Football Around the World: The Trials and Adventures of Garnet Soccer Grad Ladule Lako Lo Sarah '09
Swarthmore graduate and former men's soccer player Ladulé Lako Lo Sarah '09 recently signed a one-year contract to play professional soccer with 1stDivision club FK Bregalnica Stip in Macedonia. Men's soccer head coach Eric Wagner caught up with Lako Lo Sarah, who shared his post-Swarthmore journey with his former coach.
STIP, Macedonia - After a gilt-edged career as a forward and midfielder for the Garnet men's soccer team, Ladulé Lako Lo Sarah '09 ("La" to his Swarthmore teammates) set off on a post-graduation journey of self-discovery and exploration.
A strict vegan, he had been very active in student environmental and social justice groups at Swarthmore, he jumped at the chance to follow one of his passions. "Within hours of graduation, I boarded a plane for Bolinas, California, where I lived on a farm to study permaculture," says Lako Lo Sarah.
This was the first of many stops for La in his first 14 months out of college, a whirlwind tour of three continents that included a trip to his family's home village in South Sudan.
"But during the whole time, I continued to play soccer," he recently told me. "From the urban pitches of Nairobi, Kenya, to the dirt pitches of Juba, South Sudan, the street courts of Johannesburg and the beaches of Durban, South Africa, and domestically on the turf of San Diego, soccer maintained a large presence in my life. I even coached for a season at my high school."
The most recent stop on La's journey was in Stip, Macedonia. After two weeks of training and exhibition matches beginning in early July, he earned a one-year contract to play professional football (soccer) with the 1st Division club FK Bregalnica Stip.
A tall, lanky, extremely fit young man from Claremont, California, La arrived on the Swarthmore soccer scene as a freshman in the fall of 2005. That season he played in all 20 matches for the Garnet, assisting on four goals for a team that went 12-6-2 and advanced to the ECAC semifinals. What followed was an up-down-and-up-again career that concluded with La near the top of the Swarthmore charts for career assists. The teams he played on improved steadily throughout his four years, and in his senior season, the team made a remarkable run to the NCAA Sweet 16 – the farthest it had gone since 1991. He recalls his most memorable moment at Swarthmore was, "without a doubt, winning the Conference Championship [in 2008]. It was the fruition of our collective effort over the last four years and that feeling when the final whistle blew and we all celebrated together is one I will never forget."
About an hour and a half north of the Greek border, and two hours southwest of Sofia, Bulgaria, the small city of Stip sits along the Bregalnica River, one of three main waterways in Macedonia. La and two of his teammates live in an apartment in downtown Stip, and "we have internet," he tells me. "One can easily walk from the stadium to where I live within 10 minutes. But if one is in a hurry or needs to carry groceries back from the market, one can take a readily available taxi cab anywhere in the city for under a dollar." Vegans often struggle to find appropriate provisions available, and La is no exception. But after settling in and exploring the city, he has found that "one can easily find tofu, many kinds of (whole) grains and beans, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Even in the restaurants, they have some delicious vegetarian cuisine, including a local specialty, Tavche Gravche, a savory bean dish and [another] favorite, burek, an oven-baked bread and cheese snack. A meal in a restaurant will never run you more than $4," says the former Centennial Conference and Philadelphia Inquirer athletic and academic all-star.
Still, the experience has not been without its difficulties and uncertainties. "I arrived at the Skopje airport at night on July 9th not really knowing what to expect. The team had already been in pre-season preparations since the 30th of June, so I was coming in late. But I had been working on my own so I felt confident with my fitness level and touch." The team started with only one win in their first five matches, and the coach was recently fired. "Unfortunately for me," La says, "the new coach does not think so highly of me as a player and I have to work extra hard to prove I belong in the first team. But … such is the life I have signed up for! I just have to do my job!"
La recently worked his way into the first team, the top 18 players chosen from the 25 professionals in the club. Those 18 are subject to change on a weekly basis, based on the decision of the club's head coach as to whom to use in the weekend's match.
La got his first start for the club on Saturday, August 14th, in Tetevo against Teteks.
"It was very hot that day and the 20,000 all-seater Gradski Stadion Tetovo was about 1/10th full, but there was a nice ambiance from the
fan group of Teteks, who chanted, sang, and danced the whole match." Teteks won the match, 2-0, and La was subbed off at halftime. "It was a great experience; of course I was rather timid, but I was happy with how I performed on my first-ever professional match."
It was not the first time that La had played in front of small, enthusiastic crowds. During his four seasons at Swarthmore, attendance in Clothier Field Stadium had doubled, and included body-paint, chanting, singing, and a loud, boisterous atmosphere. At the final match of his senior season, the 3rd-round NCAA match versus Amherst, over 1,200 Garnet supporters packed Clothier in freezing temperatures to cheer on the home team.
"The feelings of winning, of scoring goals, and of the tremendous fan support [at Swarthmore] are ones with which I did not want to part. Clapping my hands [in appreciation] to the supportive crowd after the 0-1 defeat to Amherst back in 2008 made me start thinking, 'will I never experience an important match ever again?'"
Thanks to a friendship and training partnership with former Macedonian professional player Aleksandar Markovski, La was encouraged to give professional football a real shot. "[Aleks] told me that he had contacts across the Balkans … and that if I was interested, he could help me make a move. Of course I was skeptical at first, but we started training together and I realized he was an honest and trustworthy person."
Now, each weekend the La and the other players and coaching staff of FK Bregalnica Stip pursue their craft as professionals. With the goal of earning a place in the Europa League – the second-tier international club contest in Europe – every match is important. Aside from the normal league matches and the domestic cup competition, the prestigious Europa League includes teams like England's Liverpool and Manchester City, Turkey's Fenerbahce, Besiktas, and Galatasary, as well as the famous Dutch outfit Feyenoord, and Scottish giant Celtic FC. A top finish in Macedonia's first division would earn the club a lucrative spot in the Europa League for the following season.
It is an opportunity of a lifetime for La, who says that "my highlight thus far is, frankly, waking up each morning and heading to the training-ground knowing that I gave my dream a shot."
By Eric Wagner