What is your name and home field location?
Neewilli Saie. McCreesh Playground is our home field, where we practice and get ready for Unity Cup games.
Note: Neewilli is the team’s Assistant Coach. He also helped coach the team to victory in last year’s Unity Cup!
What is your connection to Ivory Coast?
I was born there and my mother’s from there. My father’s from Liberia, so it’s like a dual citizenship with Ivory Coast and Liberia. I was 15 years old when I moved here.
What made you interested in participating in the Unity Cup?
It was a natural fit, because we play soccer all year-round and so to have an opportunity to showcase everybody on a citywide scale was something that was enticing. We couldn’t turn that down. It also gives us the chance to meet other immigrants that enjoy “the beautiful game.”
What was your favorite moment from last year’s tournament?
I would say the best moment was lifting the trophy at Citizens Bank Park, because I don’t know what other feeling could have beat that! The fact that we were the last team standing and playing against Liberia… Liberia’s not far from Ivory Coast, so the natural rivalry is there, but also in Philadelphia, they practice three blocks away from where we practice, so leading up to the finals there was a lot of competitive trash talking — friendly, but a lot of trash talking — so to be able to come out on top was the defining moment of the whole tournament.
How did your team come together?
We have a club team, so when the Unity Cup came up, we said, okay, we’re going to get together and form the Ivory Coast team, so that’s how it came about. The team already together, they played on the same club team, so it was another opportunity for them to play.
Can you tell us a bit about the rest of your team?
The team is very well-balanced. They’re used to each other’s chemistry because they play on the same team all year-round, so it’s natural. I think that was one of the advantages that we had compared to all the other teams last year. Our boys are used to playing together on the same team, and they have that chemistry, so when it came to the Unity Cup, they were already miles ahead of everybody else. The friendship and camaraderie on the team is very, very good, and that’s the thing that’s unique about the Ivory Coast squad.
What does soccer mean to your community?
Soccer means a lot to the community because immigrants use soccer to be able to adjust. In my case, I was a teenager coming to the States, and I used soccer to branch out and make friends. It makes the transition easier: coming here from a different country, the cultural difference, the cultural shock, soccer kind of makes that path a little easier. I’m not saying it makes it totally easy, but it makes that path a little easier. You meet people that love the same game that you do, who might be from the same country that you’re from, that you’re not going to meet if not for soccer. So that’s what soccer means to the community: it brings guys together, keeps them out of trouble, and makes life a little easier.
Why is soccer important to you personally?
It gives me an opportunity to be a mentor. You know, I’ve played the game and I went to college, graduated, and soccer helps me connect with the guys. It’s like an icebreaker. If I just go to a guy and say, “I want to talk to you about life,” they’re probably not going to listen to me. But once I start coaching, you can liken soccer with life itself: perseverance and hard work, those allow us to draw the analogies, so we can tell the guys that with soccer, you have to be disciplined, not just on but also off the field. It helps make my mentorship to the younger guys a little easier because we have something to bond over.
How has soccer made your life better?
It’s like a stress reliever. I work for a pharmaceutical company and it’s high pressure all the time, you know, you’ve got to meet deadlines here and there. When I leave work and go to coach, it helps me decompress and gives me a different view of life. Soccer helps me cope with the daily stress of life and work, and it gives me a different dimension on life and how to approach things.
Why do you think soccer is so popular around the world?
I don’t know what it is about soccer, it’s just different from every other game. You can see the flow of the game from the start, if you’re really into soccer — it’s been called “the beautiful game” for a reason, because it’s a beautiful sport. It demands a lot out of you, and no one individual can take over a game, it has to be a team effort. I think that’s what’s unique and different about soccer. It demands a lot out of you, and at the same time, it forces you to play as a team to be successful.
How do you think soccer in general (and the Unity Cup in particular) promotes inclusivity?
The Unity Cup was able to expand our little soccer world in Southwest Philly! It became a lot bigger because we made a lot of connections with the Irish guys, and the German guys, and Ukrainian guys. We’re even playing friendlies with them now because of the Unity Cup. If it wasn’t for the Unity Cup, we were not going to be able to meet these guys that love the game as we do, and they’re their own little immigrant communities, too, so it’s bringing together different immigrant communities to bond over soccer. To me, that’s what’s best about the Unity Cup, it brings different communities together.
What places (such as restaurants or cultural centers) or groups in Philadelphia would you recommend to someone if they wanted to learn more about Ivorian culture?
In Southwest Philly on Woodland, from 58th and Woodland to 65th and Woodland, is a spot where there are restaurants that are modeled on places back home. People speak French there, you can go there and order food in French. That Southwest area gives you a little Ivory Coast.
What’s one thing you wish more people knew about Ivory Coast?
That Ivory Coast has the best beaches in the world! Grand Bassam has one of the most pristine beaches in the world that people don’t really know about because Africa hasn’t really become a vacation spot for a lot of people.