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The Blue Nile Ethiopian soccer team | Essential Chicago melting pot

Chicago Ethiopians bond on the soccer field.

 (Photograph: Allison Williams)
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Photograph: Allison Williams

Chicago 5/22/11Blue Nile Ethiopian soccer team coach Zenebe Beyane works with players during practice at Senn High School on Sunday.

 (Photograph: Allison Williams)
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Photograph: Allison Williams

Chicago 5/22/11Members of the Blue Nile Ethiopian soccer team race down the field during practice at Senn High School on Sunday.

 (Photograph: Allison Williams)
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Photograph: Allison Williams

Chicago 5/22/11Blue Nile Ethiopian soccer team coach Zenebe Beyane works with players during practice at Senn High School on Sunday.

 (Photograph: Allison Williams)
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Photograph: Allison Williams

Chicago 5/22/11Members of the Blue Nile Ethiopian soccer team warm up before practice at Senn High School on Sunday.

 (Photograph: Allison Williams)
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Photograph: Allison Williams

Chicago 5/22/11Members of the Blue Nile Ethiopian soccer team warm up before practice at Senn High School on Sunday.

 (Photograph: Allison Williams)
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Photograph: Allison Williams

Chicago 5/22/11Members of the Blue Nile Ethiopian soccer team race down the field during practice at Senn High School on Sunday.

 (Photograph: Allison Williams)
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Photograph: Allison Williams

Chicago 5/22/11Members of the Blue Nile Ethiopian soccer team race down the field during practice at Senn High School on Sunday.

 (Photograph: Allison Williams)
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Photograph: Allison Williams

Chicago 5/22/11Members of the Blue Nile Ethiopian soccer team warm up before practice at Senn High School on Sunday.

 (Photograph: Allison Williams)
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Photograph: Allison Williams

Chicago 5/22/11Blue Nile Ethiopian soccer team player Abebaw Darjathew heads a soccer ball during practice at Senn High School on Sunday.

 (Photograph: Allison Williams)
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Photograph: Allison Williams

Chicago 5/22/11Members of the Blue Nile Ethiopian soccer team warm up before practice at Senn High School on Sunday.

Tekaligne Selassie, who moved to Chicago from Ethiopia in 2003, works at a downtown hotel. But he lives to manage the Blue Nile, the local soccer squad that represents Chicago in the Ethiopian Sports Federation in North America (ESFNA).

Every July, 28 teams from across the U.S.—all required to be community organizations—compete for the championship title. Doing its public part, Blue Nile provides college scholarships for its players, cleans the local church and regularly hosts barbecues and parties for the whole community.

All that goodwill doesn’t mean the team’s not seriously in it to win it. On a scale between neighborly fun and ruthless competition, the ESFNA falls closer to the latter; in Ethiopia, soccer is the national sport and losing is not taken lightly. Seven Blue Nile players played professionally in Ethiopia and they treat their ESFNA games with the same intensity, strategizing for matches by studying opponents.

Selassie, a former midfielder for the Ethiopian national team, admits he’s a tough coach. When the team trains along the lake shore, Selassie demands they run on the beach. “The sand requires full force,” he says, “good for their game.”

The Blue Nile practices three days a week at Senn High School’s field in Edgewater. The 35 to 40 players (depending on the day) are a motley crew: The youngest player is a junior at Lincoln Park High School; the team star, Adnew Belay, drives a cab full time; team spokesman Besrat Membere works for the Department of Homeland Security. “The only binder,” Membere says, “is soccer.”

And the bond the game engenders among Chicago’s Ethiopian immigrant population is a strong one. The team receives sponsorships from many Ethiopian-owned restaurants and establishments, like the Kukulu Market (6129 N Broadway, 773-262-3169). Those too old to play still hang out at practice; those too young clean uniforms and chase loose balls.

“I was 11 when I joined this team,” says 23-year-old Blue Nile defenseman Wonwessen Bishu. “They basically raised me.”

TASTE OF HOME “Most Ethiopians go to Ethiopian Diamond [6120 N Broadway, 773-338-6100],” says Membere, “or we buy fresh injera bread at Kukulu Market [6129 N Broadway, 773-262-3169] and cook the rest at home.”

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