The World Cup is one of the most popular global sports events, and with the storied soccer tournament’s finals taking place on Sunday, July 13th, MyNorth reached out to Northern Michigan soccer legend and Traverse City Central grad Anders Kelto for insight on the World Cup and what role soccer plays in the world. A former Mr. Soccer in Michigan (a title given annually to the most valuable player in Michigan high school soccer), Kelto now lives in Cape Town, South Africa, where he’s a correspondent for Public Radio International’s The World. MyNorth’s Evan Perry—a former disciple at Kelto’s annual Mr. Soccer Camps, held in Traverse City—communicated via e-mail with Kelto.
Your trajectory as a soccer player was both amazing and unlucky. Can you summarize the ups and downs of your career, as well as mention some of the unexpected gifts that a life of soccer has presented?
Yes, there were a lot of ups and downs. The biggest ups were probably making the Michigan Olympic Development team when I was thirteen (and being the only player from Northern Michigan to do so); being selected for the Under-17 U.S. National Team and traveling all over the world for matches and training camps; playing in the NCAA Tournament with Brown and Michigan State (there’s nothing like soccer in the November air); and playing with the New England Revolution’s reserve team for three seasons.
Most of the ‘downs’ were a result of a heart condition that I developed as a teenager, which limited my ability to play at the highest level. It led to a lot of uncertainty, prolonged struggles to get clearance to play, and some scary moments. The condition eventually caused me to abandon my dream of becoming a professional player.
I used to get sad when I would see friends like Tim Howard (the current USA goalkeeper), playing for big European clubs and starring in the World Cup. But I’ve moved beyond that now. I realized that, by going to college—which I probably would not have done if it weren’t for the heart condition—I grew in ways that I probably wouldn’t have as a soccer player. So, as much as it saddens me to have not achieved a childhood dream, I think, in many ways, my life now is richer and more fulfilling than it might have been.
Most importantly, I’m still involved in the game today—as a player, coach, fan, and writer—and I love soccer as much now as I did when I was six years old. I can’t see that ever changing.
You’ve traveled internationally to play soccer and you now work outside of the United States. Can you explain how soccer functions as a lingua franca between different cultures and countries?
I often tell people that I speak three languages: English, Spanish, and Soccer—and I’m only half-joking. In every country I’ve visited, I’ve met people who live and breathe the sport, just like I do. And it’s such an easy way to connect.
For example, when I studied abroad in Barcelona, I would take a soccer ball to the beach, and within fifteen minutes, I’d be playing pick-up with construction workers from Romania, college students from Germany, and vacationers from Sweden. In South Africa, which is still racially and economically divided, I played on a semi-professional team with guys from all walks of life. Soccer allowed me to get close to folks whom I would have otherwise only known superficially. And, just the other day, I met a grocery store cashier from Nigeria who knew the scores of every single match in the 2014 World Cup—literally, every single game. We talked at length about our favorite moments, and it was an animated discussion. What else brings people together like that?
There’s been a fair amount of negative press coming out of Brazil regarding the planning of the World Cup and the disconnect between the event’s planners and the Brazilian public. Since you work in South Africa—which hosted the World Cup in 2010—what kind of light do you see at the end of the tunnel for Brazil?
The sad truth is that there isn’t economic light at the end of the tunnel, because the World Cup is rigged for FIFA. Host countries are forced to invest billions of dollars in stadiums, but FIFA keeps all the profits. Brazil and South Africa now have a bunch of huge stadiums that they don’t need, and in many cases, won’t be able to fill. The good news is that, in the big scheme of things, the amount of money spent on the World Cup is small. Hosting the World Cup doesn’t have an impact on a country’s economy, and it doesn’t meaningfully affect things like education or health care, the way some protesters in Brazil have claimed.
And there is one important silver lining: hosting the World Cup makes people happy. South Africa put on a hugely successful tournament, and people were (and still are) extremely proud of it. That matters, especially in a country that was long seen as the pariah of the sporting world. In Brazil, a lot of people are rightfully angry about corruption and mismanagement. But a lot of Brazilians will look back on 2014 with a tremendous sense of pride and patriotism – especially if Brazil wins the tournament [Update: Brazil was eliminated from the tournament after losing to Germany in the semifinals].
Overall, I would say the World Cup is like a huge, messy, international party that everyone talks about for years.
What fragments of Northern Michigan do you carry with you? What do you look forward to most when you come home?
Remember that old slogan, “Say Yes To Michigan”? Well, I still have one of those t-shirts, and I wear it regularly when I’m in other parts of the country, or abroad. I have a lot of Northern Michigan pride, which I literally display on my chest (and hand, when I explain where I’m from). I absolutely love spending time in the area, and Traverse City will always feel like home to me.
I suppose I developed a certain Northern Michigan sensibility growing up here, and I’ve carried that with me in life. I’m usually patient, and I like to be efficient, but not to rush. Oh, and I always have to live near a body of water, or something feels wrong. I’ll never be able to shake that.
Any camps coming up?
Absolutely! We haven’t missed a summer since we founded the camps in 1998. My staff and I will be running a one-week session in Traverse City this summer, August 4–8 for players 14 and under. Our website is MisterSoccer.net.
And I should add that we always conclude camp with a scrimmage between the coaches and campers. To this day, the coaches have never lost. Campers, this could be your year—but probably not.