After 13 hours and 3,000 plus miles the British Airways finally came to rest on the San Diego tarmac. The journey had been harrowing as the jet shot through the ominous electrical puffs of the monsoon storm that taunted it through the Arizona air space.
“I hope the bus is still there,” said 13-year-old Alana Livingstone, as she and fellow members of the soccer team from Belfast, Northern Ireland headed for their charted transport. “We're so late.”
Greeted with the news that their luggage had taken a more scenic route to it’s destination elicited depressed groans from the group. As the unfortunate members filled out the tedious forms, their luckier teammates watched the carousel as each piece of luggage dropped from the conveyer belt. Then the spent travelers dragged their weariness onto the chartered conveyance.
Two hours later at the Claremont Youth Activity Center, the girls were left to sit while their host parents checked the lists and spoke with program coordinator William Smith and his assistant coach for the trip, known to everyone as “Deano.”
Running on only two hours of sleep from their takeoff early that morning, the young women, ages 13-19, caught sight of the center’s pool tables, racked them up and cleared them with expert efficiency.
“(We play) to keep away the boredom,” said 19-year-old captain, Sonia Ferguson as she sank another ball, admitting it is also a sure-fire way to keep the eyelids from drooping.
The host mothers inquired whether the girls had eaten recently.
“Where’s the nearest MacDonalds?” responded Livingstone.
Three days later the teens chased and squealed through the house, playing pranks, video games, and watching music videos.
The errant bags restored to their owners, the girls prepared for a pick-up game with the Claremont Stars.
The ladies from Belfast demonstrated effortless skill and precision. However, playing in the muggy 82-degree heat, these cold weather lasses were as drenched as if the mercury read 100.
They desperately grabbed for the team sponge from it’s bucket of water and squeezed the cooling liquid over their weary sweat matted heads and hot red faces. Sun and heat would remain a factor throughout the weekend.
They were a changed team, arriving at 8 a.m. Saturday morning for the opening of San Diego’s Villa Soccer Tournament. Just a few days earlier their beautiful translucent Irish complexions had taken on the red-purple color of flame grapes from after a long day spent at Raging Waters.
“(Emma Morgan) can't play,” Deano said about the sunburn. “The whole front of her legs and her ankles are swoll up. She can’t put on her ‘football’ boots on. We had to get her pain killers last night.”
The razor-sharp skill and energy demonstrated just four days prior seem to have lost it’s edge in the sticky 89 degrees. When the first toe touched the ball the crispy crew, used to 40-60 degree summers, were drained.
Winning their division in the last five minutes of the semi-finals, Belfast United felt certain of a win when their desert-trained opponents from Las Vegas burst forth, scoring two consecutive goals just ahead of the final whistle.
They agreed the heat and sun were what truly beat them. However trainer Valerie McKee said an unaccustomed set of rules and practices contributed.
“They bring them on like four at a time,” McKee said of the United States youth soccer rules of free substitution. She went on to state that in Ireland substitution is not so free.
“You have to bring them on one at a time and you’re allowed three substitutions. They can’t go off and on, off and on.”
Ferguson added that their numbers weren’t great even for such substitutions, noting the size of their opposing teams.
Deano saw things a little more simply: “You loose control and it's over.”
Tournament play was over. With only four days left of their visit, the girls, who had made requests to see ‘Melrose Place’ and ‘Baywatch,’ however they were happy to accompany their hosts in a leisurely drive up the California coast to take in the beauty of La Jolla and to see the “house that Uncle Walt built,” curtsey of the efforts by former senator from Maine, George Mitchell.
The last night of their visit, hosts, friends and the ambassadors from Belfast joined for a few buckets of the Colonel’s finest, cakes and a final farewell blowout.
There were silly antics and flash bulbs, speeches, and an internationally award winning poem delivered by it’s author, goal keeper, Julie Scott, titled “Peace in My Community.” The poem had received special recognition at a White House ceremony hosted by President Clinton and the First Lady.
As the evening came to a close, the room was awash with tears. Even Sammy Fisher, the cool and handsome goalie coach for the Claremont Stars, found it hard to see them go. Embracing his new friends, he suddenly stepped back and wiped the moisture from his eye.
“It never happened,” he said, protesting he was just to cool for such emotional displays.
The ride to the airport was quiet, according to Claremont police captain and host parent Russ Brown.
“They said it was ‘because we missed our friends in the United States,’” he said.
Waiting for boarding time the girls reviewed their experiences over chili cheese fries. They loved California and it’s warmth, and there was a permanent place in their hearts for their hosts.
The cuisine, however, left something to be desired. American Cheese was too salty, refried beans disgusting, and they wondered how Americans could stand those “awful little green things” (pickles) on their burgers.
“They look like ‘boogies,’” Selina McAuley said with assenting giggles.
Despite the nasty food, several spoke excitedly of a return visit the following year, an opportunity which Smith and his Belfast people of the cities Claremont and Mission Viejo are working to make an annual reality.
The goal of the committee is to give Belfast youth, raised in philosophically segregated communities, a chance to know each other beyond neighbor prejudices and experience another culture. The cautiously optimistic Smith, said they are taking things “one year at a time.” He added that, as it began, contact between the committee would continue via the Internet.
el to their ship. While the craft sat waiting to taxi, a fiery red-orange meteorite shot from the direction of the setting sun. Flying parallel to the ground at about100 yards over top the jet, it continued for another 2,000 yards before loosing it’s energy.
The spectacle left those in the lounge dumb-struck as the vessel slowly rolled down the runway. Twenty minutes later it lifted off.
If the future can be told by natural omens, then arriving on the turbulent winds of a monsoon and departing under the golden hope of a shooting star could herald the blessing of a United Belfast, and the promise of a happy and peaceful future to come.