For Congolese man who resettled in Akron, 'soccer is friendship'
On a late Sunday afternoon, two men’s soccer teams face off on a field behind a middle school in North Akron.
The playing is intense and fast-paced, with quick footwork and headers that the men throw their whole bodies into.
Aside from those on the field, only a handful of people watch from the sidelines.
Makambo Mtambala — a Congolese refugee and the coach of Afro United, one of the teams playing today — doesn't seem to notice the lack of a crowd. In his early 30s, wearing a trim blue blazer over a T-shirt, he stamps his feet when his players miss shots. He shouts in both Kibembe and Swahili, his and his players’ first languages, when they're called off-sides.
But Mtambala says he does notice that not many people are here to watch the game. And he wishes more would come. He wants Afro United to be known.
"Only a few people know there’s a team of refugees from Congo here in Akron," he said, speaking through an interpreter. "I want the team to be known all across Ohio."
The reason, he said, is that recognition equals support.
"It’s how we get practical things, like donated balls, jerseys and our own playing field," he said. "But also, fans make the game feel like it means something to a community, not just to the players."
Soccer as support
Mtambala experienced years of that kind of support first-hand, in Tanzania. He moved to a refugee camp there in 1997, when he was 7 — at the beginning of the First Congo War. He started playing soccer at the camp, and continued playing on teams as he got married and had kids.
"Wherever the team would go, the whole village would show up for games," he said, beaming at the memory. "The whole village."
But as much as he loved playing soccer in Tanzania, it couldn’t provide the life he wanted for himself and his family. So he applied for resettlement in the U.S.
"From the camp," he said, "my wife and four kids resettled in 2017, in Colorado" — a place chosen for them by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. "But life there was very expensive. Housing was very expensive."
Worse, he didn't play much soccer in his new home.
"There weren’t many other people from Africa there who played," he says. "I felt like the only one."
The loss of the game from his life was made even more painful by the calls he’d get from his former teammates.
"They’d call me crying," he said. "‘Hey coach, we miss you. We need you.'"
A new start in Akron
Then, in 2018, the family moved to Akron, which turned out to be a much better fit than Colorado. Mtambala got a job on the assembly line at Step 2, the maker of kids’ toys. And the family made lots of friends, quickly, among the region’s small but tight-knit population of about 500 Congolese refugees.
A return to soccer quickly followed. He coaches now instead of playing, since he’s aged out of the team’s target age range of 17 to 30. Afro United keeps a busy schedule playing other amateur teams that it finds mostly via social media and word of mouth.
Today, the team has 22 active players and Mtambala is looking to recruit more.
"My goal is to have players from every nation, not just in Africa, because soccer is friendship," he said. "So if players want to join, they're welcome."
That idea of soccer as friendship is also why he’d love more fan support. He feels welcome in Akron, he said, but seeing a crowd at an Afro United game would really make him and the players feel at home.
Afro United plays Sunday afternoons at 4:30 p.m. from June to November in the field behind Jennings Community Learning Center. Call or text 330-880-7696 for a schedule of games.
Thanks to Bikabe Malanga of the International Institute of Akron for coordinating and serving as interpreter for this interview.