A group of soccer players -- (from left) Mehmet Akcin, originally from Turkey;… (Katie Falkenberg / For The…)
Lee Bregman was hoping to reconnect with his favorite childhood sport and feed a case of World Cup-induced soccer fever in 2006 when he posted an Internet ad seeking players for a Sunday afternoon kick-around.
Little did the Irvine resident know that his game would turn into something of a United Nations of pickup soccer, a weekly collision of cultures, religions, personalities, generations and playing styles that has helped more than a few international students assimilate to the U.S.
The game also provides a refuge for older immigrants and second-generation Americans who love playing the sport but are leery of playground piranhas who can disrupt the action.
"Honestly, this is a diamond in the rough," said Sharif Mohamed, 26, a financial analyst who played Division II college soccer at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas, and whose father moved to the U.S. from Egypt in 1977.
"The quality and consistency of play is good. We always have a full field of players. And the parks in Irvine are probably the best I've ever played at. This is a real gem here."
A recent Sunday game at Irvine High included participants from Taiwan, Libya, Uganda, Zambia, Turkey, England, South Africa, Ukraine, Burma, Egypt, Mexico, Thailand and the U.S.
The group, which also plays at adjacent Heritage Park, has had players from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Cameroon, France, Tunisia and a number of other countries.
"I've played in pickup games at USC, UCLA and Chapman University, I've played in about 20 different countries, and this is the most diverse environment I've ever seen," said Mehmet Akcin, 29, a native of Turkey who moved to the U.S. 11 years ago.
"I've played in games with two nationalities going against each other and five or six nationalities represented. But I've seen at least 20 nationalities here. We sometimes have games with only one American player, which is good, I think."
After arriving in Orange County from Uganda two years ago, Daniel Okabe, 25, went online in search of pickup soccer games and came across a Craigslist ad posted by Bregman.
The Golden West College student, who hopes to earn a degree in broadcasting so he can run a Christian radio station in Uganda, has been a regular at Heritage Park for a year and a half.
"Playing with these students from so many different countries gives me a sense of unity, of harmony," Okabe said. "Everyone is friendly. People are connected. I've built up friendships through this. It's like a family."
Okabe, known on the pitch as "Little Adebayor" for his facial resemblance to Togo-born Manchester City striker Emmanuel Adebayor, recruited fellow Golden West international student Robin Munde, 22, of Zambia, to play.
"This is nice," Munde said after a spirited match on Irvine High's artificial turf. "We never had carpet fields in Africa. We had a lot of rocks and dust."
Players come and go, and when his numbers dwindle, Bregman posts an ad for reinforcements. But there is a core of 12-15 players who come every week, lending stability to the game.
"It doesn't matter where you're from, what religion you are, how old you are, you just play the game," said Hashim Atcha, a 47-year-old engineer who was born in Burma, grew up in England and has been a Heritage Park regular since moving to the U.S. in 2006.
"There are always things you pick up from different people. In England, we always played on cobblestone streets and tried to avoid cars. Guys from Turkey and the Middle East usually played barefoot on sand and rubble. All these little things broaden the conversation. It's neat."
Players range in ability from beginner to advanced, though most are intermediate. The game attracts high school varsity players and some college players, including women on occasion.
There is even a father-son tandem from Taiwan, 65-year-old Wayne Chang and 32-year-old Ivan Chang, the elder of whom played for Taiwan's national team from 1965-69 and still has formidable skills.
"Playing together brings us much closer," said Ivan Chang, a UC Irvine graduate student in biomedical engineering. "I don't know how much longer we'll be able to play together."
The game is cordial, with players calling their own fouls and offsides infractions. An inadvertent trip of a player usually brings an apology and a helping hand.
"I see fights and arguments all the time in other games, but I have not seen that here," Akcin said. "The older guys keep the others in line, and everyone is just laid-back, having fun."
Abe Aburwein, a 33-year-old engineer who grew up in Libya and moved to the U.S. when he was 18, has seen his share of altercations in pickup games, and he said they usually involve players from the same ethnic groups.
"If you run around town, you'll see Turkish people playing together, Mexican people playing together, Arabs playing together — it's pretty tough to get a game like this going, where so many people from so many different countries play," Aburwein said.