One day nine years ago, Abrourazakou Bawa, a truck driver originally from Togo, was in his home borough of the Bronx when he noticed a disappointed kid walking with a soccer ball under his arm.
“Where are you going?” Bawa asked the boy.
“I couldn’t find anyone to play with,” said the young footballer, who had hoped to find a pickup game at the public park next to Yankee Stadium.
That simple incident led Bawa, then 43, to brainstorm: Why not start a soccer team for the many African kids who live around the neighborhood? It would ease their adjustment to the United States, and might keep them out of trouble.
Originally dubbed the African Diaspora Youth Sports Club, that team is now called the United Africa Football Club —a multilingual group that has won seven annual soccer tournaments organized by the Immigrant Outreach Unit of the New York City Police Department’s Community Affairs Bureau. The NYPD started the tournaments to strengthen relationships between police officers and the city’s new immigrant teenagers, aged 14 to 19 years old, and to reduce their chances of getting involved in crime and drug use.
Bawa, an independent volunteer, represents the police on game day, coaching from the sidelines in an NYPD jersey. His team is open to kids from all 54 African countries, with players hailing from Ghana, Gambia, Nigeria and more; a new addition is a teen of African descent from Honduras. On the field, English, French, Twi, Hausa and Ewe are just some of the languages spoken as players pass the ball back and forth. Bawa coaches them in English, as well as soccer.
He wants players to accept one another for their character instead of their religion or ethnicity. The teammates give each other a hard time in person, or over a WhatsApp group chat, if one doesn’t show up for practice. If a player is caught fighting on the field or around the neighborhood, he’s not allowed to play again until his parents call Bawa to say he has apologized.
“It’s just like family,” said Yaya Issa Yaya, 18, one of the team’s two captains who moved to the United States from Accra, Ghana, in 2013. Now a senior, Yaya likes math and science, and he helps his teammates with homework. “Our coach devotes all his time and sweat in making it possible for us to play, so we ought to do our best and make him proud.”
Yaya is passionate about soccer. Since he lives next to the Crotona Park soccer field, he practices several times a week with his younger brother, even in the winter, when the lights stay on until 7:30 p.m. But he eventually wants to leave the Bronx.
“The streets are not safe,” he said. “Anyone here can get into trouble without looking for it.”
Keeping young people out of trouble was one of Bawa’s motivations for originally starting the soccer club.He lives in Claremont Village, a sprawling cluster of public-housing complexes in the South Bronx that’s home to approximately 11,000 residents. He has a lot of friends there, and once campaigned unsuccessfully to be a judicial delegate, knocking on people’s doors for votes. The most common complaint he heard from his neighbors is that the city’s housing authority doesn’t keep up with maintenance. Bawa says there’s a good sense of community.
“I never had problems,” he said. “Anybody, they see you, they say hi.”
During his decade in the Bronx, Bawa’s lived around many unsupervised young people who’ve been affected by crime. In 2009, there had been 15 murders and 303 felony assault offenses within the one square mile of the 42nd Precinct, where he and the majority of his future players lived. Some of his friends had been mugged on the way to their mosque.
Bawa, a father of three, sees soccer as one way to keep the neighborhood’s young residents away from trouble. He pays for the team’s gear out-of-pocket, and drives them to and from events in his nine-person sport utility vehicle.
“Let them smile,” Bawa said of his players. “That’s my payment.”
The coach borrows nets from other teams for games and his players wear used jerseys, which he collects and washes. Bawa has collected donations to pay the entry fees for tournaments from nearby restaurants, residents and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital. The team plays at various Bronx fields, but don’t have permits, so if another team arrives with a permit in hand, Bawa and his players have to pack up their things.
“We don’t have much,” Bawa said. “But I don’t care…My priority is not to win. My priority is to bring those kids together.”
Bawa admits he has little knowledge of soccer. To learn more, he watches YouTube videos and takes pointers from advanced players and volunteer assistant coaches.
“I’m trying my best,” he said.
Regardless of his inexperience, his players say he’s an effective coach because he’s a good motivator and helps them focus on the field.
Despite the team’s trophies and medals on display in Bawa’s apartment, the United Africa Football Club has a problem with defense. Several times a game, Bawa’s defenders, eager to score, run forward. They forget their duty to support the goalie.
“Yo,” goalie Kelvin Akisi, 18, from Ghana, shouted at his teammates during a match versus Bowne Football Club in the summer of 2018. “They got three men up top, and I got only one defender.”
“Not everyone can score,” assistant coach Jeremiah Abdul shouted in anger at his ineffective defenders. That day, the game ended in a tie. Bawa again realized the kids have a lot to learn.
“Just pass the ball,” Bawa repeats every practice. “Don’t be selfish.”