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BU Men’s Soccer Team Is an International Family

“A mixing pot of cultures”—more than a quarter are from countries outside the United States

When Toti Knutsson and Kari Petursson are playing soccer together, they sometimes communicate with a simple tactic their opponents have yet to understand: they yell their moves to each other.

It helps that they’re both natives of Iceland and grew up playing together.

Although they’ve been fellow Terriers for less than two months, their on-field synergy is a result of a decade-long friendship: the pair come from the same hometown and played on the same school and club soccer teams. Petursson (CAS’22) says he had known Knutsson (CAS’21) since he was 8 years old and they became best friends soon after playing soccer together for the Stjarnan youth team as 12- and 13-year-olds.

“When you’re two guys that love football and love doing the same things, you end up together,” Petursson says. “He’s one year older than me, and I was always playing one year up in the football—I mean soccer—club.”

Americans call it soccer, but Knutsson and Petursson are prone to calling it football, and they are hardly exceptions on the BU men’s soccer team—most of the world refers to the sport as football.

Of the 35 Terriers on the roster, 9 (25.7 percent) are from countries outside the United States. That’s just above the average (24 percent) in NCAA Division I men’s soccer, according to a 2018 study. But within the Patriot League, where only 31 of the 281 student-athletes (11 percent) are from a foreign country, BU ranks second behind American University’s 37.9 percent (11 of 29). No other team in the conference hits 10 percent.

“It’s definitely a mixing pot of cultures that we have, but I think the biggest thing is that right off the start, we welcome everybody just as the member of the team,” says cocaptain David Riccio (CAS’19). “They’re here, and they’re here to help. They’re here to be part of the team and part of the family, and we like to welcome everybody in and get them used to it.”

“It’s not that anybody’s better than anybody else,” head coach Neil Roberts says. “If we can get the top-flight American players we would, but that doesn’t always work out that way. It just gives us a bigger pool to deal with.”

BU has a history of welcoming not only international students, but also student-athletes, as a quick look at the team’s coaching staff demonstrates: assistant coach and Nigerian native Francis Okaroh (CAS’86, MET’90) starred at BU from 1982 to 1986. The result is a large global network of alums, who may recommend players from other countries to the coaching staff.

That’s how the Terriers landed Petursson—Knutsson tipped off his coach about his friend. Roberts determined that Petursson would fit, and the decision has paid off: the freshman is currently tied for second on the team in scoring, with two goals and two assists (six points).

The 2018 FIFA World Cup contributed to the rise of Icelandic soccer. With a population of less than 400,000, Iceland garnered international attention when it launched its group stage (the first part of a cup competition, when teams are divided into groups and play against teams in their group) with a 1-1 tie against powerhouse Argentina. Back home, Knutsson and Petursson and their families were locked to the television screen. “Everybody in Iceland, I think around 330,000, but I think 320,000 were sitting and watching the game,” Petursson says. “It was a tremendous achievement.”

Icelandic players have been seen throughout US college soccer history, and BU is no stranger to their talents. In 2007, Hrafn Davidsson (ENG’10), Jon Jonsson (CAS’09), and Petur Sigurdsson (CGS’07, CAS’09), three of the nine Icelandic players that played college soccer that season, were Terriers.

Knutsson, who was chosen an All-Conference Third Team member as a freshman, continues that legacy. Despite that success, the Terrier says it hasn’t always been easy. Leaving Garðabæ (Gardabaer), an Icelandic town with just over 15,000 people, he made a semester-long pit stop at Coastal Carolina University before transferring to BU.

“It’s a lot different to go from Iceland to South Carolina, and also a huge difference to come from South Carolina to Boston,” Knutsson says. “It was difficult to come at first, but the boys in the team are amazing, and they help you a lot…but of course, it’s tough to settle in a big city when you come from tiny Iceland.”

That’s something Sierra Leone native Peter Kargbo (CGS’19), whose journey has taken him from a war-torn country to California, where he won the 2016 US Youth Soccer National Championship with the Santa Barbara Soccer Club, understands well. He notes, however, that it didn’t take long before he felt at home. “Everyone here is really supportive,” Kargbo says. “They help you any way they can, and we’re like a family.”

With eight different countries represented across the roster, the soccer Terriers say the diversity is an opportunity to learn. Kargbo says he loves “learning something new from different people, different cultures, different backgrounds, their experiences, what they’ve done, and what they intend to do. It just gives me a broader perspective in life.”

In turn, he’s also sharing his culture with his teammates, and they have reciprocated, willingly joining in on experiences, be it via music or food. Kargbo’s favorite spot is Suya Joint, a Nigerian and West African restaurant in Roxbury that several of his teammates have tried. Among them is Petursson, who says he hopes to do the same for his teammates by cooking lamb—Iceland-style. “I heard I could buy it in Whole Foods,” he says with a laugh.

“It’s great, because the world is big, but also small,” Kargbo says. “I never thought I’d meet someone from Iceland in my life. If you asked me five years ago, I’d say, ‘That would never happen.’”

Jonathan Chang can be reached at jchang19@bu.edu; follow him on Twitter at @jonathanychang. Bill Politis can be reached at bpolitis@bu.edu.

3 Comments

3 Comments on BU Men’s Soccer Team Is an International Family

  • The Immigrant on 10.04.2018 at 1:07 pm

    BU as a whole is 25% foreign students and it’s soccer team is 25% foreign. So the only thing I learned is that the soccer team is representative of the overall student body with respect to its foreign students composition.

    Some of the classes in math and engineering department are much closer to 100 % foreign students. Perhaps there is a much more interesting story there.

    • SmarterChild on 10.05.2018 at 9:43 am

      Why can’t we celebrate the soccer team? Have those math and engineering classes grown into a family atmosphere?

  • Thomas Perls MD on 10.04.2018 at 4:11 pm

    I thought this was a beautifully done piece and love to see students regard each other as family- whether they belong to the soccer team or because they are part of a year long study group. GO TERRIERS!

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