It was still dark this morning when Cherif Zein and his Foothill Flyers youth soccer team took off in a plane for Costa Rica. The tenebrous sky contrasted with the enlightened state of mind in which Zein is confident his players will return home next week.
"There is nothing like traveling," Zein said. "It cuts down on people being prejudiced. It gives these kids a new outlook, a different perspective. Things like having a hot shower. They learn to appreciate it."
This is the 11th time since 1984 that Zein has taken a team to Costa Rica to promote good will and good soccer. The La Canada-based Flyers comprise 16 players aged 9-14, who compete in the California Youth Soccer Assn.
Team members, who live in La Canada, Glendale, Burbank, Arcadia and Torrance, will stay at the homes of Costa Rican families in Alajuela, a suburb of the capital city of San Jose, and will play three games against local teams.
In keeping with the theme of the seven-day trip--billed as the Costa Rica Peace Tour--players might get the opportunity to meet with Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, winner of the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize.
"I wear my T-shirt with Costa Rica on it and three people have come up to me and told me it's a really nice place to go," said Danny Graziani, 14, of La Canada. "We're really excited. I've been to Tijuana, but that's not really like traveling to another country."
Travel is nothing new for Zein, who coaches at St. Francis High and teaches English as a Second Language at Garfield High in East L. A. and at Burbank High's adult school.
Zein, son of an Iranian father and Lebanese mother, was born in Egypt. He was raised in Spanish Morocco and went to school in Tunisia before moving to Arizona when he was 14.
Zein played soccer at UCLA and earned a degree in Spanish literature. He has coached at Salesian High, USC, Glendale College and Cal State San Bernardino.
He began taking youth teams to foreign countries in 1983, when a Glendale-area team traveled to Australia.
"All of these trips are educational for me," Zein said. "Have you ever been on a train with 19 kids in a foreign country trying to figure out where to get off?"
The trips to politically-neutral Costa Rica, which Zein refers to as "the Switzerland of Central America," began in December, 1984.
"Kids can walk around at night in Costa Rica," Zein said. "In Europe, I'd be worried. Not there."
David Quesada of La Canada is an assistant coach for the team who will be making his third trip to Costa Rica.
"These trips have a big impact on the American kids," said Quesada, 16, who is the older brother of Wayne Quesada, a member of this year's team. "Some of these kids have never seen anything other than higher middle class. It's not their fault if they're prejudiced against something they've never seen. Now they'll know what it's like."
The Flyers have learned about differences in culture simply by practicing and playing together. Korean, Irish, Canadian and Irish backgrounds are among those represented on the roster.
Therefore, the exchange program also offers the Costa Rican hosts a chance to learn about the diversity in Americans.
"It's like the Pope is coming over," Quesada said. "They make the house very neat and they seem to love the experience as much as we do."
Besides playing soccer, the Flyers will visit San Jose, the Poas volcano and spend two days at Flamingo Beach on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.
Eric Rogers, 12, of Arcadia was part of a similar the trip in 1985 and has told his teammates about what to expect.
"I told them that the people are very friendly," Rogers said, "and that the food was good."
Bret Hackett, 12, of La Canada said he prepared for the trip by looking at slides of Costa Rica and practicing his Spanish.
"Yeah, I can say poquito ," he said.
Zein said Hackett and his teammates will have a great opportunity to broaden their language, soccer, and social skills. But the most important aspect of the trip will be the understanding he hopes his players will bring home.
"I get a lot of satisfaction seeing American kids exchange their personalities and views with another culture," Zein said. "The players see how people walk straight up a hill to get to work or school and that they're happy.
"It makes them realize that you can be happy without material things."