in terms of playing, and I was attracted to studies.” Before See was asked to report for pre-season, he was injured. While See was practicing, he knocked his elbow on a goal post and he hit a screw, resulting in stiches needed on his elbow.
“The first few weeks at UCI bothered me because I could not perform at my best.” See was a walk-on athlete for a few weeks and the coaches helped him transition before he officially joined the team. He explained that discipline varies at UCI.
“After practice you are physically tired and you cannot easily study, so you have to maintain that balance of when to study.” According to See, the work ethic and discipline was affected by the lifestyle that athletes chose to follow at Malaysia. “Athletes would go to strip clubs and smoke a lot… There was a lack of strong will to strive and succeed in what they do. I see the opposite a lot in the team here.”
See also says that in Malaysia, soccer is not as developed as the United States and they rank low in the FIFA rankings. The main reason is that Malaysia does not have as much funding to set up all of the facilities.
“Here we have our own weight rooms, training room, own locker rooms, and six full sized fields — even for professional club in Malaysia, we had only one training filed back home.”
Thom Moreira, a second year transfer student at UCI studying business economics, plays forward or defensive midfielder for the team. Also playing since the age of three, Moreira describes the influence of soccer in his home country of Brazil as embedded into the culture. From the ages of eighteen to nineteen, he struggled to choose between soccer and college and spent nearly one and a half years balancing both before finally deciding to come to UCI. He still finds the balance to be challenging, but more doable. Moreira feels that he was learning soccer back in Brazil, but now has acquired the skills to defend the team.
However, the most difficult part of adjusting to UCI for Moreira was learning the language. “It was not easy for me to communicate to other people even though I could understand them.”
All of the players were shocked to learn about how soccer was celebrated at UCI compared to their home countries of Jordan, Sweden, Malaysia and Brazil.
“That was the biggest shock,” Dweik said. “Soccer isn’t even the second biggest here. It is American football, baseball, basketball, hockey and then soccer.”
This differs drastically from how soccer is celebrated abroad. “Saturdays are basically dedicated for soccer in Sweden,” Vom Dorp said. But for all players, the importance of an education outweighs the absence of prestige here for now. Following graduation, all of the players are contemplating whether to continue player soccer in America or returning home.