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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Children Line Up to Board the Soccer Bandwagon

For MTGirls playing soccer in the popular AYSO league, which has games on Saturdays at the Olympic Village fields in southwest Moscow.
The Olympic Village playing fields in the Yugo-Zapadnaya district reverberated Saturday with the sound of excited children and shouts of "Kick it! Kick it!" from their even more excited parents. The sporting success story that is the American Youth Soccer Organization Moscow league was back for its seventh season.

The Moscow branch of the AYSO -- a California-based nonprofit organization that runs youth soccer leagues all over the United States -- was founded in 1995 by Joni Wirthlin, a mother of six from Los Angeles, to provide a soccer outlet for children in Russia. The Moscow league has grown every year since then, and this year more than 480 children of many different nationalities are taking part, the most ever.

According to Derk Sauer -- AYSO's regional commissioner in Moscow and head of Independent Media, the owner of The Moscow Times -- there is no secret to the league's enduring appeal to foreign and Russian children alike.

"There just isn't that much organized sport for kids in Moscow," he said, before he was interrupted by a tiny Japanese boy taking a well-aimed potshot at him with a ring pull from a soda can. "Russian kids don't really get the chance to play sports just for fun: For them, it's semiprofessional stuff or nothing at all. And for foreign kids, there really is nothing else on offer."

This year's AYSO Moscow league kicked off Aug. 25 and games will take place every Saturday until Oct. 20.

To sign up for the league, players must pay a $50 registration fee, which contributes to the cost of uniforms, equipment and team photos (all of which the children get to keep at the end of the season), as well as first aid and pitch rental. Sponsors drum up the rest of the money needed to fund the league.

After registering, the children are split into six divisions, according to age, and assigned teams. Over the first couple of weeks players are allowed to swap teams so that they can play with friends -- or avoid playing with enemies.

The top four divisions, for players aged 8 to 17, are competitive, with playoffs and finals at the end of October.

The younger children, aged 5 to 7, play just for fun, and their games could be described as organized chaos: a mass of bustling little legs in perpetual pursuit of the ball. The major problem seems to be that once the children reach the ball, many are unsure exactly what to do with it -- hence the instructions from the sidelines to "Kick it!"

Although the children do pick up the fundamentals of soccer by playing, the emphasis is not on learning soccer skills, according to American Mike Ablowich, one of the many parents who volunteer their services each year as coaches and referees.

"At their age, the most important thing is that they have the opportunity to get out in the fresh air, get some exercise and spend some time with other kids," he said.

Not everyone was completely sold on the exercising aspect of soccer, however. Sasha Kedzie, a 7-year-old American girl playing for the All Stars team, said the position she most enjoyed was goalkeeper. "I like it because I only do a bit of work," she explained. "I mostly just stand there and do nothing."

Goalkeeper seemed to be a favorite position among the younger female players, though not always for strictly soccer-related reasons. "My [7-year-old] daughter Katya wanted to play in goal because she liked the goalie's yellow shirt," said Tanya Granger, a Russian mother of two who is in charge of player registration. "She didn't like the outfield uniforms because they were blue. ?Blue's for boys,' she told me."

The matches are all played in a friendly spirit, and after each game the opposing players line up to shake hands. Sometimes it even pays to lose.

"Last week the parents of a winning team bought the players on the losing side a hot dog each," said Granger. "The winners all looked at each other and said, ?Maybe we should lose next time!'"

Competitive fires burn deep, however, even in the very young. Six-year-old Swede Tim Meester, who plays for the Blue Jays, said he hadn't had such a good time the previous Saturday; He'd fallen over a lot, which he is not fond of doing. This Saturday was different, however, and he'd had an enjoyable day. The reason? "We won," he said simply.

Like all the other parents, Tim's mother, Birgitta, preferred to dwell on the noncompetitive aspects of the AYSO league -- the fact that it allows children to get together and enjoy each other's company.

"It's not about winning," she said, with a pointed glance at her son.

There are still some places available in this season's AYSO league. To register call Khatuna or Natasha on 232-9290 or Tanya Granger on 106-8894.