Earl Edwards Jr. and his teammates on the U.S. under-17 national soccer team started with a bus from their training base in Bradenton, Fla., to the Tampa airport. Then a flight to Atlanta. Then a seven-hour layover. Then an overnight flight to Lagos, Nigeria. Then another layover and another flight to Kano, in Nigeria's north.
Edwards is 17. He's the starting goalkeeper. The under-17 World Cup represents the culmination of two-plus years of residency camp in Florida and the pinnacle, so far, of an illustrious athletic career. If all goes well, the U.S. team could be in Nigeria for 26 days.
His parents aren't going with him.
“It's the most frustrating position I've ever been in as a parent,” said Earl Edwards Sr., the athletic director at UC San Diego. “He's going to the biggest stage, the (U-17) World Cup. We thought all along we'd be able to go, and the fact that we're not is very disappointing.
“We had a conference call with the people from the U.S. national team, and they were explaining the conditions. It's pretty bad, I guess. They said there will be plenty of security for the kids, and the rest of us would pretty much be on our own. So it was pretty clear to us that we shouldn't go for security reasons, and so the kids wouldn't be worried about us.”
It's been a raw deal for this group of U-17 parents. The CONCACAF region's qualifying tournament was in Tijuana last spring during the height of narco-violence. Some parents went anyway, staying in San Diego and traveling across the border for games on a bus arranged by Edwards while their kids were holed up in a Tijuana hotel.
The Americans reached the semifinals, only for the remainder of the tournament to be canceled by the outbreak of swine flu in Mexico.
The 2009 U-17 World Cup, held every two years, has been an on-again, off-again proposition in Nigeria. At this time last year, the Nigerian government refused to bankroll the 24-team tournament because it was no longer a “priority.” That was smoothed over, only for the rebel group MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) to warn FIFA in June to “rethink” going forward “as the safety of international players and visitors cannot be guaranteed at this time.”
U.S. Soccer knows the drill. The under-20 World Cup was in Egypt last month. The full national team just played a World Cup qualifier in Honduras amid heightened political tensions.
“It sounds like essentially the experience will be go to the stadium, play and get back to your compound,” Edwards Sr. said. “I feel they'll be well taken care of, in terms of the numbers and who will be doing it — they're the top security people in the country and the world . . . But I don't understand why it's OK for (FIFA) to put our children in an environment like that. Why would you play games there?”
It is the first U-17 World Cup for coach Wilmer Cabrera, the former Colombian star who is the first Hispanic head coach of a U.S. national team. He has changed the makeup of the roster at the under-17 residency program in Florida, populating it with players who compensate with foot skills what they may lack in raw athleticism. This U.S. team might actually knock it around a bit.
They open Monday at Kano's Sani Abacha Stadium against Spain (11 a.m. PDT), followed by group games against Malawi and United Arab Emirates. The U.S. games will be televised on ESPNU and Spanish-language Galavision.
EJ, as Earl Jr. is called, phoned his parents before leaving Atlanta last night and told them not to worry. No other parents are going, either.
“It's unfortunate that they're not going to make it,” said Edwards Jr., who played for the La Jolla Nomads club and has committed to UCLA. “I know they were upset after all the hard work I've put in for the last two years, and wanting to see the outcome of it all. But FIFA and US Soccer, between the two of them, I think we'll be safe.
“As players, we haven't thought about (the security) at all. We're just focused on doing well in this tournament, seeing what we can do. The team is really confident. We have played in a bunch of international games, and we know what we can do.”