The members of the Tuesday night Guardians Football Club speak 10 different languages and come from seven countries on four continents. There’s Bekzat Baylarbekov, a stocky defender born in Kazakhstan, who moved to the United States from Siberia in 2013. There’s Sergio Hurtado, a Colombian midfielder who came here in the third grade. There’s coach and player Ozer Kocdemir, who emigrated from Sweden in 2013.
If it seems like the Guardians club is the soccer pitch version of the United Nations, that’s by design. The club was started in 2014 by Jason Brooks, a 33-year-old player, coach, and die-hard fan who was bothered that—even in heterogeneous Atlanta—soccer tended to break down along racial or socioeconomic lines.
“There are a lot of nice fields on other sides of town,” says Brooks, who is black and lived in Lakewood Heights on the southeast side. “What I thought was, Let me see how many people we can get to come to our side of town.”
So, with income from his job as a medical parts consultant and $5,000 he inherited from his soccer-loving father, Brooks paid for equipment and hired consultants to create a nonprofit called Diversity in Our Soccer. Today the organization sponsors four teams, all with the Guardians FC name, each meeting on a different day of the week. They play under the lights at Maynard Holbrook Jackson High School, seven on seven against other competitive recreational teams from across the city. The fields are 40 yards by 45 yards. Three games are played simultaneously. The goals are roughly six feet by nine feet, and each half is just 25 minutes long.
For players like Kocdemir, who’s only been able to find part-time work as a translator at CNN, the games are both an escape from daily worries and a place to bond with kindred spirits—even if they’re from half a world away. “We’re all giving each other joy,” he says. “It’s a pleasure for all of us to play and win and grow together.”
Adam McCabe is one of just two Americans on Kocdemir’s team. He played in England and Thailand before moving to play in Slovakia in 2014. There, in the dead of winter, he felt isolated. No one around him spoke much English. And he was dealing with an identity crisis: He was gay, and he hadn’t told anyone.
After three months McCabe came home to Atlanta, where he plays with the Guardians to stay in shape for his role as a midfielder with the semi-pro Georgia Revolution FC. He didn’t tell his teammates was gay—only coming out to family and friends—until this past December, when he told his coming-out story to Meanwhiler.
“That’s what I enjoy with this group,” he says. “We have a love for the game, and everything outside of that doesn’t really matter.”