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Love of soccer unites immigrants in Philly's Unity Cup

Philadelphia's mini-World Cup brings together immigrants on the soccer field.
Nearly 1,200 Philly immigrants are participating in the Unity Cup from countries like Greece and Liberia, seen above during the quarter finals. (Provided)

Patrick Julu, 36, is a social worker, who manages older populations at a residential care facility.

But when the work-week ends and Julu laces up his cleats and takes to the soccer field this weekend, the Liberian immigrant will be representing his entire nation and community as the Liberian team heads to the finals against Sierra Leone of Philly's "Unity Cup," a year-old soccer tournament for teams made up of immigrants.

"In our circle, football is like a religion," Julu said. "As a kid, growing up, the only thing you know is soccer—football."

Julu is one of more than 1,200 immigrants with a love for the game of soccer who participated in this year's Unity Cup at the Linc. Finals are on Nov. 11. To Bill Salvatore, Unity Cup Director, all of the different nations represented in 48 teams have unique traits, but a love of soccer brings them together.

"They're all taking the field together, whether it's a 19-year-old phenom or a 30-year-old guy that just wants to run around with a bunch of guys from his own country," Salvatore said. "Here's a guy from Serbia talking to this guy from Nigeria who is actually associated with the Iraq team. Before the Unity Cup they would have had zero interaction, and now they're sitting around a table talking about the spirit of soccer."

Unity Cup teams have already played out 96 games to determine the rankings for this tourney. That includes 16 brand new teams who have been introduced and seamlessly blended into the system for the tournament, Savlatore said, including a refugee team, with players from five countries who speak seven different languages and a former Iraqi national coach who speaks Arabic.

There's also a youth game and naturalization ceremony included as part of the tourney. The top competition to watch is Sierra Leone v. Liberia, but the players say there's no rivalry off the soccer pitch.

"We're all from the same neighborhood," said Foday Turay, coach for the Sierra Leone team, who first started coaching soccer in his community as a volunteer in 2001. "The rivalry is there, but when we get off the pitch its like brothers."

Getting to compete together in the Cup against players from the other side of the world, who also wound up living in Philadelphia, provides the men with a meaningful experience, they said.

"This is what America stands for: respecting diversity, bringing people together, regardless of your orientation or culture, whoever you are, you belong to our system," Julu said. "That's the message the Unity Cup sends out to everyone involved."

While the Unity Cup gives immigrant communities an opportunity to shine for their families and friends, it also allows them to honor their now distant and perhaps longed-for homeland.

"We are representing the Liberian community within the Philadelphia area, but we are actually representing our entire nation," Julu said. "Back home, we are at a crossroads in our country's history, there is an election going on. And we want our country to be peaceful and stable and we pray that everyone will live in harmony and peace in our land."

Catch the Unity Cup for free beginning Saturday, Nov. 11, at the the Linc. For more information visit unitycup.phila.gov.