Members of the Indiana State University soccer team served as goodwill ambassadors for the United States and their university during a 10-day visit to Morocco.
As Air France passengers settled into their seats for the eight-hour flight from Paris to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, the usual announcements from the flight deck crackled overhead.
But as the beverage cart started to make its way down the aisle, a different announcement from the pilot interrupted everyone’s in-flight movies. The first time it was in French, and to the monolingual Americans aboard, something in the phrase sounded vaguely familiar and caused them to stop what they were doing and listen a little closer.
The next time was in English: “We would like to welcome aboard and congratulate the Indiana State University women’s soccer team. They are returning home after a trip to Morocco, where they won two games.”
Home. After nearly two weeks abroad, with suitcases filled with souvenirs and dirty laundry, camera phones loaded with hundreds of selfies and new tan lines courtesy of the Moroccan sun, home is a place that never seemed so distant and was never so fondly sought.
Upon hearing the announcement, smiles brightened the road-weary faces of the soccer team and their entourage. Yes, the Indiana State women’s soccer team had traveled to Morocco as ambassadors for their alma mater. They had won both of their soccer games and later had a good showing at individual competitions. They had soaked in some of the country’s spectacular sights, and now they were going home — to their own beds and their mothers’ home-cooked meals.
As most Sycamores were taking their final exams and gearing down for the end of another school year, the soccer team jetted off to be the honored guests of the fifth annual Sous le Haut Patronage de Sa Majeste le Roi Mohammed VI tournament, organized by Indiana State’s Moroccan sister school, Hassan I University in Settat.
“This trip could not have happened at a better time for us. We’ve become closer; I’ve seen the different players interacting with each other in a way that I don’t always get to see,” said head coach Erika True. “I get to see them on the soccer field, I get to see them sometimes out of school, but to get to see them for 10 days interacting with each other has been pretty cool. We needed this time to learn about each other.”
Among the palm trees, humidity and camels, the coaches learned more about each other, too. Assistant Ali Conquest has been with the team for two years, but Will Lange is a recent addition, coming aboard full-time this spring. Erik Chaouch, an assistant athletic trainer who traveled with the team, has worked for the university for about a year.
“We probably needed this as much as the kids did. I think we’ve grown closer. Our trust in each other is a little higher,” True said. “When we get back, we know what we need to get out of our program, as far as recruiting and some of the work that needs to get done over the summer. We’re a family, and we have to hold this crew together — day in and day out.”
From May 4-May 15, the young women literally spent every moment together — waking or otherwise. It was the ultimate team-building experience during a time that is normally their brief off-season. They were a support system for each other during difficult encounters, whether it was an undesirable hotel room or lost luggage. They created new inside jokes and choreographed amateur music videos. And they made up hashtags.
Technology and social media is an important medium to this modern generation, and the students communicated their experiences through hashtags (metadata tags in the form of a word or an unspaced phrase prefixed with the number sign) and selfies (self-portraits often taken with a smartphone).
“You can see by the number of hashtags they have provided that they have learned a lot here,” said El-Houcin Chaqra, group’s tour guide.
Chaqra, associate director of Indiana State’s Center for Global Engagement, has led many excursions to his native country over the decades, but this trip stands out as one of the best.
“They have represented Indiana State University very well. They were the best ambassadors that we could send here to Morocco. They have done an excellent job. Everybody is talking about them,” he said.
During their visit, the students were featured on the national TV news and had hundreds of photos taken of them. While moving a large group of people through malls, mosques and markets is never a quiet or inconspicuous undertaking, this group of lovely and spirited 19 and 20-somethings turned heads and attracted attention wherever they went.
“People love them here. I hear from the president (of Hassan I University), the dean, from his assistant, from other faculty, students: All of them like our students, how they deal with people, how they talk to people, how they interact with people,” said Chaqra. “The purpose of this trip was to provide an educational cultural experience, but our students did an excellent job representing our university and our state and our community. I’m glad I came here and worked with them.”
Preparation for the trip was fairly quick. In February, the team received an invitation to play two exhibition matches and then participate in an Olympics-like tournament of billiard games and track-and-field events.
Less than three months later and without a fully detailed itinerary, the team boarded a plane. After more than 30 hours of airports and layovers, they arrived in Casablanca, a city known to the group only by the classic movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.
On May 6, the students were welcomed to Hassan I University with a brief tour of parts of the campus, followed by an hours-long panel discussion about athletics in French and Arabic, the country’s official languages. The group then enjoyed their first taste of Moroccan cuisine — Seafood Bastilla (a savory seafood pie), Chicken Tagine with olives and onions and fresh fruit for dessert.
The next day, with a full night’s rest and all lost luggage recovered, there was no sign of jet lag in the Sycamores’ legs, as they hammered out a win against Casablanca team Raja, 2-1, in their first of two international-friendly matches.
The win wasn’t as easily secured as the scorebook might suggest.
“I had a little bit of a learning curve on game one,” True said. “I stepped out like I normally would, and I didn’t think about the communication issues and how I could react to not being able to communicate.”
Luckily, one of the Sycamores’ midfielders was able to provide an assist.
“Katrine Baker stood out for her play, but she was also the only player who spoke French and could actually communicate to the referees. It put her in a position of a leadership role that I liked. She kind of stood out among her team,” True said of the rising senior from Las Vegas.
The field itself — best described as vintage artificial turf covered in a layer of sand — was also an unexpected factor. American fields have transitioned away from this first-generation turf because the unforgiving surface causes injuries, a concern not lost on True. She gave the players their choice of whether to play in sneakers or cleats.
Maddie Orf, a midfielder from St. Charles, Mo., needed to make a mid-game shoe change — a move that unexpectedly earned her a yellow card penalty. Later, the level-headed rising junior laughed off the penalty: “Hashtag: I Got A Yellow Card In Morocco.”
“I know … we get to play soccer all the time, but experiencing how they play soccer, rather than how we play soccer in America, is just awesome. It was stressful, and it was so frustrating, but it was such a cool experience,” said forward Kylie Sumner, a rising junior from Cincinnati.
Maggie Richard made the first score about 20 minutes into the first half off a corner kick by Gaelen Stejbach. Natalie Vaught dribbled through three defenders and scored the second point during the second half.
The Sycamores learned early in the second half that the game was being officiated under strict international rules, which limits player substitutions, and because of injuries, had to play a man down. With about 15 minutes left in the game, Raja scored its only point.
“Our team did very well for being able to come out and just throw it all together, especially not necessarily knowing what we were getting into — we didn’t know what kind of team or the competition was. We didn’t know anything about the facilities. I think they handled all of that very well,” True said.
For their second game the next day, the Sycamores played on a nearby grass field, and the 2-1 victory over Casablanca team Wydad was an intense, bench-clearing game.
“I think as we hit game two, we were more prepared with more translators around; we knew who needed to be by my side the whole time. I think our kids understood how to communicate, as well, and we got better. But it was difficult. It was definitely a challenge. That is something you don’t do every day in the coaching world,” True said. “In any situation, we try to adapt, so we have success. And we do. We did. We have two wins here in Morocco. That’s a good feeling. It’s a good showing for us.”
Wydad went on the board first, scoring around the 20-minute mark of the match.
“They’re technical, they’re quick. They’re good soccer players. It’s just different from what we do,” Sumner said. “We like to think ourselves as tough, aggressive, not getting pushed down, and that’s what they do to get their main plays — is getting those fouls.”
After a series of questionable calls by the officials that cleared Indiana State’s bench with about 15 minutes left to play, the Sycamores scored both of their points within minutes of each other. Abby Reed connected with the net first, with an assist from Alexandra Rodas. Orf then put Indiana State on top, with some help from Reed.
While a spirited match for both teams, the women left it all on the field. They posed for photos after the game and shared a traditional Moroccan lunch of couscous, steamed vegetables and stewed meat.
“It’s such a different game to them,” said goalie Brittany San Roman, a rising sophomore from Glenview, Ill. “Overcoming that and winning our games is the biggest feeling of achievement ever. Even though they were supposed to be fun games, it’s no greater feeling than winning.”
Sumner agreed: After this experience, the team will never again complain about referees or getting fouls called.
“It’ll make our team closer with being able to pull together when we’re all stressed and we’re all mad and we want things to go our way and they don’t,” Sumner said. “We will know how to calm each other down and work out and push through any circumstance that we have to get through.”
The next two days, the Sycamores’ success continued with their individual competitions. Defender Kayla Welch, a rising sophomore from St. Charles, Mo., placed first in the 100-meter dash — despite a bad case of the nerves.
“It was terrifying. I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous. My legs were honestly shaking, but it was good to hear everyone else in the stands. That kind of helped a little bit, but I’m not a fan of (individual sports). I’d rather have my teammates around me,” Welch said.
The team and other individual winners, including Sydney Loesing, 1st place, long jump; San Roman, 2nd place, shot put; Orf, 2nd place, 800-meter run; Aubrie Musselman, 2nd place, 1-mile run; were honored at the tournament’s festive, music- and dance-filled closing ceremonies. The top three winners in each sport received a medal, and first-place finishers were presented with a trophy and tablet computer.
With their athletic obligations fulfilled, on May 11, the Sycamores repacked their suitcases, boarded their buses and headed south, to the popular tourist destination, Marrakesh.
“The soccer part and the games were our jobs. We came here and did our job. For the rest, it’s … a bit of a vacation for us,” San Roman said.
The students toured historic landmarks and then shopped at a traditional Berber market before departing for some much-needed downtime in the coastal cities Essaouira and El Jadida. Here, students rode camels and horses on the beach, learned to wind surf or shopped in the old medinas.
Their accommodations at the Ryad Mogador hotel in Marrakesh were the nicest of the trip — and owned by the family of Indiana State student, Ayoub Chaabi. Coincidentally, Maddie Orf and her teammate Maggie Richard were in a business class together this year, but they never made each other’s acquaintance. Orf even sat by Chaabi.
The business students made up for lost time, as Chaabi accompanied the team for dinner and a show at Chez Ali, the Moroccan equivalent of America’s Dixie Stampede or Medieval Times. Dinner was served while traditional dancers performed in brilliantly colored tented rooms, which were positioned around an arena, where after the meal, riders performed equestrian tricks and a belly dancer performed.
The most profound international experience, however, didn’t include any landmarks or guided tours. It was the time spent with the group’s student escort during the athletic events, Sara Beyad.
“It’s probably been the best week of this year. It’s been great showing them around,” Beyad, 19, said. “I will look back on this experience very often and miss the girls. They’re really great — their craziness, the fun that we have on the way from (Casablanca) to Settat. They’re really energetic, and I don’t have people like that in my life. I’m going to miss that the most.”
A sophomore at Hassan I University’s international school of trade and commerce, Beyad, is applying at Indiana State and would like to transfer here in the fall. She’ll surely have a full roster of friends once she arrives, as the players would like her to be their team manager.
It’s one thing to travel domestically. It’s another to travel to a foreign country. And yet an entirely different thing to take a large group to a foreign country when no one in the group speaks the language or understands the culture.
No one, that is, except El-Houcin Chaqra. He was the group’s unflappable and indefatigable tour guide, translator and godfather.
“He’s the man. Honestly, I don’t have words for what Chaqra has done for us,” True said. “Since stepping foot into Morocco, he has been a father figure to all of the kids. He has led us in every positive, good direction we needed. He has helped us when challenges have arisen. He has been a bit of a mentor, a leader for our ISU program. We love having him around. He has made a mark on Indiana State women’s soccer — for sure.”
Chaqra, whose typical day started at 6 a.m. and ended no sooner than 1 a.m. (usually much later), set out to provide a worthwhile cultural experience for the students. It’s a simple goal in concept; not so much in practice.
“When you are here in a different culture, things are different. Things don’t go the same way, they don’t go as smoothly as you would have tried to plan. I think it was a good experience to go through this. That’s part of the cultural educational experience,” Chaqra said.
“The Moroccan and American cultures are different. What is taken for granted in the U.S. may not be here. I think a lot of students realized, for example, the importance of time. If someone told you (in the U.S.) that you were going to meet at 7, you’d meet at 7. Here, it might be 7:15, it might be 7:30. It depends,” he said.
This lack of details and planning proved to be a cultural difference and a learning opportunity for all involved.
“Hassan I University learned a little bit about (the importance of planning). They have a new dean, and I had a discussion with them about this,” Chaqra said. “One of the things they are going to be changing is to make sure the schedule for the entire event is provided to all guest universities, not only the foreign universities, but also the Moroccan universities at least two or three weeks ahead of the event.”
The students, too, will forever carry a piece of Morocco with them.
“Their culture, to me, seems really fascinating — just how polite everyone has been, especially at the banquet we went to, how they enjoy dancing and having a good time and making everyone feel welcome,” Welch said.
The team learned not to sweat the small stuff; furthermore, they learned to laugh at it.
“Through all the bad stuff that has happened, I think this will be one of the things we’ll be talking about the rest of our lives,” San Roman said. “I will be able to call anyone up and be like, ‘Remember that time in Morocco when we stayed in that hotel?’ and they’ll know exactly what I’m talking about and break down in laughter. Remember that time when in two soccer games, the refs were against us? The time Abby (Reed) was yelling many, many things she shouldn’t have been yelling? The time when Kat was more exhausted from running over to the ref (to translate for the team) than the actual game itself? The time I was scored on — or shot at — when I wasn’t even in goal? It’s just some things you won’t forget. Making memories with the team is one of the greatest things that came out of this trip.”
They learned that the things they take for granted everyday are luxuries in a developing country.
“I’ll be so much more grateful for everything that I have. I have a lot more than many of these people over here,” said Sumner. “It’s crazy to think that sometimes when we complain about the food we get or not having water for something and then you think about the people who don’t have the water or don’t have the food. I will definitely be more grateful when I go back to the United States.”
And they learned what Tang is.
“No matter what, you have a sense of security because you have your family around you all of the time. Just having everyone around does really help a ton. Getting to experience with everyone just makes it better,” said Welch. “As close as we are, I think we’ve gotten closer. Experiencing something like this — it’s only us — and being able to tell other people, it will help us grow. We will always look back on this.”
Chaqra said he hopes the experience will whet the students’ appetites for future travel abroad and cultural experiences. Or maybe they’ll just strike up a conversation with that international student sitting in their classroom next year.
“We want our students to have an international experience, and for the soccer team, this (trip) was an opportunity,” Chaqra said. “We came here to participate in the sport festival, but also we want them to learn about the culture and visit and see some of the country. That’s what President (Dan) Bradley wanted for his students, and I think that happened on this trip.”