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If laughter is a universal language, the same could be said of soccer.

Though it's known by different names -- football or "footie" in England; futbol in Latin America -- the world's most popular sport elicits a passionate response from its players and fans worldwide.

That passion, which needs no translation, has found a home among the Old Dominion University community. The athletic fields behind Larchmont Elementary School, once the home fields of the ODU field hockey and baseball teams, have become a soccer hotbed and the site of one of Norfolk's most famous pickup games.

Any given Thursday through Sunday afternoon -- rain or shine -- the field buzzes with activity from about 4:30 on. Players from Old Dominion and the community at large, representing all points on the globe, unite for a friendly, yet competitive, soccer matchup that often features the full complement of 22 players -- 11 per side.

The facilities are less than ideal. The ground is hard and uneven and the goal at one end of the makeshift playing field is often marked with a pair of rusting trash cans or a spare gym bag. The players have to vie with baseball and soccer youth leagues for space on sunny afternoons.

"It's very rudimentary," said German native Jens Bischof, a Larchmont regular and a research assistant professor in the Department of Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. "It's soccer stripped to its basics. You have a ball and a few blokes and you kick it around."

But that doesn't stop them from coming. The matches draw some of the best international soccer talent in the area -- players from Sweden, Mexico, Brazil, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, England, China, Russia, among many other countries -- as well as Navy personnel from the nearby Staff College and the Norfolk Naval Base.

Jan Smith, associate manager of the Career Management Center, whose children Laura (a former ODU player) and Ben, also a university graduate, have been among the participants, has dubbed this longstanding series "The International Games."

"At one point, someone said, 'Isn't this the best representation of what the university wants to be?'" Bischof recalls. "President Runte said she wants to stress the university as being international. This is the best proof. It doesn't get any more international than this."

The Larchmont games are widely known, despite a dearth of publicity. So much so that hardly anyone asks about them anymore, said Tom Bashara, manager of Premier Soccer at 50th Street and Colley Avenue. Organizers used to post a flyer at the store advertising the game until someone took it a year ago, mistaking it for a handout.

"Ever since then, it's become word of mouth," said Bashara, who has played at Larchmont, though he's been occupied lately with running his business.

If someone comes in and asks him about pickup games in the area, he said, "we'd tell them [about Larchmont] if they looked like they could play. It's not for beginners."

Indeed, the level of play is high for a pickup game. Players dazzle one another with fancy footwork, and the pace can be withering.

Bill Thompson, associate director of advising for Old Dominion's English Language Center, another Larchmont regular, said the games usually feature several levels of play. Though he discovered soccer only recently, and at age 55 is less experienced than many of the younger players raised on the sport, Thompson said he doesn't feel overmatched.

"When I first started teaching here in 1993, some students invited me over there to play on a Saturday. Games were small then, but word spread among the many foreign students at ODU and many of them started coming," said Thompson, who proceeds to reel off the names of nearly 40 countries that have been represented over the past couple of years.

"The foreign students talked to others from their own national or ethnic communities -- people not connected with ODU -- and more and more people began to come. Apparently, many people love to play soccer and the word is out [about the games]."

While athletic ability, intensity and age vary among the players, this cultural melting pot of sport seems to work. "It's very democratic," Thompson noted.

Like Thompson, Bischof, at 45, has no intention of hanging up his cleats anytime soon.

"The nice thing about soccer, regardless of your skill level, is you can find something you can do. We have some talented players, then we have blokes like me who are just happy to play."

This article was posted on: May 17, 2002

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