6 languages say 1 good time
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 10, 2006

Game transcends socio-economic stature of players

Ty Young

There's a pickup soccer game at 10 a.m. every Sunday in Tempe that is as devoid of referees as it is of social, ethnic and age barriers.

There are no uniforms. There are no rosters. And, for the most part, there are no last names.

"It is purely about soccer and nothing more," said Ig Tsong, 63, of Tempe.

"Nobody knows anybody's last names," adds Paul Kunkel, 53, of Ahwatukee Foothills. "There's a core group of people that come out, but even then, we just go by first names."

On any given Sunday, dozens show up at either Harrelson or Hanger parks west of the Knox and Rural roads intersection, near the Tempe-Chandler line. They bring a white shirt and a colored shirt. Once all arrive, they divvy up teams - white shirts vs. colored.

Some are in their 20s, playing alongside men more than 70. Accountants and office managers dribble amongst laborers and technicians.

The game brings out a level of diversity that most players rarely see in their daily life, said Danny Glass, 41, of Chandler.

"There are people here from every walk of life," he said. "At any one time you have six languages going on. Nobody knows what each other is saying, but we all know the game."

The eldest member of the group - in both age and longevity - is Bob Collins of Tempe. The 72-year-old only plays goalkeeper now, but when he started in 1980, there wasn't a position he didn't master. The retired electrical engineer has been a consistent face in what is often an inconsistent group of players.

"A lot of these guys were kids when they started and I remember most of them," he said. "Then there are others who will disappear for years, then show up one Sunday."

One of the other consistent faces on the field is Arturo Velarde, 66, of Scottsdale. He began playing shortly after Collins and was one of the men who brought their sons to the game.

After 22 years, his son, Jose, 38, still shares the same field.

As with pickup games in any sport, the level of play is defined by the players. When a younger group dominates the field, the pace is usually faster, the players said. But because most of the players are in their 30s and 40s, precise passing and field position take precedent.

While some play for the camaraderie, Khosrow Rafieei, 50, of Chandler, plays for his life. He first started playing in the games four years ago. He played nearly every weekend but was sidelined for the past five months by liver cancer.

Although he is still going through chemotherapy treatments, Rafieei made a triumphant return last week, outrunning others while tearing through the defense.

"I want to stay healthy and I love the game," he said. "The guys are great.
I couldn't imagine not playing."

As Rafieei stepped back onto the turf, Tsong said goodbye. A degenerative hip has forced him to hang up his cleats. He returned for one last game, gripping the hands of players he has known since starting in 1991.

"I just wanted to come down and say goodbye to my friends," he said.