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Alaskan Soccer Game With Roots In Russian-American Fishing Venture05:55Download

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The Bad Aces faced the Raging Bumblebees for the right to hoist the Friendship Cup. (Annie Ropeik/Only A Game)MoreCloseclosemore
The Bad Aces faced the Raging Bumblebees for the right to hoist the Friendship Cup. (Annie Ropeik/Only A Game)

On the first chilly morning of the fall in the Aleutian Island community of Unalaska, Micheal Tesfamarian ventured away from his bunkhouse at Westward Seafoods and into town.

"Maybe this is the third time or fourth time I came to town," he said.

Tesfamarian, from Eritrea, has been in Alaska since June, processing Bering Sea pollock into imitation crab sticks. But as the summer season was winding down, Tesfamarian and his coworkers traveled to town to play some soccer with the locals.

The tournament made him feel welcome in a place where it can be tough to get by on your own.

But this was more than just a pick-up game. Rather, it was a tournament, with three randomly selected, all-ages, co-ed teams.

Carlos Tayag, a community center staffer, organized the event, known as the International Friendship Cup, which was inspired by a trophy from 1987.

"What was going on out here is pretty cool," Tayag said. "There was a couple of boats: there was a Russian fishing vessel that was in a joint venture with a U.S. fishing vessel. And they played soccer tournaments out here."

The hand-engraved trophy features a logo of clasped hands and words in English and Russian: "To a crew winning a soccer match, US-USSR Joint Venture, 1987, Dutch Harbor."

Historic Beginnings

John Henderschedt, a fisheries policymaker in Seattle, used to work for the joint venture, when Americans were catching fish in the Bering Sea and Russians were processing it on ships just off Unalaska’s shores. He remembered bringing the Russians into town to do their shopping and hosting potlucks aboard their vessels.

[sidebar title="High School Sports In Southeast Alaska" width="630" align="right"] In southeast Alaska, high school sports teams must travel by air or water to compete against each other. Reporter Emily Files spent time with one JV soccer team and offered a report.[/sidebar]

"They would come back with, like, a boombox under one arm, and, like, a 12-pack of Rainier or Budweiser under the other arm," he said. "I think this was for Fourth of July — there was a big picnic organized out on the city dock. I remember them playing soccer on the dock, and the mayor of Dutch [Harbor] was Paul Fuhs, and he had a band, and that band played on the deck of one of the boats that was tied up on the dock."

Fuhs, who was also a vocalist and keyboardist that day, now lives 800 miles away in Anchorage. He recalled that night, too.

"I remember the next day, the port director was quoted in the paper saying, 'Well, everybody had a great time, and we checked around the next morning and nobody had died, so we’re calling it a success,'" he said, laughing. "It was really a big party."

Also in 1987, a British navy ship made a fuel stop in Unalaska, with the heads of British Petroleum and Rolls Royce in tow. Fuhs said the crew wanted to hold a soccer match, but the Unalaskans had some trouble finding players.

"At that time in the United States, soccer wasn't big like it is now," he said. "None of us — I mean, like, me growing up, I never kicked a soccer ball in my life. So what we had to do to field the team, we had all those cannery workers that were from all over the world. And they grew up playing soccer their entire lives. So that's primarily where the team was recruited from."

The hand-endgraved Friendship Cup may have been left by British sailors. (Annie Ropeik/OAG)
The hand-endgraved Friendship Cup may have been left by British sailors. (Annie Ropeik/OAG)

He couldn't remember if the U.S. team won — but Alaska's honorary British consul, Diddy Hitchins, doesn't think so. Hitchins was there in 1987, and she visited Unalaska again this summer to visit the community center and tell Tayag about how the British sailors played soccer and left trophies all around the world.

"If the other team won, then it got presented to them for winning," she said. "And if the other team didn't win, it got presented to them as a friendship trophy."

Hitchins thinks it's possible the hand-engraved Friendship Cup is the one the British left behind, reused by the Americans for later games with the Russians.

A Sense Of Community

Either way, it’s now the basis for a new tradition. The fishing industry has changed a lot here — the domestic plants overtook the international joint venture in the early 1990s and the town grew. Now, most of the processors who played this year live in Unalaska year-round.

Ahmed Jama, of Ethiopia, is a Westward Seafoods coworker who joined Tesfamarian to play in the tournament. He’s lived in Unalaska for two years, working 12-hour shifts to send money back to family in Ethiopia.

"We always come to the gym and see people, introduce ourselves," Jama said. "We come a lot sometimes, when we have time. Mostly we work overtimes."

Jama's played for the Bad Aces. In the final round, they faced off against the Raging Bumblebees — a team that included everyone from relative newcomer Tesfamarian to local teenagers, parents and elementary school principal Eric Andersen.

"We used to have soccer leagues, and you just never knew who was going to be here," Andersen said. "Some years we'd have a ship from Portugal come in and it'd be a Portuguese team that would play against us. And other years you'd have an all-Mexican team, and it's always been great."

Santos Quintanilla, a part-time resident who works slinging nets for fishing boats, said the tournament made him feel welcome in a place where it can be tough to get by on your own.

"We come from far away, some of us, and to hang around with the people that live here, that go to school here, and have some fun," he said. "That's a great thing."

Michael Tesfamarian's Raging Bumblebees raised the Friendship Cup. (Annie Ropeik/OAG)
Michael Tesfamarian's Raging Bumblebees raised the Friendship Cup. (Annie Ropeik/OAG)

And with the Bad Aces down 6-3 in the final minutes, he acknowledged that this really was just friendly competition. The Aces scored one more goal, but in the end the Raging Bumblebees took the win.

Tesfamarian got to drink some sparkling cider from the old trophy and celebrate the victory with his new friends. He's hoping to return to Unalaska for the next pollock season in January. And, in the spirit of friendship, he's in discussion with community center staff about teaching a salsa class for locals on his nights off.

This segment aired on October 11, 2014.

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